Open Water, a Love Letter to Black Expression: A Dialogue with Caleb Azumah Nelson
Caleb Azumah Nelson is a 25-year-old British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in South East London. His writing has been published in Litro Magazine. He was recently shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and won the People’s Choice prize. Open Water is his first novel.
BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between the UK and Algeria, via Zoom.
Saliha: Hello, Caleb. Firstly, I want to thank you for joining me in this conversation. I know you are really busy with all the book events, so thank you.
Caleb: (Laughs). You are welcome.
Saliha: I want to congratulate you for the book; it’s really amazing, unbelievably breathtaking. It’s quite unlike anything I have read before.
Caleb: Thank you so much.
Saliha: I always wonder who or what influenced a writer to write their novel, but today I want to know who you hope to influence with Open Water? And what impact do you want the book to have?
Caleb: I think I’m someone who always thought of myself as a writer first, despite the fact that I take photos and make films. I was aware, when I was writing Open Water, of all the different artistic influences that I was allowing to come into the text, so for me this book is like a love letter to artistic expression and Black expression, in a sense, so I’d hope that it will encourage others to express themselves as well, and to have that same sort of appreciation and engagement for Black expression.
Saliha: This is so wonderful. It is indeed a love letter to Black creatives. I read some reviews on the novel and one I really liked was published in The Guardian. In it, the reviewer Michael Donkor writes about your choice to employ second person narration: “he writes in the second person, using its immediacy and potency to create emotional intensity that replicates the emotional intensity with which the protagonist experiences his bond with the dancer and his wider world”. Is it why you wrote the novel in the second person? Did you always know that you will write it in the second person, taking into consideration the fact that the novel started as a series of essays?
Caleb: Yeah, I think it was very much the way to provide the most intimate experience, because the reader in the second person is not just an audience member but the protagonist as well. You are kind of sitting on both sides of the narrative, in the same way you are being pushed right into it. There is this kind of intimacy that with the second person was affordable. The second person can border into claustrophobia but I didn’t want it to be like that, I wanted it to be warm, I wanted it be very much like you are in the narrative as much as possible.
Saliha: Indeed, I felt the strong intensity of the novel and that is why it took me so much time to read it, even though it is a short book. You are also a photographer; I have seen your works on your Instagram account and it made me understand in a way why the protagonist thinks of photography as a way to be seen. The protagonist also mentions many times how language fails him as a means of expression. Is it because he just can’t find words? Or is it because Black voices have been historically suppressed and thus the link between the other mediums of expression and freedom?
“I was aware, when I was writing ‘Open Water’, of all the different artistic influences that I was allowing to come into the text, so for me this book is like a love letter to artistic expression and Black expression.“
Caleb: I think it’s a combination of both. I have been saying this more and more in interviews: it’s really difficult to have an emotion or a feeling and to express that exact same feeling with language. I think that images and sound can get you a bit closer, because there’s something visceral about those artistic expressions. I think you really have to work hard with language to get it to the point where there is a feeling and it’s really close to the expression. I do think you’re right in that second point, that historically Black voices have not made their way into the forms in which people engage with work. Historically, when we think about Black voices and Black expression, I think about jazz, I think about the blues, I think about places that Black people have had to go in order to express themselves, rather than being allowed to. There was always a kind of a dodging and a diving.
Saidiya Hartman talks about this idea of shirking and shaking and having to move yourself into different arenas in order to find a place in which you can be free. I think Black people have always have been doing that, and have always been looking for places of expression, whether that’s in music or other ways of expression. When I think about a family photo of a Black family, there is a Black expression as well or you think about writing, writers I hold dearly like Baldwin, Achebe and Ama Ata Aidoo. These are the kind of writers who have always been writing and that expression has always been there. But not all Black people get that opportunity to express themselves in that way.
Saliha: We talk about ‘historical’ suppression, but unfortunately it’s still ongoing, as we have seen with the events in the last past years. The novel deals with many themes: love, racism, and vulnerability. It also touches on family, and I kind of feel like the protagonist has a complicated relationship with the older members of his family, and I feel like there is a rupture between him and Ghana. Can you elaborate on this?
Caleb: I think that families are complex. It’s something I have been thinking about more and more actually, since writing this book. This idea a family is this group of people; in my own family, there are five of us—my mom, dad, brother and sister and me—and these people spend lots of time together, especially this past year where we’ve been in and out of lockdowns. You know each other so well, you know how to care for each other, but you also know how to push each other’s buttons. You see different dynamics playing out with parts of different personalities. Yeah, sometimes I step back and look at my family and it’s like seeing different characters in a film. It’s like having all these different parts but you know regardless of what happens, there is unconditional love between you and there is something that is always holding you. There is time where you don’t want to be talking to them or be close to them. There might be a time you do, because there’s always going to be something pulling you closer.
With Ghana, I haven’t been there for sixteen years or so. The last time I went, I was really young; it was my grandmother’s 80th birthday and I adored the place, I love it, but it’s not home really because I wasn’t born there. I was born in London. There are elements Ghana has given me, like there is this way of thinking and feeling the world that I have been given through my parents that has been given to them through their parents. In a way it is how Ghana continues to live for me. But I think there’s this issue with children of the Diaspora, there is this sense of limbo we find ourselves in. Home isn’t London, true—I made my home here—but I didn’t exactly come here in the best circumstances because colonialism did it. And home is not Ghana anymore, because of that distance and that fracture, and so many children of the Diaspora are in this limbo and are trying to find homes. They are trying to find small worlds and communities to inhabit and exist in and I think those communities are so important because of that.
Saliha: Yes, I understand you. Actually, it adds to the dualities that exist in the novel, this kind of existence between two homes, and the other dualities in the novel I noticed. For example, in a way, the protagonist wants to celebrate his body, but at the same time he thinks about the dangers his body might bring to him. Does the recognition of the existence of these dualities reduce the anxiety a Black man feels?
Caleb: I think there’s this private existence—where you can be quite honest, quite yourself, free—and then there is this more public existence, like you are out in the world and you don’t know what awaits you; whether it’s the kindness of people, or violence of the state. You don’t know really what awaits you. That part in-between, where we spend most of our days, creates a sense of anxiety and uncertainty. If you exit your apartment to go to a public place, you don’t know what awaits you there. I think for me growing up, it was as a teen when I became very aware of my own body and how it was perceived; how it was not just a house for my personhood but a vehicle for other people’s fears.
Saliha: I recently read a 1955 interview in The Paris Review, with Ralph Ellison, about his novel Invisible Man and he was interestingly asked if his novel was art or social protest, to which he responded that it was both. Is it the same with your work?
Caleb: I guess for me, the work, first and foremost, is expression; it’s an expression of freedom, in a sense, or a need to reach towards it, and I think that in itself is a protest against the current circumstances in which I live in and under. It’s really difficult to separate personal and political when you look like me. My work inherently has to be political because of who I am. They are all tied, you can’t separate those things.
Saliha: In the same interview, Ralph Ellison mentions that Black writers of his time address their books to white audiences, in which they try to plead their humanity. But he says that was a false issue and what Black writers should do is to show all their forms of humanity instead. Is it why you included many references to Black creative voices?
Caleb: When I was writing this novel, Open Water, I knew what I wanted to write and how I wanted to write it. I had to write in a sense from inside the circle I was in, I had to write from the perspective of Black people, and anyone else who was reading was a bonus. That was really important for me, to address the Black expression towards Black people, rather than something people can take in and learn from. So I just wanted it to be an expression of freedom to me and for Black people to see themselves in it too.
Saliha: Indeed, it is a beautiful expression of freedom. Are you working on new projects, whether it’s photography or writing?
Caleb: Yes, with photography I am always working on stuff. I have been shooting a lot of personal stuff in the past years; Black people in their everyday lives. I am working on a new novel and just waiting to have the right headspace and once the buzz has died just a little, I am getting to work.
Saliha: Great to know. I can’t wait to read your new work! I am sure it will be great, just like Open Water. Thank you for the interview.
Caleb: Thank you.
Photo credit for featured image of Caleb Azumah Nelson: Stuart Ruel.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at university. She graduated in the field of Anglophone Literature and Civilization in 2015. She is an Interviewer for Fiction at the online magazine, Africa in Dialogue. She has written about cultural subjects for the Algerian online platform Dzair World and for the printed and online magazine Ineffable Art and Culture. Her debut creative nonfiction piece has appeared in the African magazine Agbowó.