We caught up with Caleb Azuma Nelson, a British-Ghanaian writer, and photographer living in south-east London.
Nelson recently shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and the BBC National Short Story Prize 2020 and won the People’s Choice prize. His writing has been published in Litro and his debut novel, Open Water is out now ...
Congratulations on the publication of Open Water. Tell us what it’s about?
Open Water is a love story. It’s the story of being young, being Black, being a young Black man in London. It is also an exploration of Black masculinity and vulnerability, and the tenderness and humanity we can show each other daily.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
In 2018, I was grieving and really going through a process of mourning. I started writing a set of personal essays which helped me to process my grief – in a way, I felt I had to write. Like Toni Morrison, I would continue to write even if there were no publishers. The ideas in these essays formed the basis for the fictional narrative which became Open Water. I wanted to explore the daily sensuality of our lives, from the lens of a young Black man in London. I was reading a lot Baldwin and thinking about what it means to love in this world when you look like me.
You had quite a difficult time in the lead up to writing the novel. How did this experience shape you and your approach to writing?
That period of my life was really difficult but writing Open Water gave me time and space to confront my own grief and really process it. I understood that those people I had lost would always be with me, would continue to influence my life because of the gifts they had given me when they were here.
Open Water is really quite a raw, intimate portrayal of love and relationships, what did you learn about yourself in that regard while writing it?
How much I value the close relationships around me, and how much freedom they afford me. How, around the people I love, I can be my whole self.
You’re also a photographer, tell us more about that and how it connects with your writing?
When I was 18, I picked up a 35mm film camera my Uncle left behind and have been shooting on it ever since. I shoot portraits; early on, I was drawn to what a face could say, without any words being spoken. Traditionally, Black people have not seen themselves represented well in the media and I hope that in doing this, I provide space for Black people to be seen, as their whole selves. The same goes for my writing. I’m always trying to see people and characters as they would want to be!
Getting to know you …
- Which book do you have to have in your collection?- NW by Zadie Smith. I’ve read and re-read it so many times. It gave me the confidence to want to write my own narrative about my own slice of London, as the dialogue is fantastic.
- Which song/album defines the soundtrack of your life to date? – The Sun’s Tirade by Isaiah Rashad. That album has everything; slower, contemplative songs, as well as straight bangers. It’s reflective of the various shapes my life has taken so far.
- Name a film / TV show that you can watch or have watched repeatedly? – Atlanta; I’ve seen it so many times at this point.
- What’s the first stage production you saw and what it meant to you (play, dance, or concert)? – I remember seeing Jay-Z at a Wireless Festival when I was in secondary school – he freestyled for 10 minutes straight and it was so impressive. It was cool to be able to see the difference between recorded and live performances, and how much freedom a performer can have on stage.
- What’s made you sad, mad, and glad this week? – Sad – there have been a couple of losses that my community has really felt. Mad – The snow came and went so quickly! Glad – I’ve got a book coming out!
Open Water by Caleb Azuma Nelson is available to buy from the online retailer Hive where you can also make a donation to support an independent bookstore of your choice.