USEREVIEW 081 (Capsule): undergrad: a commonplace book

Taylor Brown/ June 8, 2022/ Book Review, Capsule Review

Laila El Mugammar
undergrad: a commonplace book (2021)
ISBN 978-1-77779-150-6 | 108 pp | $19.99 CAD | BUY Here


Undergrad: a commonplace book is Laila El Mugammar’s self-published debut collection. It serves as a literary scrapbook from El Mugammar’s time as an undergraduate student at the University of Guelph. Featuring academic essays, personal essays, speeches and fiction, undergrad examines and illuminates anti-Blackness, Islamophobia, queerness, disordered eating and much more within the context of university campuses and beyond.

El Mugammar’s writing is electric, yet reeled in to be focused and concentrated. Her essays are high-voltage wires carrying the urgency of her thesis, tenderly wrapped and delivered with precise language. El Mugammar examines archives, literature and movies as a cross-section of the sociopolitical and historical periods in which they were created. By analyzing character dialogue, she explores Canada’s anti-Blackness in Austin Clarke’s short story ‘Sometimes, A Motherless Child’ and homophobic violence in David Fincher’s film Fight Club (1999).

While I enjoy El Mugammar’s academic writing, I think this anthology’s highlight is her creative work. Anchoring each essay to a moment in her life, El Mugammar draws out every implication, demonstrating the inseparability of the personal and the political. Undergrad concludes with ‘The Body,’ a story narrated by a young girl as she watches police discover a body in her neighbourhood. Her characters are distinct, their connection to one another endearing, and their dialogue compels the reader forward.

Recommended excerpt:

El Mugammar’s personal essay ‘‘Keep the Volume Low’: Being Black On Campus’ describes a place on campus to “divest from the chronic inauthenticity that marks my life, and the lives of so many Black Canadian students like me. We eat our mosaic of meals together at lunch. We FaceTime relatives back home, and whether we are expats or Canada-grown, we feel guilty that we fall short of their expectations. We reminisce about coin laundry and chores under the watchful eye of our mothers, and speculate about what awaits us after convocation. We fashion space for ourselves and fulfill our ancestors’ wildest dreams. Provided, of course, we keep the volume low.”

Taylor Brown is the Poetry Editor for CAROUSEL. She enjoys reading tarot, other people’s opinions and the room. She’s also the guest editor of CAROUSEL’s latest call, a tarot-themed issue, coming soon.

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