In his debut novel, British-Ghanaian writer Caleb Azumah Nelson pens a Black love story that taps into the rhythms of South East London by offering an ode to Black art, freedom and music.
In his acceptance speech at the 2000 Soul Train Music Awards, Prince boldly said to Black artists, “But let’s stop and take a moment to look at yourself. There is nothing minor about you.” It was a major call to practise freedom. Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel Open Water shares a similar sentiment. The author provides a devotional on how Black people imagine and practise liberty and daily love in a deadly, oppressive world.
Nelson reflects on this via Zoom: “In the way that we carve out space, carve out brief moments of freedom when we gather together, when we go to a concert or engage with Black art, we have to continue to do that. To imagine a newer and better world for us and for each other. Otherwise the only thing we are doing is waiting to die.”
With Open Water, Nelson writes an ode to Black culture by celebrating the artists that tend to his spirit and inspire his creativity. “As I was writing it, this kind of ode towards Black art began to emerge. It was clear I was writing various forms of love and love for Black art was one of them,” he says. The book interpolates mentions of artists such as Solange, Barry Jenkins, Kendrick Lamar, The Isley Brothers, Zadie Smith and Donald Rodney. Their inclusion feels important to the narrative without being contrived. Rather, music, poetry and art fill the gaps where prose wouldn’t suffice.
Sampling sound and culture
Open Water is a Black love story. An unnamed narrator and a woman meet at a party in South East London and fall in love. The novel draws out the interiority of Black love through their relationship by espousing softness as a key tenet of practising love, in a world where softness is not often allowed space. As their story unfolds, Nelson traces a far-reaching topography of intimacy, existential reflections, Black masculinities, mental health issues and, notably, how to be loved.
“It’s a love story front and centre. In order to do that, I had to think about what love means to me, to you, to my partner or to my mom or my dad and what does love mean to Black people. What freedom can be found in the space between myself and the person? What liberation is present when I sit next to someone and converse?” The implication here is that, when we wholly love, we access freedom too. Liberty starts with unshrinking ourselves – an act of love – from the smallness of the white gaze.
Since Nelson is a photographer, one would expect the book to have a strong visual identity. Instead, it reads like a soundtrack by incorporating an ensemble of different sounds, giving it an aural identity. It’s almost as though the reader can hear the mood.
“Sound is such a visceral medium for me. I grew up surrounded by and playing music. I played the violin for 10 years and I grew up in the Black church. There was constantly music being played,” he says. The way certain calls and responses are repetitively embroidered into the book is reminiscent of a chorus in a song.
“Black music is one of the only places where Black people didn’t have to be marginal,” he says, paraphrasing video artist Arthur Jafa from a talk he once attended. “I wanted to think about that and push into that with my work, and wonder if I was writing a music of my own, tapping into my own inherent rhythm and [pushing] out of [the] space of the margin into a sort of freedom … I wanted to write something that read like an album, a hip-hop album.”
By referencing the many facets of Black culture, Nelson likens himself to a producer, sampling from what came before him. He also succeeds in defining a sound of Black culture in book form while retaining a sense of the literary.
Black and British
Shows such as Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe, which have recently gained more mainstream circulation and entered the public dialogue, explore and discuss Black British identity.
Open Water considers what distinguishes Black Britishness from other kinds of Blackness – but also what makes it the same. “Each Black person has their specific histories, and the way they come into the world. Like I’m British but I’m also Ghanaian, so there’s that side of history that emerges. That history is different from a South African Black history or a Nigerian Black history or African American history.”
Nelson believes all Black people share something, but he is very “conscious of not homogenising our experiences and histories”. And that’s how he knows there will be differences in how the book resonates across different experiences, too.
The book also explores the violent and deadly policing of Black people. In many instances across the world, those in power, almost always white people, created the institution of police at the intersection of race and class, and for the protection of the property of the wealthy from the impoverished – which has become more racialised over time and across contexts. That legacy continues to paint Black people, especially men, with an unfounded criminality that can be fatal.
There is a moment when police stop the narrator just outside a friend’s house because he “appeared out of nowhere” and fits a description of a man suspected of a recent spate of robberies in the area. Police scatter his possessions on the ground and leave him shaking.
Police have stopped and searched Nelson and he’s been in a car that they’ve pulled over. He says the implicit exchange between a police officer and the person being stopped has a language of its own. “It’s like this gaze, an exchange of power that emerges when you glance at the police or they glance at you. There is a constant anxiety there because you, as a Black person, become the vehicle for someone else’s fears, therefore they enact power over you.”
What can sometimes cause a sense of dissonance is when the police are Black but they are co-opted into being surrogates for an institution dead set on repressing people that look like them – as in South Africa, where class and other aspects of identity factor into this discussion.
“It’s mad. When you are faced with someone that looks like you and you’re having to negotiate that the person opposite you could be a brother or cousin or someone you know and might spend time with based on how you look but in that very moment, it’s hunter and prey.”
Implicating the reader
Open Water’s second-person narrative can be frustrating because as a reader you are constantly implicated. The reader becomes all the characters, and simultaneously not, which is an immense emotional investment. Nelson softens the accusatory nature of the second person by continually foregrounding emotion, which helps make the experience more inviting.
“It was the most intimate way of writing this specific narrative. Employing the second person was about how far I can push the reader into the narrative, to the point where the lines begin to disappear. The reader is both audience member and also the character and the people on the sideline, is South East London, is the music,” he says.
The book’s power rests on its unwavering vulnerability. In writing it, Nelson had to ask himself difficult questions and says the book is “writing towards an answer but never really getting one”. It is in the expanse of open water with a vast horizon ahead that we begin to love differently, touch joy and taste freedom because here, perhaps, the possibilities are endless.