Ep. 225 Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih — The Stacks Book Club (Elamin Abdelmahmoud) – Transcript

It’s The Stacks Book Club day, and we’re discussing the classic Sudanese novel, Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih. We’re joined again by Elamin Abdelmahmoud, author of Son of Elsewhere, to break down this novel that explores the tensions at the heart of colonialism. We also discuss the ways we project current events onto classic literature, how important an author’s own biography is to understanding the text, and that ending!
There are spoilers in today’s episode.

Be sure to listen all the way to end of the episode to find out what our August book club pick will be!


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Traci Thomas 0:52
Welcome to The Stacks, a podcast about books and the people who read them. I’m your host Traci Thomas and today is the stacks book club day. We welcome back author and commentator Elamin Abdelmahmoud to discuss our book club selection season of migration to the north by Tayeb Salih. It’s a 1966 classic novel about an unnamed narrator returning and readjusting to his Sudanese village following a long stint studying abroad in Europe. The book was named the most important novel of the 20th century by a panel of Arab writers and critics in 2001 elemina and I dig into the story and its historical significance as well as the ways issues of the day can be read into this text. There are plenty of spoilers in this episode, so please read the book before you dive in. Listen through to the end of today’s episode to reveal our August book club pick. Quick reminder, everything we talked about on today’s episode can be found in the link in the show notes. If you love this show and you want more of it please head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks pack. We’ve got bonus episodes a super active discord community, monthly book club meetups and more. It’s also a great way for you to show your support for the work we do on this independent black woman owned and run podcast. So head to patreon.com/the stocks to join thank you to our newest members of the stocks pack. Jen Nisa, Concepcion, Amy Irina, Suzanne Baron Julie Chavez, and cor to thank you all so so much for your support. And of course as always, thank you to the entire stacks pack. I could not do it without y’all. Okay, now it is time for my chat with El Amin up to a mood about season of migration to the north and reminder reminder reminder there are spoilers!

All right, everybody. I am back. It is the Stacks book club day I am joined by the wonderful Elamin Abdelmahmoud. Elamin, welcome back to the Stacks.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 3:35
Hey, thanks for having me back. So happy.

We’re talking about Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih, I did wrong again. But I tried. And this is a classic Sudanese novel. It is it’s like one of those books that gets the title of like the great Sudanese novel. And before we say more, everyone who’s listening, we are going to spoil this book, we’re going to talk about what happens we’re not going to worry about you and your feelings. So if you haven’t read the book, and you want to read the book, pause this episode, come back when you finished, otherwise, here we go. So I’ve been doing this show for four years and the first four years I did this show, I always just dive into the conversation and never explain what the book is about. But my resolution for 2022 is to try to remember to tell people what the fuck we’re talking about. Just a general rundown. Okay, so the book season a migration to the north is a about a unnamed narrator who has gone away to school from Sudan to England and also and has come back after about seven years and when he comes back there is a unknown man named Mustafa who he’s like, Who the fuck is hot? And everyone’s like that sort of stuff. i He just moved here. We don’t know a lot about him but he’s he’s married and He’s a chill dude. He’s got good vibes we like them. And eventually, unknown air radar and Mustafa realize or come together in a drunken night, Mustafa blows his cover as just an average Sudanese man. And he reveals he’s a Sudanese man who also went away and learned white things in the white places of England and such. Yes. And that’s the premise of the book. There’s a lot of juicy stuff, which we’ll get to, but that’s the premise. Okay.

Excellent, excellent summary. That was fantastic.

Traci Thomas 5:36
Thank you. All right, now we’re gonna get to the good stuff. Generally speaking, can you we always start here? Can you just tell us what you thought of the book?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 5:45
Of course, well, okay. So first, first things first, like that’s a complicated question, because I read it in English. And I read in English.

Traci Thomas 5:53
That was one of my follow up questions.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 5:56
I read in English, even though this book type Saleh originally wrote it in Arabic, he was fluent in both Arabic and English, but I my Arabic has atrophied. And I have all kinds of complicated relationships with that I can read most words, but can I follow an entire novel? No. And so I read the great, great translation by Dennis Johnson Davies, Dennis Johnson, Davis has basically translated some of the greatest Arabic works of all time, and like, this is kind of his thing. This is the big translation that made him so you know, book comes out in 1966. Johnson Davis, translated I think in like 1916 869, something like that, I want to say, so I read it in English. And that’s complicated for me. And so right away, I’m already like, oh, no, I’m specifically like picking a side, maybe you know, or like, or at least, like picking certain nuances that might not necessarily be represented, because I’m reading this in English and non Arabic. But I have to say, like, I approach this book, from this, like, long, deep history that it has, you know, like, like, this is a book that my parents have talked about, my mom was like, yeah, it was like banned for a little while, and then they unbanned. And then they banned it. Again. It’s a book that has all of the rich complexities of Sudan, and its relationship to colonialism in it. And I approached it like homework, because I was like, Well, I guess I better know, get to know the great Sudanese novel if I’m going to sort of reflect about my relationship to Sudan. So like, that’s, that’s how, that’s how our relationship began.

Traci Thomas 7:26
Okay. This is a very basic question. Did you like the book?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 7:32
No, I felt very uncomfortable, right? Well, I mean, I got like the book, but, but I didn’t like reading it, if that makes sense. And by that, I mean, like, as I was reading it, like I really felt this tension between the unnamed narrator, who was like, he’s kind of way to the west, and he wants to come back. And he’s like, expecting to be treated in a certain way, in his village, because he’s like, Oh, he’s like an educated man. And then there’s one person who won’t kind of give him that satisfaction. There’s one person that won’t give him the satisfaction of treating him as like special because he went away to the west to study and that sort of stuff aside, and like, as well, as he like, is dealing with him. He realizes that he too, went away to the west, but he hated it. He had this like really emotionally volatile relationship to the west. And so they took away different things from being in the West. And that is the central tension of colonialism, I think, and so it felt like really uncomfortable. So I was like, while I’m like reading, it’d be like, I’m really impressed by everything happening here. Close like, this is very uncomfortable for me to read. Yeah, what about you? Did you did you? Did you like it? What’s your vibe?

Traci Thomas 8:43
I really. So I’m not a fiction person. I don’t like fiction very much. I read it, obviously, for my work. And I do read it sometimes. I struggle with what I call fiction II fiction. This one feels very fictiony to me, and has very much a book you’d be assigned in school vibes. I as I was reading it, I was like, I’ve got to keep track of the Nile because I’m sure the Nile is a metaphor for this are like, you know, when he like early on, when we said office eight is like talking talking about how he’s a taut bow, and there’s like water skins. And I’m like, Oh, I bet that in school, there would be a whole day dedicated to like, the tension of the top. And so for me, I was just like, am I getting this? Why is this great? Like, I couldn’t relax into the book, because it had been hyped up as great. And because I knew that it was like, historically important. So I came to it with like, all this energy of like, I have to love this book to be a smart person who cares about Africa, you know? No, that’s too much pressure, like a crazy way. Yeah, that’s so I didn’t love it. I struggled with it. But there were some scenes that I was like, Okay, I see you. i Yeah, you like, like Hosana beat Mamou. mood and, and an old boy old creepy boy. Yeah, what’s his name? Oh, and wad Ray is? Yeah, that stuff.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 10:10
Uncomfortable. Okay, you rendered very uncomfortably on the page.

Traci Thomas 10:15
Yeah. And like another thing that I don’t love about fiction is I don’t love when when nothing happens. And while this is a short book, there is just one. Like, there’s just like a few scenes. You know what I mean? A lot of it is like internal reflection. Yeah. And so that stuff is harder for me the scenes. Hello, that last scene in the study. I was like, okay, creepy, creepy study with all angle Oh, things like yes, yes.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 10:40
And the dedication, like the books dedication. But can we talk a little bit about you not liking fictiony fiction, because I think that’s a really interesting frame. Because, in many ways, like, I was reading this, I was like, this isn’t a book, this isn’t a play, like it really feels like it’s like, so it’s, it’s so scene oriented. And it’s also so like, every word I say has 85 different meanings. And that is, and there’s, there’s an economy of writing in it, you know, I mean, he’s like, it is short, but it’s 178 so short.

Traci Thomas 11:09
My copy is 130 pages.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 11:13
Okay, that’s very cramped. Yeah, mine is way bigger. For some reason. I still like only 170 pages. And so like, even within all of that as a framework, you kind of go like, Okay, you are meant to do something very specific and precise to this. And maybe it’s not meant to be a novel more than it is a play. I was kind of looking up to be like, if it’s been adapted into anything, you know, and like, yeah, there’s a couple of theater adaptations, but like, hasn’t been a movie yet. That’s, that’s interesting to me. Anyway.

Traci Thomas 11:40
That was one of my questions for you is like, do you think there should be a movie and I think that it should or could be, I think the problem is, that would be done poorly. I just, this is like, the kind of story that I just didn’t know, it gets on adaptive depth. So bad. Yeah, like it would make for a good thing to watch. But it would be done horribly, and like the light women would become unbearable, and it would become all about them. And it would be a nightmare.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 12:03
Well, that’s a really interesting point, too, because I think like on the screen, seeing three white women kill themselves in relationship to this dude. Okay, right, we already set up people for spoilers. And then a fourth one get violently murdered, as he’s sort of like playing out his relationship to colonialism. I actually don’t think you can render that on screen anymore. Like, I think like we’ve sort of moved past that in our screen politics, and even possibly, in our novel politics. Like, I think you could do this shit in 1966, you know? But like, you can’t you can’t do that. Now. That’s just No, it’s just a no

Traci Thomas 12:38
Well, right. Because like, Okay, so one of the things as I was reading the book, is I was like, Okay, I get that this is about colonialism, and like white, Western and Eastern, but a lot of the book, I was just like, this is a book about sexism. Yeah, this is a book about misogyny. When you read about the book, in places like like a cliff notes moment, or like those kind of places that summarize these books, they don’t talk about misogyny. And I thought that was so interesting, because in reading it, all I could think about was the politics of male, female. And then I was like, well, maybe like, as I was pretending to be an English teacher, I was like, well, maybe, you know, the author is using women and men as a metaphor for the East and the West. And so that’s why it feels like so polarizing. I don’t know if he is, but like, I like the scene with Hosana and wardress, or whatever. Like, I kept thinking that he’s supposed to be the West, and she’s supposed to be Sudan, or African countries, or whatever. And he’s abusing her. So she finally like, he’s like, fuck you. I’m gonna kill you. Yeah, and I couldn’t really resolve the metaphor of like, her killing herself. I was like, does that mean that the Sudanese people, he thinks that they’re going to, like, I guess, like, turn on themselves? Or, and I guess some of that is what happened. So I don’t know. That’s like, a lot of the sexism stuff. And like misogyny, I kept reading. But I know I was reading it, obviously, through this 2022 lens, and not at all through this 1966 lens. Yeah, so I don’t know. It’s just there was a lot there.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 14:20
That’s, listen, that’s a tough thing to reconcile. It’s a tough thing to reconcile. Because this was like, this wasn’t a tape solid problem. It was like everybody was writing like this. Everybody was like, yeah, a woman shall be the metaphor for the thing. And then things will happen to her and then I’ll be like, this is like, yeah, and it’s something that we look at now as like, you know, it’s that fixture deficient thing you’re talking about. It’s like it’s like, the metaphor is too strict, almost like it’s like to bound to the specific meaning like this person is supposed to represent this one specific idea, no other ideas. I do think that that interaction, like maybe what race was meant to represent like an old unmodern conception of Sudan, if you will, and the ways that you might like continue to can make yourself a victim to it in a way, while the people who are educated in the West are sort of like wringing their hands about how to get involved, but Right, but again, like that lands is too heavy a metaphor, you know, I mean, like, it’s almost too economical. Like, it’s like, Give me something else. Because if otherwise, it should just be a play otherwise, like, maybe novel is like, not the form to render this particular story. But having said that, right, where the fuck am I to say, you know, what’s to be a novel? What’s not to be a novel?

Traci Thomas 15:39
Well, right. And I don’t necessarily like, I mean, I have a background in theater. So I think about plays a lot. But I don’t necessarily think about plays as being super different from novels and a lot of ways like, Yeah, I think they do similar things. Depending on the novel, some novels are very far from place. But like they the use of language and like the poetry, and then metaphor, and the theme, and all of that stuff, but there’s just like more of a visual aspect.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 16:07
Can we fold in a little bit of biography into this, because like, I think it’s really interesting to think about, like, type Saudi himself as a figure, because, uh, he left Sudan. But he never went back. He never went back. He was writing so much of the stuff from London, like, so much of most of his literary career happened while he was abroad, like he visited, but he never went back to sort of like, stay and like, live there. And I think, to me, that’s interesting. Because it’s like, are we to understand this as like, his own complexity with colonialism and like, being educated by the colonialist? You know, I think he studied, I think he’s university education was in Sudan, but then he left and he just like, didn’t, didn’t come back, you know. And maybe there’s something to be said about, like, not looking too deeply into the author’s biography and how it’s woven into the text. I’m like, I couldn’t divorce from the text kept as being like, is this you? Are you trying to like, inject yourself into the story in this way? Like, are you the unnamed narrator, sort of unsure of how to help this new country while you’re watching people who have come to hate colonialism kind of destroy themselves in different ways?

Traci Thomas 17:15
Yeah, I read his biography about him. Like I looked up, looked him up after I finished the book. Yeah, I didn’t read the book knowing that about him. Right. Like I didn’t, I didn’t know anything about him. I purposefully didn’t. I also purposely didn’t read the introduction. until after I finished the book, Google, because I like to go into these things like, Okay, I’m reading this classic novel. On my own. Yeah. Like, let me see how it lands. Yeah, I do think I mean, I, I think that when the biography of the author becomes part of the book, it becomes complicated. Because is it our place to say that this is or isn’t, you know, their intent, right? Like, I feel like that’s a conversation that comes up all the time now, especially with authors of color, or authors, like queer authors or authors from different countries. Yeah, it’s like we read these books through the lens of their biography, when maybe they’re just like trying to tell a story. And obviously, you can’t separate this from him, because we do know that he went away, like, we do know that he’s from the Sudan, we do you know, that he laughed. Yeah, it’s like, you know, I don’t I think it’s both things, right. Like, he’s in the book, I’m sure. And also, he’s not.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 18:28
I guess, like, what’s interesting about that is that you specifically try to distance yourself from the introduction and like, the larger narrative context about, you know, that the novel existed just to be like, let me just engage with the work. But I would find that in many ways to be really, really hard to do, because a specific specifically the novel, like season of migration, like, it’s, when you read the introduction, you’re like, This novel is supposed to be doing work, right? Like, it’s supposed to be like doing specific work in a political climate, you know, and you kind of go like, Oh, how does this interact with what I know is happening in, you know, in the Middle East, or in Africa, or in Sudan at the time, and sometimes the introduction can can be so helpful in that because, like, 1966, is when it come out 10 years after Sudan gained its independence. And that’s a really sensitive moment in a in a growing sort of independence of a country, but also a country that very immediately was plunged into civil war, even before it gained its independence. And so all of these kind of come into play when you consider how he’s casting these characters about, you know, so I don’t know, I’m of two minds at this. I think, like, I think it’d be tough to go. It’s cold in a way.

Traci Thomas 19:42
Well, so okay, I didn’t go in completely cold because I read your essay, and your book is talked about this book. So you did some of that work for me that the introduction did because you put it in context. So I had a little bit of the context, but I didn’t like go out of my way to read more about The book until I finished it. Part of it is because spoilers everywhere. The introduction is full of spoilers and like not telling me what happens to everybody in the front like it’s only 140 page book. And you’ve told me everything that happens. Yeah. And so now I’m here like so I learned my lesson a few books ago during reading a classic book with reading the introduction first, of course, but I did go back and read it, of course, because I was very curious. My my introduction is from Leila Lama. And I was curious what she had to say. But ya know, I, and I think part of my difficulty reading this book is that I don’t know a ton of history about the Middle East Africa, the Sudan in the 1950s. And 60s, like that’s something that I was taught in school, I’m sure that comes as a exactly 0% surprise to anyone who is an American listening to this, unfortunately, many Canadians. Yeah, like, I just don’t think we’re I mean, I’m not that I don’t think we’re not taught the history, recent history of the world, in colonialist nations, or maybe anywhere, I don’t know. And so, like, I like one of the things I was thinking about, was like, you know, there’s the three women that kill themselves. And then there’s the woman who he kills. And I was like, Are they supposed to be metaphors for specific like kinds of Sudanese people or specific kinds of Western people and like, that are drawn to him, because you know, because they’re drawn to him for different reasons. Like, there’s the one woman who’s like, I knew I loved you, the moment I heard her name, and she like, goes to some event, and they like, fall in love. But then the other woman who’s married and has cancer, and I’m like, is she supposed to be a metaphor for like, the Egyptians or like, you know what I mean? Like I yeah, I really struggled to try to like, make sense of what he was making sense of, because I have no doubt if you are in Sudan in 1968, or whatever. This book means a lot different.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 22:00
I think that’s true. But I don’t know if those meant, specifically those women, I don’t know if they were supposed to be sort of individual different metaphors so much as in many ways, they represent different ways of exotic vacation, right? Like the different ways of he is a black man in the UK. And he’s been seen in a different and very, like, attractive light, he wants to be seen in this light. And he does something to him and does something to his self worth. And it’s like, I know, that, you know, I am hated. But in many other ways, I’m also desired. What does that do to a person? And I was really struck by the ways that he rendered that last relationship, the one where he does murder that woman, but like, It’s uncomfortable to talk about. Yeah, I mean, so what was your reaction to that one?

Traci Thomas 22:51
Okay, so 2022 Yeah, right. Like, and I can’t not see the way that black men and white women are portrayed in so much of like, 1995 media, like it just felt like so.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 23:13
But I mean, I use it like as in like, not unnecessary or isn’t like badly rendered.

Traci Thomas 23:18
It just felt like so stupid. Like, it’s like, Oh, of course, the black man is the brute and like the woman but then I guess they sort of flipped because she’s egging him on. And I also love Shakespeare and Othello is one of my favorite plays ever. And so there’s all these references to Othello. And I kept thinking about that framework because no Othello Desdemona is like, really the victim. There’s no sense of like, her cheating. There’s this handkerchief in both of the books. But in a fellow it’s placed there by Amelia Iago, his wife, by accident, she didn’t know what she was doing. I love Amelia, one of my favorite characters. And in this, the handkerchief is left behind by like another man because Isabella Seymour is having an affair or something like that. And like she’s painted as more evil and like conniving. I don’t. I thought that that part of the book was the most compelling like finally getting to the end and like hearing how that story broke out, I thought was really compelling. But of course, as I’m reading it, I’m feeling like, this makes black men look bad and like, this makes women look bad. And this whole thing is weird. And then I was like, Oh, is this some sort of like sexual? Did they die having sex like, he was aroused by this thing that happened to them? I don’t know. It just felt I don’t know how to make sense of it. I guess.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 24:48
There’s this quote that I think about a lot from Franz Fanon where he’s sort of the I think he’s in wretched of the earth. He sort of talks about the toll the colonialism exact on On the black person, and the black psyche, specifically, maybe some black skin white masks, I can’t keep my Franz Fanon straight, but he sort of talks about who can’t, who among us is able to do something like that. But he sort of talks about wanting to be loved as a white man. He’s saying that, like, there’s something about like how, you know, by loving me, I’m sort of, you know, by a white woman loving him, he sort of is like, oh, so then I become worthy of white love, which makes me which transforms me as a person, I think, tapes, I was trying to play with some of these ideas of what are the types of love that you desire? What are the type of ways that you desire to be seen as? And like, it’s, I think you’re right, like, there’s something about these characters, on the one hand being too reduced to their metaphor. But on the other, does that sharpen the metaphor? Or does it make it like weaker? Like I, I constantly struggle with that question with this novel is like this. Is that like, is a metaphor too stripped of the unnecessary stuff and therefore sharper? Or is the metaphor too weak? Because he likes to like, this character represents the this thing? I don’t know. I don’t know. I haven’t settled on a place when it comes to that.

Traci Thomas 26:23
I don’t I have I have also not settled on a place for that. Yeah, I think. I don’t know. I think that the metaphor is, like, very pointed. And to that point, it this does feel like a play. Right. Like, I feel like players are like, this is the metaphor. Yes. But I think I think part of my issue, and the reason that I’m having a hard time saying whether it’s like too strict or too strong, or whatever, is because I don’t understand the context well enough for this entire book. And so to me, it feels very like this is a metaphor. But I also wonder, again, like if I’m reading this book, with the, with the knowledge and the context, and like, you know, I think like, for example, I think if I read a novel from the 1960s, about race in America, yeah, in this same style, right? Like, yeah, he’s from the south, and he goes to the north, and he’s treated not badly, even though of course he is, because racism was there, too. But whatever, I think that I would understand it better and be able to be like, Oh, I see what he’s doing with this metaphor. And like, it’s so obvious, but really, he’s playing at this or that, and I don’t have that context for this book. And so it’s really hard to know what it would feel like even Yeah, like, even in 2022, I think I could grapple with a 1966 novel about American racism in a way that I just don’t have the chops to grapple with this.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 27:52
Some of the was really, I guess, like some of the context like some some of the claims might be, you know, so like, you have like this newly independent Sudan that really wants to identify more with the Arabs than it does the blackness like the black parts of Africa.

Traci Thomas 28:09
But that’s divided north and south, right? Like the, like the North is where the seat of the government is, and the people who have been appointed to govern in the Sudan are the people who are appointed by the Egyptians, and the British and the British are like the light skinned era. No, there are men in the south, there’s like the black, more African, if you will.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 28:36
Yes, but But so like, when you have a country that is divided that way, and like you have the North quite sure that it should be allowed to govern that it should be quiet, you know, like allowed to maintain its position of power? You I think you have to do quite a few mental gymnastics to say, I am more superior to these people, I these are the ways that I will align myself. With the occupiers, I align myself with the colonialists, in order to gain more and more proximity to them, you got to kind of see yourself in a certain light. And I guess like, that’s some of the context is missing here in the sense that types either would have been seeing the ways that Sudan as a country, and the way that it was being founded, was trying to specifically write out certain parts of the country and say, like, this doesn’t really belong in our conception of what Sudan is. But, but but doing so is is like making yourself blind to everything that you are like, to the people that you belong to sort of dehumanizing certain people. And there’s a backwards looking ness to that.

Traci Thomas 29:39
Right. Do you think that? Or I guess, let me ask you for I mean, we’ll speak to your parents specifically because you mentioned that they’d read it. Yeah, they feel warmly about this book.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 29:53
I think they feel warmly that it’s an achievement. You know, I mean, I don’t think I don’t know if it’s possible to feel warmly about this book. I it’s a grim it’s a grim book, you know?

Traci Thomas 30:03
Yeah. I mean, like, I mean, like, proud. Today embrace it today embrace this book. Are they like, oh, that tie? Absolutely is, is he’s full of it kind of vibe.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 30:14
But I – do they I think I think they do they do. Like my mom’s sort of talks badly about having read it when she was in school and having to sort of like, do like reports on it, you know. But then also, my dad talks about watching the more aggressively conservative Muslim government come in and say we’re banning this book because it sort of like it renders us in the light that we don’t want to be seen like this. All these people are like, they’re having sex and they’re getting drunk. And like, is that really how you want to see ourselves and so it kind of becomes a site of conflict in that way. Like as a mirror is contested? And so I think my my dad has been naturally who he is, he’s drawn to, that he’s drawn to like the idea of like, this is a really contested book because you know, for many, many years, Sudan’s government wanted to ban it I think it’s like now widely available in Sudan, but like, it’s you know, what happens when a book kind of becomes banned is like becomes like, what does it say about us? It’s so bad that we don’t want to even we don’t even want to hold up this part of our of our history and see it, but I think generally speaking, yeah, it is it is highly regarded.

Traci Thomas 31:21
Right. Okay. I want to ask a question about the actual like, content of the book and less about its social context. Okay. My standout scene the murder suicide, of course, because I have problems love a burner love of suicide and a book. Oh, wow. Okay. I just like dark books. I like I like when you know, bad shit happens. Throughout the book, the narrator at or throughout this section, the narrator keeps being like, how is this connected to Mr. prophesied keeps asking like, how is he sort of to blame for this? Yeah, I’m wondering, what do you think? Is he to blame for this? Like, is this his legacy? Or is this just like a totally unrelated bad thing that happens to these characters?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 32:09
I think it’s a bad thing that happens to these characters. But the narrator’s obsession is, this must say something about people who are like me, right? This most recently were people like me. So like, that’s why I must say something about someone like myself is I like I saw like, I think that’s something but it’s kind of like the looking for conflict within yourself. In a way. It’s sort of like assuming that because he’s like me, he must have caused something like this to happen. He must have been the person to do this. That’s how I read that, like, I read that as like, searching for catastrophe, if you will, searching for the ways that you are the originator of evil. And yeah, that was my interpretation of it. What about you?

Traci Thomas 32:50
Interesting. I don’t know. I kept thinking like, so okay, I read the narrator and Mustafa’s relationship as I read Mustafa as like an unreliable character. And so I read him, I read skeptically about him, like I was like, Oh, this can’t be true. Like, I don’t believe it. He didn’t do this. This isn’t how it happened. This isn’t how the trial. So when we get to this part, where it’s like, oh, how is he responsible? Like, I’m looking for answers. I sort of was like, this actually isn’t his fault. Like, this can’t be laid at his feet. He’s been dead. But now I’m thinking about it more. I’m like, maybe just this sociation with him like him introducing any sorts of different ideas into this community. That’s like very insular by choice. Like they talk about, you know, the fact that Mustafa is able to marry Hosana is because Hosannas dad, like sort of doesn’t give a fuck about, like the ritual and the rules within the community. But normally, the women of this community don’t marry people who aren’t from the community, like that’s clearly stated. So now, maybe he’s to blame just by like, when you put a drop of red food coloring in the water alternative kind of ping. Like, though, it’s not like it caused a tidal wave, but it does sort of shift.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 34:14
Like he’s sort of like the wild factor, who’s Yeah,

Traci Thomas 34:17
but then on the flip side of that, she didn’t even know what was going on with him. Like she says that he has this room, I don’t even know what’s in there. So it’s not like he was espousing these other ideas. But then on the flip side of that, after everything happens, everyone who’s still alive is like, this doesn’t happen here. This doesn’t happen here. This doesn’t we don’t do this. We’ve never had a murder. We’ve never had this situation. Yeah. And so

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 34:42
this is what I mean by looking for it right in the sense of like, yeah, like it must be due to this person. Because like, you don’t think that murder suicide would have happened anyway, without him. You know what I mean? Like, do you not think so?

Traci Thomas 34:54
If he hadn’t, well, the problem is that she becomes a widow because he dies. So like, you know, chain over events. Of course, none of this would happen because she would have been married to someone else probably before him, and then maybe they would live whatever. But let’s just take it for he dies, and she gets married to him. And if she if her original husband had not been him, but just like, another person from this town, does this happen? I mean, maybe I don’t know, whatever terrible things happen. Everyone who knows the person and loves the person says, they weren’t like this, they never would have done this. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen in this town. Yeah, this shit happens in towns that should happen. Like sounds like someone has to be to someone else to do it. And does that mean that everyone that they met is somehow to blame?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 35:40
Well, especially some figure like myself Is it was like, like, there’s such like, a natural inclination to be like, and it’s because of that relationship is because of what the darkness that he brought to this place. Whereas in fact, that all the damage that was just that the the damage that he did was mostly internal, right, like bats, right? Like, that’s the part that’s so striking is like, maybe being around someone who’s that damaged. It does something to you, I don’t know. But my interpretation was that like, I don’t think this can be later to speed.

Traci Thomas 36:09
Yeah, that’s how I feel. But then the other part is like, and who knows if this was intentional, or again, a 2022 reading, but then you can read that as a horrible, like anti immigrant sentiment, almost like this outsider comes into our community and destroys our pure murder free zone.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 36:29
But he’s not an outsider, right? Like, that’s what’s complicated, right? Is that like, like he is

Traci Thomas 36:32
because he’s not from their community.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 36:34
I understand. But what I mean to say is that like, as like a returning Sudanese person who has like, Sure, this kind of like conception of like, here’s like, my idea of this homeland, and I’m going to live out maybe like a fantasy of the rural Sudanese life. Like, there’s something about the fact that he’s returning to that full of this hatred full of I mean, all the awful things that he did when he was in the West, that like, to me makes him a compelling kind of chaos character, but not one that you specifically go to be like, okay, he’s an immigrant, and therefore, he’s responsible for our bad sort of things.

Traci Thomas 37:10
You know, no, no, I don’t think he’s an immigrant. I think he’s a metaphor for the immigrant. That’s a YC.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 37:16
Because he became foreign in a way. Yes. Because he’s

Traci Thomas 37:19
Because he’s a foreigner to this small community. He’s not a foreigner to the country. But he’s, yeah, like, I think if you’re reading this with a anti immigrant lien, you could easily read into him as being the fault. You know what I mean, but I think that is a 2022 lens. And I’m reading it with, I know that in the context of the story, he’s not an immigrant. He’s just like a city guy who comes to the town Basically, yes, yeah. But if you’re reading, like, for all the metaphors, I was like, Oh, you could read this as a metaphor for outsider or like, immigrant or whatever. I could say that he brought violence, it’s like very Trumpian. It’s very Mexican murderer or rapists, right.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 38:00
That’s such an interesting read, that would have just never occurred to me. I’m so fascinated. I think it’s because I was so obsessed with disarming kind of think about the tensions of 1966, less than they were 22 years. I mean, I get the sense of, you know, what would lead like a city guy to go to like this village? Right. And like, part of the motivation is you want to find peace, but part of the motivation is you want to maybe return to an idea of Sudan that never existed, like That’s right. Why is like this, like the most sort of frozen kind of version of Sudan that you could find, right? I think what’s interesting about typestyle is that, like he writes, a lot of his novels are set in the same place, like

Traci Thomas 38:40
a lot of like, fictional town, right, same fictional town.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 38:43
And I think it’s because for him like that’s, that can be a site where you can crash all these ideas into each other and see what happens. And so that felt like, to me that felt like more natural because but also, I sort of knew that going in, right? I knew that going into the novel. So maybe you’re right, maybe like reading too much about the novel beforehand can really affect the way the end of reading it.

Traci Thomas 39:08
As I mentioned, actually, let’s well I’ll do it now. And we’ll take a break. As I mentioned, I love Shakespeare. And one of the things about Shakespeare, again, to your point about this maybe being a play is that when you do Shakespeare, you don’t have to do it in 1605, London, you know, you can set a fellow in Vietnam 1971, you know, like, or you can set it in Chicago or whatever you want. And I feel like what makes this book kind of, you know, stand the test of time, if you will, is that you can very well read this book 1966 Or like 1956 or whatever when it’s set, but you can also like, add things on to it like I have done because I’m, again, really good at inserting myself into things Okay, yes. But I do think that that’s the kind of thing that makes a good book, a great book is when you can do that, like I think I booked that I don’t think is great, but I know people think is great. It’s like The Great Gatsby. And I feel like that’s one of those books that has that fiction fiction thing where it’s like, you can project these ideas from the 1920s, but also these ideas from the 2020s. And I do feel like this book has room for that a lot, which is like, yeah, the misogyny part of it. I don’t think that that was the point. I don’t think she was trying to be like, I’m gonna write about sexism. But Hello, here I am here and I’m talking, we’re talking about female circumcision. And it feels really different in a pre post row world in 100%.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 40:39
First of all, pre post row is a great expression. It’s like, because we’re

Traci Thomas 40:45
not awfully posts. Were pre posts.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 40:49
You were in this sort of twilight zone where like, we know this is happening, but it hasn’t had it’s

Traci Thomas 40:53
coming hasn’t come since we’ve been recording. It’s possible. Yeah. And if you’re listening, this, you will have come, because we’re recording this at the end of June. So just-

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 41:03
That’s very true. That’s very true and very complicated. But I think there’s something about the sparseness of the book to write that lets you sort of project all those things into it. Because the more details you have filled in, the less space there is for your interpretation of these things. I mean, I think the same deal with the with the Great Gatsby in the sense of like, because of its slimness, it sort of allows you to be like, Let me fold in all of these social contracts that didn’t necessarily exist in there. I think the difference with this book, though, is that it’s a matter of whether you’re allow yourself to insert too much that isn’t about migration, specifically. Right. Like, and by this, I mean, just like the the sort of internal colonial conflict, because as as a book about that is very sharp and very focused as a book about lots of other things. It gets a little bit less, it gets a little bit more murky, right.

Traci Thomas 41:52
Yeah, it doesn’t become a I guess it’s not a book about those things. But it’s a book that references those things. Yeah. Like, I would not say that this is a book about, like about a metaphor for immigration at all. But I would say that there are moments where it’s like, if you wanted to read into this book, you could find that there. If you wanted to read this into that book. You find that there. Okay, let’s take a quick break, and then we’ll be right back. We have to prioritize it.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 42:16
I don’t care. Sorry.

Traci Thomas 42:31
Okay, I, we talked about this at the start. And I wanted to ask you about this last time, but we ran out of time, about language, because one of the moments in your books and elsewhere that I found really striking was when you were talking to an employee at your dad’s store, and the word disturbed came up, and you didn’t know what it meant. And then he like sort of explained it to you. And then I kept reading like the next few sentences. And I was like, oh my god, this is a person who as a child did not speak English and was learning English, at like, formative years for becoming an adult. And now your job is to explain words and things to people using this language that you learned. Yeah, is that trippy for you?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 46:41
It’s really hard. It’s genuinely really hard, like in the sense that like, I’m always like, what license? Do I have to just like, interpret words in this way? I think like, you have to sort of eventually give yourself license to be like, I do this work for a living. And I’ve been done like the proof of me doing it as I’ve been doing it. But it’s a hard journey to begin doing. Because you’re like, I’m new to this. And it’s like, when do you begin to feel less New, and then eventually, like, capable of commentary and analysis? You know what I mean? I was I was 12 when I started learning how to speak English. Like, that’s pretty late in life, you know? And yeah, it was pretty late in life. So I feel complicated, but that part all the time, all the time.

Traci Thomas 47:26
I just think it’s so interesting, because you, I noticed it before that part of the book there was like, I remember what the word was. But you explained what a word meant, in a really interesting and like, totally accurate way. And I was like, Wow, what a great way to explain whatever this is. And then you mentioned that part. And I was like, Oh my God, of course, right? He This is he learned English. And now he is shaping English. And I think that’s so fucking cool.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 47:53
I really liked that part of my job, you know, but also, I like to think that it gives me this like, this unique perspective of, you know, it doesn’t none of it is taken for granted. And so a lot of it I just kind of feel like I can take apart and put together as I please. And maybe it’s works really well sometimes. And other times, I’m like LME What are you doing? Why are you doing this? I honestly like those moments come together most of the

Traci Thomas 48:18
time. Don’t we all have those moments. Part of my struggle reading this book, because I felt like the language was really stilted. And I couldn’t tell if that’s because like in Arabic, there’s a use of like more metaphor in language, or if that’s just stylized for this particular author, because in your book, you do talk about how you don’t speak Arabic like an adult, you speak like a child because that’s as far as you really learned Arabic. And so I was wondering if like, because the way that you talked about in that book, in your book, also, you sort of talked about how you couldn’t articulate, like, these complex feelings around grief in the case of this essay, because you just didn’t have the range. And I’m wondering if in Arabic, there is more use of metaphor in language and like the language is a little more heightened.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 49:08
Definitely like Arabic, by nature, like a deeply flowery language, you know, to the point of like, just like regular everyday conversation contains a lot of elaborate metaphors, which are like I would say, in English are replaced by like placeholder idioms a lot. Like there’s a lot of idioms that we just kind of use a shorthand for a lot of, you know, different expressions, but I’m in Arabic, like there’s a lot of metaphor and like there is I have a fear but also a real curiosity about reading seasonal migration in Arabic because I can read Arabic, I just don’t know how to speak it at that level. And I keep you like, one day we’ll gather the nerves necessary to go and do that. Just so I can start to grasp my mind around the ways that that economy of translation ended up working you know, because Like, sometimes a metaphor will be deployed and it will take me no joke, like paragraphs and paragraphs to try to begin to explain what that metaphor was trying to stand in for. And so I think the fact that the translation was so short is like so impressive to me that it’s something I want to spend some more time with for sure.

Traci Thomas 50:17
Okay, I’m glad to, for you to say that because I definitely felt like it was stilted and I was like, Is this me, but maybe it’s just the translation is the translation. Okay. Last thing, we’ve talked about the ending? Yes. What do you think this is? Okay. He lives he’s slavery. He was rescued. Yeah, he wants to live. Oh, is there an option that he dies?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 50:38
I know. I mean, he’s just yelling help. So I don’t know if he’s like, you know, like, is he getting rescued as in? It’s going to work? Or is he?

Traci Thomas 50:45
Oh, so there’s an option that he’s yelling help. And he still drowns? Too late. It’s too late. He’s too far gone.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 50:52
What if he’s just too far gone?

Traci Thomas 50:55
So I read it that he lived. Religious, unlike me, I usually pick a death if there’s an I didn’t even really think that was with his will to live certainly came back.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 51:03
Right. He’s willing to sort of like say, No, I want to play a part in my country in my community and the place where I live. Yeah, that suddenly kind of came bursting forth. But the question is, like, whether it’s too late.

Traci Thomas 51:19
Okay, here’s the thing. I think he lives but I think he becomes a shitty person. Like, I don’t think he lives and it’s like, Okay, I’m gonna take what I’ve learned and like do right by my community, and like, come back home and like, be here and whatever. I think he lives and he’s like, I’m going to spend more time in the city. I’m gonna bring more white shit here. I’m gonna try to become a prime minister. Like I think he goes full conservative asshole.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 51:47
Yeah. I buy that I bought that conception of like, where he goes from there in terms of feeling like needing to contend with the legacy of Mustafa siete and what that does to a person I always kind of interpreted I was a more more compelling interpretation to meet interpreted as he just said, the moment of deciding to live he dies.

Traci Thomas 52:08
That’s frightening.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 52:12
This is a sense of like, finally getting to the point where like, you kind of understand yourself and your relationship to this and you’ve maybe worked out how to not be a toxic person while also carrying with you, although useful seeds of the West. And then as you pull those together out of you, and you go, Okay, I’ve got it, then you don’t make it. But I like I like your ending. I like your ending better than I like my ending. So I don’t know.

Traci Thomas 52:37
No, your endings better. Okay, cover and title. What’s your cover look like? Do you? Is it this thing?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 52:43
No, not at all. What is what is so fucking hideous? And what is that thing?

Traci Thomas 52:49
It’s like the mountains. And then there’s like a moon and then there’s like, a claw in the water. I’m assuming that to the Nile. It’s a very still portion of the aisle, I guess. And there is a shallow claw sticking you

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 53:04
can you tell me what does it have a name for that painting? Like what the hell is that?

Traci Thomas 53:11
Cover an image. It’s the scapegoat. by William Holman hunt.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 53:16
Jesus. Nope, that’s not the cover that I have.

Traci Thomas 53:20
holding up the cool orange one.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 53:22
No, I have a blue one.

Traci Thomas 53:25
There’s a cool orange one with like a lady on it that I really wanted. Couldn’t find it.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 53:29
Mine’s boring. It’s like a Penguin Classics cover. Okay, it’s like this one. Right. Can you see?

Traci Thomas 53:37
We can see. Okay,

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 53:39
we describe it. It’s got like this like old coffee cup that has been shattered. Oh, no, it’s a vase has been like shattered on the

Traci Thomas 53:49
carpet. Oh, that’s what Isabella made him do.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 53:53
Yes, exactly. And it’s beautiful. But um, I kind of wish I had yours.

Traci Thomas 54:00
Mine’s not very compelling to me. I’m like, I have no idea. I thought this book was about monsters. And then the title season of migration to the north.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 54:08
I have no particular thoughts. Positive or negative about that same. What about you? Like did you read the novels like this could have been called anything else like this could

Traci Thomas 54:16
have been it could have been called Mustafa said and it would have been equally as informative as season of migration to the north. It means nothing. Yeah.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 54:23
Yeah, I agree. I it’s something that I wanted to ask people about. I was like Sure. I’m gonna go back to my parents. Like why is this book called bat like what’s the deal with this? And so I Is there is there a specific bird that has a season where it migrates north that I don’t know about you know, I got questions.

Traci Thomas 54:43
Yeah, I don’t know. It was it didn’t I don’t know what I thought it was gonna be the Boca was gonna be about but it wasn’t about what I thought seasonal migration to the northwest but it wasn’t not about that. I don’t know

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 54:53
was your was your friend who recommended this book to you? Are they Sudanese? Like is that having no,

Traci Thomas 54:57
it’s Reggie reads Do you know him on Insta? Rahm, he loved the book and read it a few months ago, he does this thing called 10 Books 10 decades challenge, where a calendar year he challenges people to read a book from 10 different decades. And he read this for the 1960s. And he said he loved it. And it’s like one of his top 10 favorite books ever. And I was like, Okay, well, I have to if it’s one of your top 10 I have you read it. It’s not one of my top 10 ever, but I’m really glad we read it and did it because I’ve never read a book by a Sudanese national aside from you. And him. I guess you’re not a Sudanese national. You’re a Canadian National now or whatever. You’re both. It’s complicated.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 55:34
I mean, I’m mostly Canadian, but I you know, right, though. I don’t think it was stripped of my citizenship. So

Traci Thomas 55:40
no, yeah. So you’re both but your book in this book together in my mind are the two books I’ve read by Sudanese people and I glad that I did. And I thought it was really interesting. And I think it’s cool to read classic literature from other countries. Have you ever read enough?

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 55:57
Have you ever read Laila Ebola? Most often I think in English Stylez is Lila Lila is like I was usually written. She’s like probably the most prominent Sudanese writer working now. I would say, okay, she wrote like lyrics, Ali’s whatever books I spoke to her like big one.

Traci Thomas 56:13
No, but I’m gonna check it out. I really like reading books by people who aren’t American. Yes, it’s my new favorite. Yes. They’re better. Don’t. Don’t tell America.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 56:27
I won’t tell America America. Don’t listen to this. Okay,

Traci Thomas 56:31
everybody, this is LME of delve off mood. And he wrote the book set up elsewhere, and you can get his book anywhere you got your books, and LME, thank you so much for doing this.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud 56:39
Thank you for having me. Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

Traci Thomas 56:43
And everyone else we will see you in the Stacks.

Alright, y’all, that does it for us today. Thank you so much to Elamin for being our guest. And a special thank you to Abdi Omar for helping make this conversation possible. Okay, announcement time. Our book club pick for August is the personal essay collection, how to write an autobiographical novel by Alexander chee. We will be discussing this book on Wednesday, August 31. And you can find out who our guests will be for breaking down this book by tuning in next week. Let me just say I am very excited. If you love the show and want insight access to it, head to patreon.com/the stacks to join the stacks pack. And make sure to subscribe to the stacks wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you’re listening through Apple podcast or Spotify, please take a moment to leave a rating and a review. For more from the snacks follow us on social media at the stacks pod on Instagram and Apple stocks pod underscore on Twitter and check out our website the stats podcast.com This episode of the staff was edited by Kristian Duenas with production assistance from Lauren Tyree. Our graphic designer is Robin MacWrite. The Stacks is created and produced by me Traci Thomas.

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