Books·My Life in Books

5 nonfiction books that inspired Son of Elsewhere author Elamin Abdelmahmoud

The author, culture writer and podcast host spoke with CBC Books about the nonfiction works that left a lasting impression on him.
Son of Elsewhere is culture writer Elamin Abdelmahmoud's debut memoir. (Submitted by Elamin Abdelmahmoud)

Elamin Abdelmahmoud has a way of making everyone else look lazy. The Toronto-based, Kingston, Ont.-raised culture writer for BuzzFeed News is also the host of CBC's pop-culture podcast Pop Chat, the founding co-host of the CBC Politics podcast Party Lines, and a contributor to The National's At Issue panel. His writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, the Globe and Mail and other outlets.

And somehow amidst all that, he managed to find the time to write his first book, Son of Elsewhere, a wide-ranging collection of essays that touches on everything from his family's journey from Sudan to Canada, his Black and Muslim identity, being raised on pop culture — and how all those things intersect.

"These are ideas I've been trying to sit with and work from for some time — specifically, revisiting the period of time when I first came to this country from Sudan when I was 12. For me, that was a time where I felt like I had to put a whole bunch of identities on the shelf," Abdelmahmoud told CBC Books.

"There's this sensitive age where you feel a pressure to disappear or not be noticed as much as possible. I wanted to return to that emotional landscape — what was it that made me want to hide these parts of myself? And what is owed to those identities now that I've realized that I shouldn't have done that? This book was born as an attempt at an apology for that."

Abdelmahmoud's conversational tone gives Son of Elsewhere the feel of listening to an old friend tell their most compelling life stories, while its frequent pop-culture references will appeal to readers who may not immediately relate to his own personal narrative.

LISTEN | Elamin Abdelmahmoud on Here and Now

And that's what pop culture did for him, Abdelmahmoud noted — music, film, television and books offered him a way into understanding life in the West that continues to impact his work today. His love of aughts-era TV series The O.C. gets its own chapter, while wrestling, nu metal and country music all receive loving nods throughout Son of Elsewhere as well.

"I spend a lot of my time as a culture writer thinking through why certain things are resonating with people," he said. "But it's really the same skill set from being a young person who is trying to figure out their way through the world and what's popular around them, and basically what I do now for a living."

In preparing to write his memoir, Abdelmahmoud found himself turning to the nonfiction books that stayed with him long after he read them. He told CBC Books about the essay collections that he "enjoyed spending time with" — books that shaped and inspired his own writing and thinking.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

A Field Guide to Getting Lost is an essay collection by American writer Rebecca Solnit. (Penguin Random House, Trent Davis Bailey)

"I think she's one of the most important writers working today. Without this book, I'm not sure I'd be writing. It's so compelling in theme but also in structure. She deals so much with different ideas of loss — whether it's personal loss; whether it's a good way of getting lost in something; or a bad way, like losing oneself. But she shows such deep versatility because it's part art criticism, part memoir, part history, part sociology — it bends and blends so many genres into one.

There's nothing like the freedom that a book like that offers, because it sort of opens different doors for you.

"And it is an incredibly free book. It's the kind of book that you read and go, 'I didn't know you could do that — I guess you can.' There's nothing like the freedom that a book like that offers, because it sort of opens different doors for you."

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us is a 2017 collection of essays from American poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib. (Andrew Cenci, Two Dollar Radio)

"The way that this is deeply considered is truly extraordinary. It's the kind of thing that really inspires me to go, 'I really need to spend some time to develop my craft,' because I think he'd be someone who has spent a long time doing that.

"The way the music criticism gives way to bigger social commentary is just masterful."

Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole

Known and Strange Things is a 2016 essay collection by Nigerian American writer Teju Cole. (Random House, Stephanie Mitchell)

"I spend a lot of time reading nonfiction. Known and Strange Things is a book that is so beautiful in its prose in a way that is so vivid that you want to spend more and more time with it.

"For me, his work has been a template of what you could do with the essay format, because he's done so many different things with it — whether in The New Yorker, the New York Times, or in book form. I came to Teju first as a novelist, but then discovered his essay stuff that I have been completely drawn to."

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

Changing My Mind is a 2010 collection of essays by award-winning British writer Zadie Smith. (Penguin Random House, Dominique Nabokov)

"I remember being hooked on this essay collection. I just love that the whole book is a collection of moments where she's changed her mind about something, and I love that idea for a frame. That's a really brave thing to do — to lay out all the ways you were wrong.

The whole book is a collection of moments where she's changed her mind about something, and I love that idea for a frame.

"Seeing her struggle and wrestle with it is really rewarding. There's something about the inelegance of working through all of those ideas."

The Sweet Science by A.J. Liebling

The Sweet Science is a collection of American writer A.J. Liebling's New Yorker pieces about boxing. (Farrar, Straus And Giroux, Library of America)

"Former New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling covered a lot of culture in general, but he also covered boxing a lot. Maybe four or five years ago, one of my former colleagues recommended this book. I don't care about boxing at all. But this dude writes about boxing like Renaissance poets write about daffodils.

A.J. Liebling writes about boxing like Renaissance poets write about daffodils.

"I'm working my way through the deeply lyrical, intense ways that he writes about boxing.

"Every once in a while I'll read a page and think, 'If I could write just one phrase like this, today's been a good day.'"

Elamin Abdelmahmoud's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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