The Backstory

The secret life of Stan

Elamin Abdelmahmoud, wearing a black knit sweater, stands against a black background, facing to his left, with his arms crossed, looking down and laughing.

Photography by Wade Hudson

If you were a frosh in 2005, you may remember meeting a big guy with an affable smile who introduced himself as Stan. Stan, it turns out, is Elamin Abdelmahmoud, Artsci’11, the same Elamin Abdelmahmoud who writes for BuzzFeed News and hosts several CBC radio shows and podcasts.

“Stan was a nickname from high school,” he explains. “When I came to Queen’s, that’s what I called myself. It was my secret identity.” Indeed, it was an identity he kept secret from his parents, whom he was living with at the time.

The act of deception was harmless; there were no victims and Mr. Abdelmahmoud would eventually stop introducing himself as Stan. Still, it was symptomatic of his desire to blend in, to appear whiter in a very white city.

Mr. Abdelmahmoud came to Canada from Sudan at age 12. He spent his teenage years as one of three People of Colour in a suburban Kingston high school, learning a new language and searching for common ground – from wrestling to nu metal music to the show The O.C. – that would enable connections with his classmates and, in the process, enable him to find his own identity.

Identity is the theme of Son of Elsewhere, Mr. Abdelmahmoud’s newly released memoir. Through a collection of essays, it tells the story of how Elamin became Stan and then Elamin again. He explores his identity – his attempts to deny it, his attempts to change it, and, eventually, his attempts to unpack it and accept it. “I came to the realization that suppressing parts of my identity is not a healthy way to live,” he says. “The book is about revisiting those identities.”

Part of that revisitation involved coming to terms with the life he had left behind. Being a Sudanese immigrant in Kingston pushed cultural differences to the forefront and add-ed urgency to the quest for belonging. At the same time, no long-er liv-ing in Sudan created distance from the close connections that defined the first 12 years of his life. He is neither fully Canadian nor fully Sudanese. He is a son of elsewhere.

Ultimately, the book is about the complexity of belonging, especially for racialized people. For Mr. Abdelmahmoud, part of that complexity included sorting out his feelings about Stan. “It’s hard to think back on that time,” he says, “but it was a good exercise. It allowed me to develop some self-compassion.”

Son of Elsewhere: A Memoir in Pieces is available this spring from McClelland & Stewart Limited.

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