In conversation with the writer and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson.
Early on in Open Water, you write: ‘And now let’s ask the general public: Was anyone in Shake Shack that night? Did anyone else see or hear two strangers performing their truths for each other?’
How much do you view writing fiction as a performance of your own truth? Does writing feel true to you?
When writing Open Water, I was aware that this idea of truth kept emerging. I was thinking of truth as a photographer, and how an image can hold multiple truths, near infinite possibilities. Truth became less important to me than honesty. I knew if I was writing honestly, at least I could say, this is what I see, this is what I feel, and it would detract from what anyone else might see or feel.
Could you tell us a little bit about how writing this book came about? What was the writing process like?
I was working on a collection of nonfiction essays when I met my literary agent, Seren Adams. She suggested that I had the voice for a novel, and I started without hesitation. I wrote continuously from May-September 2019 – midway through that period, I quit my job and threw everything I had into writing Open Water. It was a gamble on myself, which felt necessary at the time!
I tend to write in the mornings, when I feel fresh. I wrote most of the book at the British Library, which informed the process of referencing and quoting various artists, as I had access to all this work. So much of that referencing process involved spending time with myself, understating what feeling or emotion I was trying to express, and then mapping those emotions with Black expression in its many forms.
The unnamed protagonist is a photographer, like yourself. How much does this art form inform your writing?
A huge amount. I’ve always thought of myself as a writer first, but my practice and process are image-based. When writing scenes, I often feel like I’m transcribing snapshots, images in my mind’s eye. I’m always asking what are the possibilities of this moment? How can I afford people a fullness to their lives?
I think one of the most poignant, moving parts of the book is in the protagonist’s grief. How do you find or test the limits of language with grief, in all its forms?
So much of this book was reckoning with myself, my own emotions, my own griefs. This confrontation allowed me to really explore the curves and edges of grief, really allowed me to go past communicating the knowledge of a grief and towards feeling. It required a certain amount of vulnerability, knowing I was heading towards a place which would hurt.
The novel uses an alluring, beautiful second person narrative, one that I haven’t read since Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Did you always know you would write in the second person, or did it come more naturally as you wrote?
The second person arrived straight away. It was the most intimate way for me to frame the narrative, encouraging the reader to be both audience member and protagonist, while pushing them as close to the action as possible.
In Open Water, characters take Ubers; there are mentions of restaurant chains and Notting Hill Carnival. How important was it to you to use South East London as the setting for the book?
South East London functioned as a third character in the novel. I’ve lived there all my life; it’s where my world begins and ends. The sense of community is wonderful here and there’s so much space! There’s much to unpack, I’m sure I’ll be writing about it for the foreseeable.
The novel pays its debts to multiple literary influences, from James Baldwin to Zadie Smith, if only in the protagonist’s tastes. You write: ‘Like Baldwin said, you begin to think you are alone in this, until you read.’ Are there any writers whose writing makes you feel less alone, perhaps in the pandemic or more generally?
Baldwin and Zadie Smith for sure. Toni Morrison as well. Hanif Abdurraqib – so much of his work resonates with me. I love Bryan Washington’s work. More recently, I’ve discovered Dantiel W. Moniz, Danielle Evans and Deesha Philyaw, three short story writers whose writing has stayed with me.
To finish: the protagonist describes his love dancing in front of him, writing that ‘Simple progression too in this ode to funk singer Junie Morrison. Which is to say everything comes of something else.’
Will something else come of Open Water? Are you working on anything new?
Something already has – each time a reader picks up a book and reaches out to me, the book takes on new life, and for this, I’m grateful. I have a few other projects on the go: a portrait series, some film and TV work, some short stories and essays. There will be another novel, once I get the headspace for it. I’m also really intrigued in the crossover between art and community at the moment, so perhaps something will come of that.
CALEB AZUMAH NELSON is a writer and photographer based in South East London. Open Water, his first novel, was published by Viking Books in 2021.
Interview by Lucy Thynne.
Art by Izzy Fergusson