For Caleb Azumah Nelson, there is freedom in the feeling of being seen

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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 characters and backgrounds, he also heard things: the music of Miles Davis, Ebo Taylor, Solange – the artist’s songs listen as she conjured her characters.

“A tradition of rhythm rendered on canvas in blues and greens, yellows and reds”, Azumah Nelson wrote in his review of the show. “That way it’s possible to see something and hear it too, and I wonder if that’s what feeling is.”

To read Azumah Nelson’s fictional portrayal – Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, releases her first novel, “Open Water,” in the US on Tuesday – is to sit down with a similar kind of synesthesia. In prose interspersed with a lyric by Kendrick Lamar or A Tribe Called Quest here, a scene from “Moonlight” or a photograph of Roy DeCarava there, the anonymous narrator tells a story of falling in love and then fighting for it. stay.

The narrator is a photographer who gets involved with his friend’s ex-girlfriend, a dancer, as 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 live in, a world where black men and women are targeted by the police, where a patrol car follows him past his home. . A world that scares the narrator just to live, let alone love.

Although the events in the book were not real, the emotions were so personal to Azumah Nelson that in trying 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 the visual arts for entry.

“With the pictures, and more recently with some of my work on sound, I tried to figure out how I could go from feeling to expression,” Azumah Nelson said in a video interview from the apartment he shares with his partner in London. . For each ineffable emotion he described a painting, a photograph by Donald Rodney, a piece by Isaiah Rashad, D’Angelo, Frank Ocean. (He also realized a minute trailer for the book and compiled a Spotify playlist whose selections include Curtis Mayfield, Erykah Badu and Lizzo.)

Her upbringing helps explain her multigene approach to storytelling. Azumah Nelson grew up with a book, camera or violin in his hand, he said, raised by parents who emigrated from Accra, Ghana to England as a teenager. He and his younger siblings have lived their entire lives in South East London, where “Open Water” takes place.

“This is where my world begins and ends,” said Azumah Nelson. “It’s just this place that I know I’m going to write about 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. “We didn’t care,” he said. “We just liked being in a dark room with strangers, sitting and absorbing something.”

When Azumah Nelson was 11, her family traveled to Accra for her grandmother’s 80th birthday, and her father, who works in the food industry, brought a camcorder. Looking back at the jerky footage now, he admits the camera has been in his hands for most of the trip. “From a young age, there has just been this desire in me to document,” he said. “More specifically blacks. I’m really grateful for these trips to Ghana as I got to see what it could mean to be in a place where you are in the majority.

Back in London, his education would take him away from that sort of place, from his tight-knit, predominantly black primary school to the elite Alleyn’s School in the affluent Dulwich district. It was her first exposure to wealth and the “supreme confidence” it can impart.

Azumah Nelson attended a full scholarship, one of only four blacks in her class of about 120. He often felt out of place, except when he was on the basketball court. Since deciding he wanted to be a writer and artist at 16, he said: “There was this real account 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 safe – is a refrain in “Open Water”. Its main characters take turns noticing each other, looking at each other, looking at each other, desire and misunderstand each other, at the same time that they see police officers seeing them in certain ways as well – something else that Azumah Nelson has poured into his book to from a painful personal experience.

“Open Water” began as a collection of essays that several literary agents rejected before United Agents’ Seren Adams read it and offered to represent it.

“The voice and the tone was there, the beat,” Adams said, but she suggested that Azumah Nelson weave those elements into a couple-focused narrative. He not only went back to the drawing board, but he “did what all the crazy people do,” he said. “I am resigning from my job.”

Instead of writing between sales teams at the Apple Store, he could now spend eight hours a day at the British Library, face to face one blank page after another without mapping where he was going. He looked so helpless in the process that every other day the same librarian came to see him.

“I would be sitting there writing these scenes with the police, or about discrimination,” said Azumah Nelson. “I left everything I had on the page.”

At the first big sale of his career, Adams submitted the resulting manuscript to UK publishers in September 2019. The response was immediate and overwhelming: Azumah Nelson met with 15 publishers the following week, and the process culminated in a sale to nine voice auction before it sold to publisher Isabel Wall at Viking. Soon after, Grove Press’s Katie Raissian bought the US rights. The two edited it with Azumah Nelson.

“I didn’t know – I still don’t know – really much about the publishing industry, so I didn’t know that wasn’t how it usually works,” said Azumah Nelson. When Adams emailed him with the list of offers, he was having coffee with his mother. He was so nervous that he asked her to read it to him.

“She read each of them, one by one, and she said, ‘Caleb, your life is about to change,’” he said.

He has. When published in the UK on February 4, “Open Water” reached 16th place on the Nielsen BookScan ranking and entered a third impression in one month. Independent seller Kirkdale Bookshop and Lewisham Libraries, including Azumah Nelson’s local branch, have dedicated display cases to the novel, promoting to passers-by even as the pandemic has forced stores and libraries to close.

Remembering that day with his mother, his pride, Azumah Nelson started to cry. For some emotions, he says, “language really has its limits”.

“It doesn’t take much for something you say to not be heard like you said it would,” he said. Or, “more often than not, so that you feel something and say nothing at all.”

Sometimes we don’t need it. In Yiadom-Boakye’s painting “Lie to Me (2019)A woman reads a book aloud, facing a seated man, separated from her by the space between the canvases. In Azumah Nelson’s eyes, he looks at her.

There is an echo of this painting in the prologue to “Open Water”, in which “the hairdresser caught you looking at his reflection in the mirror as he cut his hair, and saw something in his hair. eyes too. ” No word is exchanged between them. The look is enough.

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