Elamin Abdelmahmoud is on a journey of rediscovery
The CBC host talks growing up in Kingston, Ont., and his upcoming memoir, Son of Elsewhere
If you've heard any CBC radio or podcast programming in the past year, it's likely you're familiar with Elamin Abdelmahmoud. In addition to his full-time gig as a culture writer at BuzzFeed News, Abdelmahmoud hosts four CBC Podcasts series — Pop Chat, Party Lines, its spinoff, Party In the U.S.A and Podcast Playlist.
Though he's found success working in media, Abdelmahmoud's path to journalism hasn't been linear.
When he immigrated to Canada from Sudan at age 12, he knew just enough English to get him and his family through customs.
Once his family settled in Kingston, Ont., Abdelmahmoud spent time listening to terrestrial talk radio. Hearing these conversations helped develop his English language skills, he says.
Today, he lives in Toronto with his wife Emily, their daughter Amna and their cat, Henry.
CBC Podcasts digital producer, Glory Omotayo, caught up with him via Zoom to talk more about his childhood, being Black in Canadian media, and his upcoming memoir, Son Of Elsewhere.
What was it like growing up here as a teenager?
So, my dad in his infinite wisdom, decided that he wanted to move to Kingston, Ont. I love Kingston, but it is predominately white. And that is an interesting place to end up when you're 12 and you've just arrived in Canada. A lot of my life in Kingston was learning to blend in and learning to make sure that people couldn't figure out that I'm an immigrant.
You have a degree in gender studies, yet somehow, you ended up working in journalism. What drew you to this work?
I started off in philosophy at Queen's University and in my fourth year, I took a Gender in Islam course that completely shifted the way that I think. It was incredible to take this course that talks about white supremacy, systemic racism and all these concepts that I'd only sort of heard in passing, but never engaged with. So, in my last two years, I switched to gender studies. As to how it relates to journalism, I honestly think any arts education, but especially something like gender studies — something that teaches you how to connect ideas and systems — is so crucial to journalism.
I think nothing has helped me more than my [gender studies] degree in terms of doing this work.- Elamin Abdelmahmoud
I don't think you need a journalism school education to have that understanding. You need to have the ability to read a story about water boil advisories on Indigenous territories and then connect that to how colonialism has a long history and legacy in Canada. That's the sort of education that you get out of a gender studies degree. I think nothing has helped me more in terms of doing this work.
How'd you end up at the CBC?
So even after I graduated, journalism wasn't the plan. I planned to get a policy degree from the University of Toronto. However, I had a bunch of university journalism experience.
When I moved to Toronto, I ended up at a taping of George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight and I loved it. It was my first job in journalism at the CBC. I was a P.A. on that show. My job was to go out and get tape. For example, if Jeff Goldblum was going to be on the show, I'd have to go to a physical video store and rent Jurassic Park and bring it back to an editor and then they cut the package for this guest. But that season ended and so I transitioned to a job as a researcher for CBC News.
Let's talk a bit about your experience as a Black man working in media. We work in spaces where it's quite likely we will be asked, as Black people, what we think about certain things. For me, this is always a tricky thing because of course I want my voice to matter and my experiences to be heard, but I don't want my voice to only count on "Black issues". Is this something you've experienced? How do you navigate it?
I think this was a larger problem for me earlier in my career than it is now. And I will say that it's because I've gotten myself to a place in my career where I have a bit more freedom in terms of choosing the things that I can and can't take on. But, there was certainly a period in my life where it felt like oh, these are Black issues, let's ask Elamin about this, and that felt uncomfortable because, like you said, you don't want to be the only person in the room who is speaking on behalf of all Black people.
[These situations] only end up showing these institutions to be very unaware of what they're doing because they're just putting all that pressure on one person. As I've gone further in my career, and I've been in journalism for about nine years now, I've developed the comfort to say I'm a Black person but I'm not the person to answer this. And it is on you to find somebody else who can. But that is an immense privilege that comes with having time in these institutions.
You mentioned working in journalism for nine years. One of the things you do is you write about music, particularly country music —I know you're a big fan. What is it about country music that draws you, especially given its history with race?
There's a few answers to this question. The first one — and this is one that I write about quite a bit in my book — is that it reminds me a lot of Sudanese music. Thematically speaking, country music has a deep love for place, a deep love for history and a deep love for biography. There's a lot of that thematically in Sudanese music.
Country music is also like hip hop. They both concern themselves with the story of who you are and the story of how you arrived. And then within that, there are varying degrees of people doing it well and doing it badly. I'm new to country music, and being new to it sort of allows me to take the stuff that I want from it, and then leave the rest.
One of the things you learn as you dive deeper into the history is that country music has its roots in Black music. The banjo is an African instrument and it's the marriage of the banjo and the guitar that gives you country music. This is something country music preaches, which is just knowing your history, because if you know your history well enough, you know this is our music.
You're married and you have a daughter, Amna, who is bi-racial. You wrote a personal essay in Macleans about the intentionality behind her name choice. Talk to me a bit about her. What are your hopes for her future? And what are some of the ways you've ensured she's connected to the heritage attached to her last name?
First off, why don't you talk to me about your last name!?
[laughs] I love my last name so much. To the point where I think I'm going to keep it forever. It has a lot to do with the people it's attached to, my parents, and the deep love I have for them. They have sort of the classic immigrant story — left a country they knew and moved their entire family, twice I might add, in pursuit of what they believed to be better for their children. I think about how many times my mother has had to pick up her career again each time we move, and I just think she's a superwoman. My parents are my heroes and because I love them so much I wear this name they've given me with immense pride.
That's so lovely! When I wrote that [Maclean's] piece, I was sort of anticipating all these problems that I had when I was in Grade 8 or 9, when the supply teacher would look at my name and stumble, they would just say the first name and avoid my last name. I just imagined [my daughter] would have the same kinds of problems. But since writing that piece, I've been teaching her how to say her last name and she says it with such pride and conviction that it's kind of contagious, to the point where I'm convinced that no one who ever meets her will have problems saying it because she's going to insist they learn it.
The hope is it's going to constantly remind her that a part of her is not from here. Just so that I don't have to constantly remind her that she's part Sudanese... She's just a force of nature. And I love how forceful she is because I think it's a good infrastructure to have now in preparation for what's going to come later.
Are you ever afraid that she's going to "lose her culture"? Or is she relatively connected to her Sudanese roots?
Yeah, I don't think she's as connected as I would hope that she would be. But that's on me. Every time I talk to my mom on the phone, she always asks if I've been teaching her Arabic. Plus, I've heard from more than one friend that if I don't teach her now, she'll be mad at me later for not ensuring she's grounded in Sudanese culture. We do the [Arabic] letters. But, she goes to preschool every day and she's learning all she needs to do to get by in English there. There's not the same kind of rigor when it comes to Arabic. It's a pandemic and it's busy. It's hard to keep on top of that. Mom, if you're reading this, I'm working on it.
I hope folks realize that we just don't have a very complicated vocabulary in Canada when we talk about race and I'm just hoping to introduce a whole bunch of concepts to that lexicon.- Elamin Abdelmahmoud
You mentioned on an episode of Pop Chat that you're writing a book called Son Of Elsewhere. Can you tell me a bit of what it's about?
It's a collection of essays about me. It details my experience from when I arrived in Canada all the way to university. I wanted to revisit this stretch of time where I spent a lot of effort trying to blend in. And by that, I mean making sure people were as comfortable as possible with all my identities. Making sure people saw me as Black, in the least confrontational, threatening way possible. I didn't think about my race or my religion. And that's sort of what it meant to grow up looking like this and having this background in a place like Kingston.
Now I'm in this place where I realized I spent all this time denying this history and but also, I don't quite fully feel like I belong here, so I'm just kind of like straddling the two places. I'm not reinventing the Diaspora kid narrative here, but I'm telling it from my perspective, and that's what the title refers to: I don't know which world is home. I feel like a son of elsewhere. It explores these themes through different entry points. I'm a pop culture person, so we look at things like the [TV show], The O.C. and wrestling. It's been joyous to put together.
What do you hope readers will discover in the book?
I think the hope is that you read this and see in it the complexity of how people navigate race, even someone who looks relatively successful. I hope folks realize that we just don't have a very complicated vocabulary in Canada when we talk about race and I'm just hoping to introduce a whole bunch of concepts to that lexicon.
This article was edited for length and clarity. Edited by Tina Verma
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.