Caleb Azumah Nelson
Moments of Freedom
In the summer of 2017, I heard Arthur Jafa give a talk at the Serpentine Pavilion. He opened with music, playing chopped and screwed versions of Frank Ocean and Jay Z. His words themselves were like sing-song, a darting, undulating rhythm. And the anchor: Music is the only space where Black people don’t have to be marginal. Most, if not all of my work, is concerned with freedom – of expression, of the personhood, of Black people – so these words resonated.
With Open Water, I wanted to write a novel that read like an album. I wanted to write in a way that rhythm could act as a narrative device. I’d grown so interested in the idea of the loop; how we could revisit a phrase or sentence or note, and despite it being the same, experiencing this moment differently because we had changed, we were different moment to moment. I was happy to repeat, employing refrains, creating rhythm. I wanted readers eyes to dance across the page.
But more than this: there are things unspoken which make their way into music. I’m always intrigued in this texture and how it comes about. What was the artist listening to which seeped into their own music? What happened in the studio? Who were they when they were recording? What were they feeling? What did they want listeners to feel?
My texture emerged from my own Grandma passing, this loss cleaving my heart in a way I would always feel; seeking comfort where it could be found, walking to my local Caribbean takeaway daily, where on good days I’d laugh and joke with the dread-headed chef as I picked up my order. On bad days, I could barely raise my head to meet his eyes, and he might come round the counter, place the hooks of a carrier bag into my hands. When I’d get home, I would find he’d put a little something extra in there, a side order of chicken wings or plantain and this small kindness gave me faith. My texture emerged from standing in a middle of a muddy Victoria Park, in 2016, where I found myself in the eye of a moshpit, shortly before Skepta wheeled up Detox for the fourth or the fifth time, insistent the crowd wasn’t excited enough when we were, and he knew this, we could all see that sly grin but we didn’t mind, because there’s something freeing about being a crowd full of people, moving to music on a summer’s afternoon. A lot of this texture emerged from a British summer, and the feeling of freedom which comes with it, the feeling that you could feasibly spill from one party to the next, or that you could congregate with a million other people in West London for carnival. I wanted to write about all of this, about loving and feeling loved because these were feelings I knew. When I write, I often feel like I’m transcribing snapshots (it’s the photographer in me). I know now that I’m also transcribing moments of freedom, moments in which the possibilities feel infinite.
I wrote the majority of Open Water at the British Library. Sometime in the middle of 2019, I made what at the time felt like an obvious decision, but now, recognise as a small leap of faith: I quit my job. With a small pot of savings, I dedicated my days to writing. A nice routine ensued, where I would wake up early, riding the commuter train from Bellingham towards King’s Cross. After a coffee, I’d settle down in the reading rooms, with as many books as I could take out. I was engaging, mostly, with the work of poets and visual artists. Poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Keorapetse Kgositsile and Langston Hughes. Closer to home, the work of London-based poets Belinda Zhawi, Victoria Adukwei-Bulley, Raymond Antrobus and Yomi Sode. Their work enabled me to go towards something I had always aspired to: brevity. In Open Water, I ask, ‘if flexing is being able to say the most in the fewest number of words, is there a greater flex than love?’ I loved those days, spent reading and writing and learning, working, not as a means to an end, but as a process of discovery.
The work of visual artists was also integral to my work. Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s fictitious portraits were a clear example of that texture I mentioned. In her work, the background is as important as the fore; the canvas then becomes as important as the person in the portrait. Another South London based artist, Sola Olulode, paints figures which skirt and dance around the frame, often breaching it, often reaching towards their freedom. Roy DeCarava’s New York jazz photography helped me map the nights of my own city. Each piece of art I encountered might find itself referenced in the novel; each reference took the narrative to new dimensions, directions I could not have envisioned.
It quickly became apparent that I was tussling with the limitations of language. In trying to marry emotion to expression, I found there to be a discrepancy, especially where language was concerned. The visceral experience of seeing a photo or painting, or hearing a song, and not only knowing what the artist was saying, but feeling it too, is sometimes lost in literature. Yes, there is real power in knowing, but I believe there is power in feeling too.
Writer Marcus J Moore describes Kendrick Lamar’s album, Untitled Unmastered, as a collection of songs where the bravado falls away and what is left is something honest and raw, no less sure. I had been writing, or trying to write, for years at the point of working on Open Water. I couldn’t tell you where the shift was with this text, except, for the first time in a while, I could hear my own voice clearly. I understood that I did not want to hide. I understood that there was a level of vulnerability I would have to tap into, in order to write this novel. I understood that it might hurt; that I might dig and dig, hitting bone, finding and expressing my rawest self, and that this narrative could still be read over. I knew all of this and could really feel it too, and yet I knew, this was the novel I had to write.
I believe writing is an act of love and this was true in this instance. I wanted to write about love and feeling loved and this extraordinary freedom, this freedom which emerges when the world doesn’t see you as you wish to be seen, but one person does and this is enough. I wanted to write about my freedom, where it’s found, where I house it, in music and visual art, textures and feelings, infinite possibilities. I wanted to write about South East London, where my world begins and ends, where the strength of that community shone through in the prose. I wanted to write a love letter to everything and everyone I love and have loved.
I wanted to write a novel a reader could hear and see and feel. And what did I want the reader to feel? That sometimes language failed us, but I was looking for new ways to express how we might feel. That I had loved and I had lost, and I sometimes felt beautiful, sometimes ugly, that sometimes I was looked at, not seen and this hurt. That I was coming to the page to be honest and raw, and that I was sure of I how I felt. I knew there would be a discrepancy between what I could feel and what I could say, but if a reader could feel something of what I felt – of my music, my rhythm, my joy, my grief, my pain, my love – then I had done something of what I had set out to do.
Caleb Azumah Nelson is a British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in south-east London. His writing has been published in Litro. He was recently shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize and the BBC National Short Story Prize 2020, and won the People’s Choice prize. His debut novel, Open Water (Viking), was published in February 2021.
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