Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water is based on a familiar premise: two young people meet and fall in love. Nelson’s debut novel is full of references to black art, music, poetry and photography.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
“Open Water” is a slim novel, less than 150 pages, and the story is full of references to black art, music, poetry, and photography. This is Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel. Like the book’s protagonist, Nelson is a photographer, a black man in his twenties who lives in London. And Nelson builds this story on a familiar premise. Two young people meet and fall in love.
CALEB AZUMAH NELSON: So we have two artists – a young man, a young woman. He’s a photographer and she’s a dancer there. And they happen to meet in a bar at the beginning of this story and have that very immediate connection, spending most of the story falling in love and trying to control their love over distance and circumstance.
SHAPIRO: You capture the experience of falling so vividly in love. There is a moment when you describe how you are thinking about whether you are overthrowing it, which inevitably means that you are overthinking it, which means that it is too late.
NELSON: As soon as you got that thought, it’s gone. That’s it. At this point it is too late.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. You’re in quicksand. It’s over.
NELSON: Those moments when you’re in the early stages of falling in love with someone and not sure exactly where you’re going – it’s kind of – makes your movements feel a bit more measured. You want to learn a little more about your best behavior. But inevitably, thinking about how best to behave leads to not behaving – like a little more like, oh. What have I done? To like…
SHAPIRO: It’s when you actually have the slightest control over your insides and emotions.
NELSON: Yes, yes – agreed.
SHAPIRO: In a way, it feels like a universal story – the experience of falling in love. At the same time, this love story is extremely specific to the experience of being a black person in the world and especially in London. And how, you juxtapose these scenes of these people who are letting go of their guard and becoming vulnerable to one another, against scenes of encounters with the police who just feel full of tension. Do you think the intimacy you portray looks different in this context?
NELSON: I think there is something I was really aware of, was this level of vulnerability that I had to achieve in order to even portray these two characters and even write this book. But this is not just limited to their interactions. It is too – it extends to interactions with the police and other types of state violence where it is impossible to hide. You are in front and in the middle. And it’s all very raw.
And it is like that, you know, you can’t really contain those emotions. But you have to be in those moments because when I’ve been stopped and searched I know I’m a few steps away from my death, to be completely honest. And there is this holding of emotions, this ongoing kind of balancing where in the space the couple is in they can be free. You can be with each other. They can give each other the space to be happy, but also to break a little, to mourn. But at the moments when you interact with the police, you really can’t afford to. You have to survive.
SHAPIRO: And does that make intimacy and vulnerability more valuable and more beautiful, more difficult and full? Does it contaminate it? Does it make it stand out? How is this dynamic?
NELSON: It puts – there is some kind of hidden pressure on it because you know that as a black person, when you love, that is a space of freedom. But in order for you to have that somehow and continue to have it, you have to be really active in this love. I think there are cases in the book where it gets too much for one or both characters and they don’t know how to express their pain or sadness in a room where they are really supposed to be free. There is the putting on and taking off of a mask, as is repeated when you switch from the private space of freedom to the public space, where you do not know what you will encounter. And here we see the relationship start to pull and tug and sometimes fall apart.
SHAPIRO: I think one of the lines in the book that caught my eye the most is a section about a painter named Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. And the character says that it is externalizing its inwardness, which black people are not granted very often. First of all, what do you mean: Black people are not often allowed to externalize their inwardness?
NELSON: I think black people live this whole and very full life. And so much of this life is made up of their inner desires, the ways we love, the things we love. And I think what Lynette does so well and what I actually always strive for is to really communicate what I love and who I love and how I do it. In many ways, this work was an act of love, both to tell a love story and to say that’s what I love, and that’s how I do it.
SHAPIRO: So she paints a lot of portraits of black people.
NELSON: Yes, yes, yes.
SHAPIRO: And they’re shown in very intimate and casual moments – arms around each other or lying on a chair or, as you know, huddled in a small group.
NELSON: Yeah. Even if you describe that, it’s safe to say that she was one of the greatest inspirations for me to write this book.
SHAPIRO: Why do blacks so rarely have the power to externalize their inwardness?
NELSON: I think we are – both in the UK and the US – and really wherever blacks are the minority, we are still living in the wake of colonial and state violence – you know, the world was basically with it Look at the blacks built. It wasn’t like that, OK, that’s going to be the leaders. These are the people we exalt.
And I am really aware of my work and where it is and how I am not trying to address these issues directly but inadvertently it will be. What’s more, I try to write about the black experience from the inside out. I try to write out of the circle. I try to write for black people so that they see themselves in a way and really embrace their fullness, like, hug, like, their fullness, real, like, moments of sadness but, like, real moments of joy can.
SHAPIRO: So you describe how society was built on the backs of blacks and how your art and the art of others can undermine this and externalize this inwardness. Do you think this can actually change society? I mean does art have that power?
NELSON: I think you want blacks to continue to have hope, and you want to continue to imagine a world where blacks are not oppressed or murdered, or a world where blacks can live their lives freely and fully. But I think you know that the work of introducing has always been done by blacks. I think now is the time for those in power to think about how we can restructure this world to make it better.
SHAPIRO: Caleb Azuma Nelson’s new book is called “Open Water”.
Thank you for talking to us about this.
NELSON: Thank you. Thanks for the invitation.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES “IN THE ANDROGYNOUS DARK”)
NPR transcripts are produced within a deadline of Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor made using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR programming is the audio recording.