Last December, Caleb Azumah Nelson visited Tate Britain to see “Fly in League With the Night,” an exhibition featuring painter Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. In his portraits, he not only saw figures and backgrounds, he also heard things: the music of Miles Davis, Ebo Taylor, Solange – the songs that the artist had stay tuned as she conjured up her characters.
“A rhythmic tradition rendered on canvas in blue and green, yellow and red,” Azumah Nelson he wrote in his show review. “That way, it’s possible to see something and hear it too, and I wonder if that’s what it is feeling it is “.
To read the fictional portrait of Azumah Nelson – Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, coming out his debut novel, “Open Water,” in the United States Tuesday – is to stand with a similar kind of synesthesia. In prose interspersed with a Kendrick Lamar lyric or A Tribe Called Quest here, a “Moonlight” scene or a photograph by Roy DeCarava here, the unnamed narrator tells us a story to fall in love with, and then fights to stay here.
The narrator is a photographer who engages with his friend’s former dancer while they work together on a project to document black life in London. Their relationship swells and evolves over the course of the book, but the narrator is also aware of the white world they inhabit, one where Black men and women are targeted by the police, where a car crashes. patrol followed him out of his own home. A world that makes the narrator afraid only to live, no less love.
Although the events of the book are not true, the emotions were so personal to Azumah Nelson that while he tried to translate them into words, he often found that there were none. In those moments, the 27-year-old writer, who is also a photographer, turned to music and visual art to get in on it.
“With images, and more recently with a bit of my work with sound, I’ve tried to understand how I can move from feeling to expression,” Azumah Nelson said in a video interview from the apartment he shares. with his partner in London. For every ineffable emotion, he described a painting, a photograph of Donald Rodney, a trace of Isaiah Rashad, D’Angelo, Frank Ocean. (He also directed a minute-long trailer for the book and compiled a Spotify playlist that selections include Curtis Mayfield, Erykah Badu and Lizzo.)
Her education helps explain her multigenic approach to history. Azumah Nelson grew up with a book, a camera or a violin in his hand, he said, raised by parents who emigrated from Accra, Ghana, England as teenagers. He and his younger brothers lived their entire lives in South East London, where “Open Water” is located.
“It’s where my world begins and ends,” Azumah Nelson said. “It’s just this place that I know I’ve been writing for so long.”
Every Friday as a child he would go with his mother, a midwife, to the local cinema, where they would watch the same movie over and over again until the theater changed him. “It didn’t matter,” he said. “We like to be in a dark room between strangers, sitting and absorbing something.”
When Azumah Nelson was 11, his family traveled to Accra for his grandmother’s 80th birthday, and the father, who works in the food industry, brought a video camera. Looking back at the shocking film now, he admits that the camera ended up in his hands for most of the trip. “Since a young age there has only been this desire in me to document,” he said. “Especially the Blacks. I am really grateful for these trips to Ghana, because I had to see what it could mean to be in a place where you are the majority. ”
Back in London, his education would take him away from this type of place, from his united primary school, predominantly black to the elite Alleyn’s School in the affluent Dulwich district. It was his first exposure to the wealth and “supreme trust” he could bestow.
Azumah Nelson participated in a full scholarship, one of four blacks in his class of about 120. He often felt out of place, except when he was on the basketball court. After deciding to want to be a writer and artist at 16, she said, “There was a real esteem with myself and who I was in my identity, and how I saw myself, but also how others saw me.”
This feeling of being seen – not only known, but sure – is a return to “Open Water”. His main characters turn to look, look, imagine, desire and misunderstand each other, at the same time seeing police officers see him even in certain ways – something else Azumah Nelson has poured into his book from painful personal experience.
“Open Water” began as a collection of essays that many literary agents rejected before Seren Adams in United Agents read it and offered to reprint it.
“The voice and tone were there, the rhythm,” Adams said, but he suggested to Azumah Nelson to weave these elements into a narrative focused on the couple. He not only returned to the drawing board, but he “did what makes everyone crazy,” he said. “I quit my job.”
Instead of writing between rounds of sales at the Apple Store, he could now spend eight hours a day at the British Library, facing one blank page after another without mapping where he was going. It seemed so destroyed in the process that every two days the same librarian came to check it out.
“I’ll be sitting here writing these scenes with the police, or about discrimination,” Azumah Nelson said. “I left everything I had on the page.”
In the first major sale of his career, Adams presented the resulting manuscript to British publishers in September 2019. The response was immediate, and overwhelming: Azumah Nelson gathered 15 editors the following week, and the process culminated in a sale to nine streets earlier was sold to publisher Isabel Wall in Viking. Shortly afterwards, Katie Raissian of Grove Press bought the rights to the US. The two edited it with Azumah Nelson.
“I don’t – I don’t always – know a lot about the publishing industry, so I didn’t know that it’s not the way it usually goes,” said Azumah Nelson. When Adams sent him an email with the list of offers, he was having coffee with his mother. He was so nervous that I asked him to read it.
“He read each one, one by one, and it was like,‘ Caleb, your life is going to change, ’” he said.
He has. Following its release in the UK on February 4, “Open Water” reached a 16 ° in the Nielsen BookScan portfolio and went into a third release in a month. Independent retailer Kirkdale Bookshop and Lewisham libraries, including local subsidiary of Azumah Nelson, have dedicated the window display to the novel, promoting it to passers-by even when the pandemic has forced stores and libraries to close.
Remembering that day with her mother, her pride, Azumah Nelson began to cry. For some emotions, he said, “language has its limitations.”
“It doesn’t take so much for something you say not to be heard in the way you said it,” he said. Or, “more often than not, for you to hear something and say nothing.”
Sometimes we don’t need to. In Yiadom-Boakye’s painting “Lie to Me (2019)“A woman is reading aloud from a book, in front of a man who is sitting, separated from her through the space between the canvases. In Azumah Nelson’s eye, he looks at her.
There is a remake of this painting in the prologue to “Open Water,” in which “the barber caught you looking at his reflection in the mirror as he cut his hair, and saw something even in his eyes.” No words are exchanged between them. Just look.