Photo credit Stuart Simpson (Penguin Books)
Caleb Azumah Nelson is a British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in South East London. His writing has been published in Litro. He was recently shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and won the People's Choice prize. Open Water is his first novel.
"Narrated with deep intimacy, Open Water is at once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity that asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body; to be vulnerable when you are only respected for strength; to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, and blistering emotional intelligence, Caleb Azumah Nelson gives a profoundly sensitive portrait of romantic love in all its feverish waves and comforting beauty."
This is your first published novel. How does it feel?
Good! Surreal, often. The book came out during a lockdown so I didn’t get to see it in bookshops for a few months, but it’s a strange feeling holding something you’ve pulled out of the depths of yourself. There’s a level of vulnerability I’m occupying at the moment, which previously only occurred on the page, and now, knowing people are holding this intimate part of myself, feels more like an everyday. It’s a humbling experience, having readers reach out to you to say that something has resonated with them in the novel. It reinforces that the energy I put into writing the work is being reciprocated in the world, and that’s a good feeling.
You have the incredible ability to capture the feeling of significant breaks in life’s rhythm, moments that often pass by without being noticed. Would you say that this way of being sensitive to detail came to you through photography? Was there a moment in your creative development where you understood that there was something you couldn’t express through photography that had to come out in words?
Thank you! For sure, my work as a photographer means those smaller moments are always catching my eye, the way someone expresses their inherent rhythm is really intriguing to me. Those small details make up the fabric of our lives, and so in capturing the quotidian, I’m trying to hone in on what makes one's life meaningful.
The realisation came from understanding the way we see each other will never match up to the way we see ourselves. I think there’s always gaps in expression, whatever the medium. I’m concerned with the gap which exists between emotion and expression, and trying to bring the two as close as possible. I’m still developing my own ways of bending language - words and visual - to enable me to do this.
You’ve mentioned in recent interviews that when taking portraits of people, you want to offer them a space where they can be themselves. Is Open Water an extension of this idea in language, for your readers? What do you think is necessary to create this kind of space for honesty in a work of art?
Yes! That space requires conscious effort and care. In a way, you’re creating a small world for someone to occupy, where they feel safe to bring their full and whole selves. You’re saying, it’s ok to be the person you are, or have been, or want to be. It’s ok to feel good or bad, or everything between. It’s ok to be vulnerable, to want, to desire.
Music like soul and hip-hop, not to mention many other forms of Black artistic expression, play a very important role in the book. There's also a distinct rhythm and use of repetition in your writing. How has music influenced your style and thought as a writer?
When writing Open Water, I was thinking of a quote from artist Arthur Jafa. He says, ‘music is the only place Black people don’t have to be marginal. I used this as a jump off point, and encouraged myself to see the rhythms of other people, of myself. I was, and am, interested in repetition and what happens when a phrase is employed and repeated over the course of a narrative; how the characters have changed but I, the writer, and you, the reader, have too.
Are you working on anything new at the moment, whether in literature, photography, or music?
I’m working on another novel, titled Small Worlds, which looks at those spaces we make for each other to express love, and what happens when we fail to do so. I’m also working on a TV show, which has been a wonderful process so far, combining all of my artistic interests.
Interview by our bookseller Iti Libe