(Grove/Black Cat, 2021)
Caleb Azumah Nelson’s first novel is a short, introspective love story told around the conflict bubbling inside a young Black man who tries to examine and understand love, fear, and trauma amid the racism in south-east London. The author is a British-Ghanaian who lives in London, and, like his unnamed protagonist, Nelson is a photographer in his 20s trying to supplement his photography with writing, which the fictional character calls “another form to tell stories with.” Nelson writes for reasons similar to his fictional hero’s. In an interview with the literary magazine Granta, Nelson says, “My writing and my photography go hand in hand. I often feel like I’m transcribing photos when I’m writing fiction, trying to ask all of the possibilities of the snapshot I see in my mind.” Nelson’s unnamed protagonist, perhaps the author’s stand-in, lends this powerful story a universality in his namelessness: the young Black man could be living in America or any of a number of other countries dominated by whiteness. Nelson tells Open Water in the second person, which can seem contrived and off-putting for an entire novel, but the technique is, for the most part, successful and augments that feeling of universality so that when you read, you tend to interject yourself as the you of the story. His prose, too, is graceful, rhythmic, and Nelson heightens the novella’s sense of immediacy by writing in the present tense—things happen to you now.
In a recent interview with The Voice, Nelson calls his book an “ode to all of the things that I love—to South-east London and its community, to Black art and Black expression.” And he reflects on the novel’s similarity to his own life: “perhaps not like the specific events, but more the feelings.” So it’s no stretch to say that Nelson’s young Black hero and Nelson himself have been inspired by various Black artists mentioned in the story—musicians, singers, and writers, for instance, British rapper Dizzee Rascal, American singer and cellist Kelsey Lu, American jazz musician Walt Dickerson, and writer Teju Cole. And although the protagonist (and presumably Nelson) is a fan of the writer Zadie Smith and her novel, NW set in north-west London, it is James Baldwin who is the character’s and the author’s greatest inspiration. He even calls Baldwin Jimmy when he quotes from Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son: “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” It’s a sentence that Nelson and his character repeat twice. Real-life similarities between author and character are sometimes frowned upon as artistic weakness, but the connection here, whether feeling or fact, is valid and powerful. Moreover, in Notes of A Native Son, Baldwin says, “One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”
Nelson’s novel talks about what it is like to be a Black man, and it is built around a fragile love story in which the protagonist’s female friend, also unnamed, is an artist, too: a dancer. But the narrator is an introspective and shy sort who examines the very nature of love and living. Though the two are otherwise very different people, she shares his fondness for many of the same Black artists, including Zadie Smith. Nelson puts Smith’s words into his character’s story, and so portrays the present and foretells the near future of the Black man with an excerpt from Smith’s essay, “Notes on NW.” “The happy ending is never universal. Someone is always left behind. And in the London I get up in—as it is today—that someone is more often than not a young Black man.”
For Nelson and his hero character, whether he’s trying to comprehend love or racism, he understands that “it’s easier for you to hide in your own darkness, than emerge cloaked in your own vulnerability. Not better, but easier. However, the longer you hold it in, the more likely you are to suffocate.” So the title Open Water becomes the somber, central metaphor of the book; you have two choices: “You have always thought if you opened your mouth in open water you would drown, but if you didn’t open your mouth you would suffocate.” The character often finds himself drowning.
Nelson describes the musical piece “To My Queen,” by Walt Dickerson as “slow and contemplative, and [it] reaches into extreme, beautiful depths to render a union in all its colour. ” Nelson’s story is a kind of music that captures the rhythms of joy, anguish, and love.