One day, during the first Covid lockdown, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s father offered to cut his hair. “He’s not great with his words, but that’s a very specific way of saying: ‘Can I care for you?’” explains the 28-year-old writer and photographer, who spent the pandemic back in his family home in south-east London with his parents and his younger twin siblings. It’s just such moments that illuminate his debut novel, Open Water: tender, carefully observed and reported, casting a gentle light on the limitations of masculinity.
A lot has happened since the book was published: he’s toured Germany, Austria and Switzerland; won the American accolade of a listing among the National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” for exciting young writers; and this month he scooped his first big prize, the Costa first novel award, which brings with it the chance of being chosen as the overall book of the year, next month. He was standing in the street when the news came through: “I yelled with joy. It absolutely hadn’t been on my radar. I’ve been too busy trying to write the next one.”
At the heart of the novel is a love affair between a young couple – he a photographer, she a dancer – which repeatedly runs up against the man’s inability to process his anger about the injustice and violence he sees all around him. “When I was writing, I wasn’t conscious that I was trying to understand and sort through this idea of masculinity,” he says. “I was exploring two people who were trying to be as honest as they could with each other. And I think so often in love, men aren’t necessarily dishonest, but they don’t know how to express the whole truth.”
Azumah Nelson wrote the book in 2019, after a grim two years in which he had suffered a rush of family bereavements. “I was beginning to feel very hazy. Like I’d lost some form, and some detail, in myself,” he says. He would go to the cinema, to art galleries, spend hours listening to music – “just trying to be as present as I could be”.
And that, he says, “is where the writing started from”. At first it was “very lyrical essays that were a bit all over the place, to be perfectly honest”. He was working four days a week at the Apple store at Oxford Circus (hard on the feet but very handy for dialogue) and devoting the rest of his time to his photography and writing. “I was sending stuff around to literary agents, because, despite the fact that I was quite young, I really felt I had something to say.”
He was reaching the bottom of his list when one agent finally bit, suggesting that fiction might be where his talents lay. Within a month he had submitted an early draft, which she batted back. So he scrapped it, quit his job, and by September had produced a novel.
In the intensity of the relationship it depicts, Open Water has been compared with Sally Rooney’s Normal People when in fact it is nothing like it. For a large part of the novel, the unnamed characters aren’t even lovers; they share a bed as friends, exhausted after nights out on the town, getting to know each other. “I have nothing against Sally, because I enjoyed her books and loved the adaptation as well. But I think I favoured sensuality over sexuality,” he agrees. Besides a love story, Open Water packs into its 160 pages a passionate conversation with the artworks that have described and shaped young Black people like Azumah Nelson: the writing of James Baldwin and Zadie Smith, the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the music of the south London streets on which its author grew up.
The son of Ghanaian parents, both of whom arrived in the UK as children, Azumah Nelson was a bookworm who, by 11, was petitioning his Catholic primary school to install a library because he was getting through novels faster than his midwife mother could buy them for him. Like both characters in the novel, he went to a private secondary school – in his case, winning a scholarship before becoming a star hockey player and reaching the under-16s national basketball squad.
This relative privilege didn’t give him immunity from being stopped and searched by the police. “It happens really often: even as I was writing the book,” he says. Nor did it protect him from more insidious forms of institutional racism. The backstory of the novel is full of uncomfortable details from his narrator’s schooldays, such as being confused with other pupils who also happened to be Black. Was this his own experience? Yes, he says. There were four Black pupils in his year. He had great PE and English teachers, “but we were always made to feel grateful”.
Running through Open Water is an exploration of where the freedom to fully and safely be oneself is to be found in a society riven with dangers for young Black men: it might be in a barbershop, a club or a loving relationship. “You would learn that love made you worry but it also made you beautiful,” reflects the narrator. “Love made you Black, as in, you were most coloured when in her presence.” His use of the second person is not a stylistic affectation but an outward expression of his narrator’s struggle to own his own feelings.
Both his novel and short story, Pray, which first brought him to public attention with a shortlisting for the 2020 BBC short story prize, are shaped by acts of violence within the Black community. “I haven’t been directly connected to people who have passed, or have inflicted that violence, but you always know someone who has,” he says. “It’s never far away from you, and it’s something that has had a significant effect on me. There’s a lot of collective grief in these communities I’m part of.”
Such acts, he says, “are moments in which we fail each other, and I don’t think that’s happened on its own. It’s directly influenced by state violence, whether that be the government making it harder for marginalised communities, or police stop-and-searching someone yet again, and that person not knowing where to put the anger and reaching for the person closest to them.”
Fiction, like music and art, can help to give a manageable form and focus to those feelings, he believes – and responses to Open Water bear this out. “I’ve had quite a few messages from guys who have said I understood what it meant to not be able to express something.” Women, meanwhile, report being drawn in by his unusual depiction of love. “It’s such a surprise to see what resonates with people. It depends on where they are. So while primarily I was writing for Black people and for myself, it’s been a real joy and a pleasure to see so many different people connect with the work.”