In search of unconditional love, with the Anglo-Ghanaian Caleb Azumah Nelson
Caleb Azumah Nelson is an Anglo-Ghanaian writer born in 1993. In his first novel open water Translated into French this fall, it tells a love story like no other with a rare sensitivity. Implicitly, the novel addresses questions about African art, music, and what it means to be black in contemporary British society.
“She goes from London to Holyhead and then takes the ferry to Dublin. On the platform, she kisses you, one foot on the step, the other on the ground. A whistle blows (…° You hold back your tears until the train has left, until you have left the platform in a hurry. (…) It is a pain that you have never known and that you cannot name. It is terrifying. And yet You knew what you were getting yourself into, you know that to love is to swim and to drown, you know that to love is both whole, partial, a bond, a fracture, a heart, a bone It’s bleeding and healing, it’s being part of this world , to be honest… »
The above excerpt is taken fromopen water, an intense, poetic and captivating first novel from the pen of a 28-year-old Anglo-Ghanaian. Born to Ghanaian parents who settled in England in the 1970s, Caleb Azumah Nelson he grew up in south-east London, where most of the action in his novel takes place.
According to family legend, Caleb was a voracious reader from childhood. At the age of 11, he stormed into his elementary school principal’s office demanding the creation of a library worthy of the name so he could read his fill without having to steal money from his nursing mother’s sparsely stocked purse to buy books. We do not know if the principal had responded favorably to the student’s request, but his passion for reading led young Nelson down the path of writing from an early age.
The young man made a name for himself by publishing essays in British literary magazines, before accepting the challenge of writing his first novel on the universal theme of love. “It was during the summer of 2019 that I wrote this novel, tells the author. I quit my job so I could dedicate myself completely to writing. I had the impression of being animated by a sacred fire, which pushed me to continue forward. Every morning when I woke up, I rushed to the British Library, located at the other end of the city. I was in front of the library doors when it opened, at 9 am, to go out again when it closed, at night, at 6 pm It was my daily routine, during the two summer months, July and August. At the beginning of September the novel was ready.
open water, published this autumn in a French translation, talks about unconditional love, about breaking up, but also about the black condition. It narrates the fate of a heartbreaking passion that does not resist the bad weather of the world.
It all starts at a reasonably drunk birthday party somewhere in contemporary multicultural London. A young black man asks the host of the evening to introduce him to the young woman sitting at the end of the table. He is attracted to her shyness “of her, something like kindness in his open features “. Recalling the circumstances of this first meeting, the narrator relates: In fact, you were so overwhelmed by this woman’s presence that you first tried to shake her hand, before opening your arms for a hug, causing an awkward flapping of your arms. »
Elegant, precise, evocative: this is Azumah Nelson’s prose in this short volume of some 200 pages. The story is told in the second person, creating both distance and intimacy. Never named, the protagonists are both black. The narrator is a photographer, the woman he is courting is a dancer and he shares her life between London and Dublin, where she studies.
The novel traces the story of their romance, the love that deepens over the months, while remaining romantic and platonic. Tormented by desire, Nelson’s protagonists will not be lovers, however, for fear that the fusion of bodies will complicate that of hearts and souls. They draw a new cartography of the tender, both original and of a rare sensitivity.
“Love is indeed the theme of this novel, support the novelist. Much of the plot here revolves around the question of how we love and how we express love. It is also about the place of desire in romantic love and in platonic love. Finally, the enunciation in the second person of the singular as well as the phrases that return as refrains, or the unfolding of the action during the summer months that sharpen our emotions, these narrative choices were not innocent. They helped me to better explore the feeling of love in all its range of offers. »
Although desire is not excluded from these pages, we are here more in sensuality than in sexuality, a sensuality that feeds on literary and artistic interests shared by the protagonists. During interviews granted on the occasion of the publication of his novel in England, the author had explained that the genesis of this book was linked to the successive disappearances of his three grandparents. To combat the melancholy born of mourning and the feeling of loss of meaning, the young man then spent a lot of time in African art galleries, in museums or simply locked up at home listening to music for days on end. He extracted himself from this period of sadness by writing lyrical texts about his artistic discoveries and about his work as a professional photographer.
open water is inspired by these texts, and brilliantly mixes meditation and fiction. The love story joins a conversation about contemporary African art, which gives visibility to the African presence. But it is above all through the musical references that punctuate the story of the precipitous search for love of its protagonists, that Azumah Nelson manages to make up for the inability of language to make the music of emotions heard. ” Music plays an important role in this novel. confirm the author. While writing, I was often pushed against the limits of language to express love and feelings. Music and rhythm, used as narrative devices, allowed me to overcome this difficulty and compensate for the inability of our languages to capture emotions in all their complexities. »
Unconditional love that counts open water Azumah Nelson also has its moments of doubt and suffering. They are linked in these pages to the everyday experience of racism and discrimination that leads the narrator to question the question of being black in post-colonial British society. A reader of James Baldwin and other progressives whose statements gave him a glimpse of a world where he would be free to love and be loved, he refuses to sink into his malaise. A losing battle?
open water, by Caleb Azumah Nelson. Translated from English by Carine Chichereau. Denoel Editions and other places. 208 pages, 19 euros.