Inspired by Hip-Hop, ‘Open Water’ Introduces a Stunning New Voice on Vulnerability

Caleb Azumah Nelson's lyrical debut brings you inside the mind of a young British Black man discovering himself through love and art.

Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.

Aaron Schwartz: Hi, I'm Audible Editor Aaron Schwartz, and I'm here with Caleb Azumah Nelson, the author of Open Water, his debut novel. Open Water's a story about two young Black artists in London who meet and fall in love while also trying to make a mark on the world through their art. Open Water has already received very high praise from multiple outlets, like being featured as one of Vulture's 46 books we can't wait to read in 2021, one of The Guardian's books to look forward to this year, and has been called "A first-rate love story that hasn't been written before," by The Face. Hi, Caleb. Thanks for taking the time to talk.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: No worries, man. How you doing?

AS: I'm doing all right. Before we get into it, I was going to say, before I listened to the audiobook I got the playlist created by your publisher of all the songs mentioned in the novel, and it was before I had listened to the book yet, and I was like, "Oh, okay, 'Junie' by Solange?" and, "Oh, Mick Jenkins?" I was very like, "Okay, cool, cool, cool." I was so excited to find where those were going to be. I have questions about the music later, but I just wanted to say, right before this interview, I was literally just vibing to some Slum Village right before this. "Fall in Love" is a classic.

CAN: Oh yeah, that's what I like to hear.

AS: Yeah. Before we get into discussing the content of your novel, I read the other day that this novel began as a collection of essays, a work of nonfiction. That seems like such a big leap, because it's so well written as a novel that it's hard to imagine how it came from nonfiction to this, and I was just wondering how that happened.

CAN: I met my literary agent in May of 2019. I queried her and came to her with this set of nonfiction; they were kind of like lyric essays exploring a lot of the things that I was writing about in Open Water. I remember the first essay was exclusively about this Earl Sweatshirt interview that I'd seen on NPR, and I was trying to think about the idea of portraiture and the way that Earl uses lyrics and uses imagery. That was really the jump-off. I just started writing about photography, and writing about art, and writing about film, and writing about love, and about Blackness, and freedom, and about grief.

"I want to write a novel that reads like a hip-hop album."

When I came to my agent with all of these essays, she was like, "You have the voice for a novel," and so we came up with a plan. I was going to write for the whole summer, and whatever I had in September we would submit to publishers, and I wrote from May till mid-June, and I thought it was going really well. I gave the draft to my agent and I went off on holiday. I was just so, "Oh yeah, it's fine." And I came back, and the overall note was, "You need to start again. This isn't quite it.” 

I'm really glad that it happened that way, because I think the direction it was going in beforehand was completely different to what Open Water is today, but it was very much a case of I didn't really have a plan for this novel. It was very much a case of I would come to a blank page every day and be like, "Okay, what feelings and emotions are you trying to convey? What kind of fictional events and what form can we use to express those feelings?"

AS: Yeah. There's nothing harder than to sit in front of a blank page and then finally making something happen and then you're like, "I'm the best," and then somebody goes, "Oh, I don't know." It's really humbling. Really humbling.

So, wow, this novel started from an Earl Sweatshirt essay. That's pretty wild. That's pretty cool.

CAN: Yeah. 100%. We couldn't get clearance in a later version but the quote at the beginning, there were two originally. One was Zadie Smith and one was Earl Sweatshirt, and so I had to work him in somehow into the work, kind of later in the novel, because he's such a big influence on me.

AS: That's so cool. That's awesome. So the first thing that really stood out to me about the novel, when I first started listening, was the fact that it's written in second person, which is… You don't often come across novels that are written in second person. I think I've only listened to maybe one or two in my life that have been from beginning to end second person. I'm a fiction writer myself. When I'm sitting down to write and I'm going off the cuff, for some reason the second person is the first thing that comes to me.

CAN: Yeah.

AS: I was just wondering, from a craft perspective for you, if that was the case, if this is how it came to be, or if there was a larger meaning behind that choice?

CAN: I feel like I've been writing in the second person for a while, like for years. Essays or short stories that I write will just appear in the second person. And I think when I sat down to write Open Water, I was asking myself, what was the most intimate form that I could afford to this story? Which is mostly, if not all, very intimate and quotidian moments between two people.

I was wondering how I could push the reader as far into the narrative as possible, so it went past that. You read a sentence and you can feel it as well as knowing what's happening. I think the second person makes the reader both an audience member but also the protagonist, as well. These things are actually happening to you, too, and so it was really quite a conscious decision to do that.

AS: The second person's so interesting, because, like you said, there's that balancing act between a general "you" and then the hyperspecificity of the world and the characters to toe the line between the two enough so that the listener or the reader can inhabit themselves in the character. But at the same time if they're not, you know, a young Black man from London listening or reading the book they can respect that point of view and empathize with that point of view while also being aware of the fact that it's not theirs but feeling like they're a part of it. I think you did that so wonderfully. 

CAN: Thank you.

AS: It's hard to do for that long, for an entire novel, to go "you," "you." But I was in. By the second chapter, because your narration's so good, too, that I was just fully in it.

CAN: Thank you.

AS: There are a lot of themes in this novel, and one of them, the one that I found I related to the most, probably, was the topic of masculinity and vulnerability. I guess, as you said about your essays, I was wondering if that must've been something you were already writing about, and if it was, in writing this love story, important for you? Was that on your mind that you had to include this? Or, again, did that just come organically as you found the story?

CAN: There was this level of understanding that I had to make myself really vulnerable in order to tell this story in a really honest way. I think that the thing I was wrangling with when I was writing was this idea of truth versus honesty, like, multiple truths can exist. An event could happen and people could assure you this is the way that it happened, through the way that they see it. Right? And the way that they felt it.

"...Music is just everything to me. It feels like it's in all of my actions. It feels like there's music that runs through all of us..."

But behind that idea of truth is your honesty. If I'm being as honest as I can with you, then you can't really deny that if I'm really thinking and really feeling and really delving into what actually took place here, not just the surface; you have an argument with your partner or your friend, and in your head you're like, "I was right." But actually what really happened here? Like asking myself, in a sense confronting myself and the person I was in the actions that I take, and the way that I move through the world, and so that's where that vulnerability emerged from—from wanting to be honest.

AS: As I was listening, and listening to the character when he's ruminating on talking to his family and he's like, "How could I talk to my mother when she's lost her mother? And my father, who doesn't even… though I know that he's feeling pain as well, he won't be able to articulate it." I felt that, because I think you and I are about the same age, I mean, we grew up on different sides of the world, but as a kid growing up you still had those kind of old school notions of you have to be a man, men don't cry—

CAN: Yeah.

AS: …don't be too sensitive, you have to be tough. Then getting older, actually becoming a man at a time in which society's ideas of what masculinity is are changing so much. I like to think of myself as an evolved guy, but then all of the sudden, you realize that you do have to do a little bit of reprogramming and reconcile some of the things you're taught as a boy about what it is to be a man in this new world. It's difficult because it's hard to connect with a generation above you who can't make that change, and the generation below you who's… All they've known is this new change. So I feel like we're at this age where it's that weird breaking apart of the old and the new and we get the ugly stuff from the old, and it was very fascinating to see that. I haven't really seen that portrayed in a novel as well as it has in your work.

CAN: We occupy this strange middling ground whereby it kind of feels like we're stuck between two different camps. My brother and sister, they're twins, they're five years younger than I am, and they're a completely different generation. And so the way that they think and feel is very different to the way that my parents think and feel, and I kind of feel like I'm stuck in the middle, watching both sides, and trying to observe that strain. Yeah.

AS: Yeah, and the way that it plays out in this relationship between the two, it's so interesting and relatable in a way that I haven't experienced in fiction so far.

Like I mentioned before, the music. It's such a big part of this novel with the characters making references to Solange and Curtis Mayfield and Kendrick [Lamar]. I'm such a music fan myself, and it was interesting knowing that going into this novel, about the music, and then listening to your work, because your writing is so rhythmic and lyrical. There's repetition, too, with the repeating of phrases like, "Sometimes language isn't enough."

I could feel the connection between you and music and how important it is to you as a writer, because it feels like it almost couldn't help but find its way into the story. 

CAN: Yeah.

AS: I was wondering if you could talk about how music influenced the story or how it influences your writing process.

CAN: So when my agent asked me, did I have any ideas for how I was going to make this narrative, how I was going to write a novel, essentially, and I was like, "I want to write a novel that reads like a hip-hop album. I want to read something that has this rhythm running all the way through it that also has this element of how in hip hop or any sort of modern music, you have a four-bar loop of repetition." I wanted to see what would happen if you revisited certain sentences at different parts of the narrative, and how the narrative, the characters, but also the reader, has changed, has moved on, and there's a sense of development that occurs not just with the narrative, but with the person on the other end, as well.

I mean, music is just everything to me. It feels like it's in all of my actions. It feels like there's music that runs through all of us, but I think there's something that a lot of the musicians who I was referencing do in terms of taking a feeling or an emotion and conveying that in these really short, in like two or three minutes, or, in the case of The Isley Brothers, like eight minutes… 

"[Open Water] was a nod to that history, that ancestry that I have, but also to this idea of vulnerability and being out in the open and not being able to see anywhere that you could hold on or grab on to, but just having to trust yourself."

But just being able to occupy a space where you could hear lyrics and they might be telling you something directly, but you can really feel it in the rhythm and the arrangement, you know? I wanted to create something that felt like there was that kind of texture on the page. And it was interesting. Every time that I'd be in the middle of writing a scene I would think, "Oh, perhaps this is a song that could occupy this space." It would then take the narrative to a different direction. I just wasn't even prepared for that… It was so beautiful, really organic in that way.

AS: What music are you listening to right now? What's your most replayed stuff right now?

CAN: I'm listening to a lot of Solange again.

AS: Of course.

CAN: Just because her long music video film was put on The Criterion Collection. I've been watching that and listening to her record again and again. I saw her… It was 2019. She did a festival here called Lovebox, which was astounding, just incredible.

Who else am I listening to? I'm listening to Isaiah Rashad while I wait for him to drop whatever album he has locked away in the vault. I've listened to a lot of The Isley Brothers, because why not? 

AS: Why not?

CAN: Because it kind of feels like that time, the sun’s coming out—

AS: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

CAN: It's my birthday around Christmas time, and I bought myself a saxophone. 

AS: Oh nice.

CAN: Because I've always wanted to learn to play, and so I've been listening to a lot of Coltrane, as well as Archie Shepp and Farrah Saunders. A real wide, wide range. A lot of the time I would just I wake up and I'm like, what mood am I in today?

Do you know the rapper Pink Siifu?

AS: No, I don't. That's a name I've never heard in my life.

CAN: Oh, he's incredible. He's incredible.

AS: Yeah?

CAN: He just dropped a deluxe version of his album, and so as soon as we get off this call, I'm going to delve into it.

AS: I as well. Now I'm interested. Oh, yeah, for sure. On the note of audio, since we're talking about music, the narration of your audiobook is so great, like I said before. I was wondering what the experience of narrating your own work was like.

CAN: I should say I didn't actually realize that I would be asked to do it. I, kind of, in the back of my head was like, "I should do it. It should be me. I can do it." That’s cool, because I really enjoy reading my work, and I think the producer heard me reading my work at another event in the lead-up to release and was like, "Yeah, definitely, you should do it."

And so I got in the studio. They rented out the space for a week, and it started off very, very slowly in that I was used to standing, being amongst people and reading or, you know, reading towards a screen. But being you and your work and your own thoughts, in a sense it's a very similar experience to writing, because it's like, okay, this is just me... And actually the way that I'm reading, the way that I'm delivering this is like another form of storytelling, like there's music here and rhythm here that I can put into the work that I didn't really think of that before I got into the booth as such. I got in and the first chapter was the prologue, just like a train wreck. Every few lines, I'd be like, "Oh, uh." Not quite there. But once I got into rhythm, we knocked it out in a day and a half. I was hoarse by the end of it. I was knocking back lemon and ginger and honey teas. But I really enjoyed it. It had that same rhythm that I experienced when I was writing it, where I came to the page and I just let myself be part of the process. I switched off that thinking and went more towards feeling, how can I express this with what I have, so with my voice.

AS: Yeah. It totally comes through. It's so musical. The title Open Water, I was wondering if you could explain where that title comes from and what it means for you in this novel.

CAN: It wasn't the first title that we had in that starting-again process, which happened midway through. That's where the title emerged from, from a particular part of the text that I'd written and kept for the version that everyone kind of reads and knows today.

I have this real fascination with water. My family are from Ghana, and where they're from, it's called Cape Coast and it's kind of big, open water, and so it was a nod to that history, that ancestry that I have, but also to this idea of vulnerability and being out in the open and not being able to see anywhere that you could hold on or grab on to, but just having to trust yourself, like being out in the open. Right?

AS: Yeah. Scary. Scary to be out in the open with nothing to hold on to. What's next for you, if you're working on any new projects?

CAN: I'm actively working on quite a few short stories, some film and TV, as well. There'll definitely be another novel soon. Soon. When I kind of get the headspace to look away for a little bit and just get into it. I'm just trying to enjoy it, celebrate it.

AS: Awesome, man.Yeah, it might be a while before you get out of the headspace, because once this novel comes out in the US, I think it's going to be a big deal, man. It's really special. I've been enjoying listening to it. I look forward to everything else you got in the works.

CAN: Thank you. Thank you.

AS: Well, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, Caleb. The audiobook for Open Water is available on Audible now.

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