Caleb Azumah Nelson on Small Worlds, Open Water, and Black Spaces

In two acclaimed and bestselling novels, the British Ghanaian writer and photographer has enlarged his terrain from love and art to family and memory. “I wanted to take my sentences past this thing of knowledge and more toward feeling,” he said. “It feels like a progression in the questions I’m asking, specifically around identity and Blackness, but, really, around love.”
Caleb Nelson Azumah

Caleb Nelson Azumah. Photo from Instagram.

Caleb Azumah Nelson on Small Worlds, Open Water, and Black Spaces

The British Ghanaian author Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel Open Water met with critical acclaim and sales. The love story of a male photographer and a female dancer, and a poetic exploration of Black art and masculinity, it garnered him the Costa First Novel Award, the British Book Award for Debut Fiction, and a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honour, and longlist notices from the Desmond Elliot Prize, the Gordon Burn Prize, and the Dylan Thomas Prize.

His second novel Small Worlds, released in Nigeria by Narrative Landscape Press in May, picks up the questions posed in his first, of loving as a Black person in modern Britain, of maleness and identity. But here he is also exploring family, grief, migration, and the histories that often stay untold. His characters are understood through their relationships — young love, community, a father and son — and at the heart of their stories is the resilience in making our own worlds, where we can love, freely.

Yet this is a writer who feels language cannot possibly translate all he wants, has, to say, and so, in an intimate story of a young Black man who, in the face of change, seeks to assert himself in a world that makes no room for him, Nelson infuses sound, his understanding of which is technical as it is visceral: his characters dance to heal and gather for jazz jam sessions; the songs interspersed in the book make for a playlist of emotions. The book’s narrative itself is musical, the prose rhythmic.

Sometime ago, he went on a research trip to Ghana, and while at MacDowell Colony, he developed his findings as a book of photography and essays attached to Small Worlds.

Nelson, who is also a photographer, screenwriter, and director, wrote and directed a short film with BBC Film. Currently, he is working on an original series for Element and a feature with Heyday and Film4.

He speaks to Open Country Mag about Open Water and Small Worlds, which is now a Top 10 Sunday Times bestseller in the UK.

Your first novel, Open Water, is a take on Black identity, art, and masculinity woven into a love story. This one, Small Worlds, is an exploration of the immigrant experience, a coming-of-age novel and a young man’s quest for selfhood, a look at family, love, memory, loss, and the power of music. Tell me about your transition in subject matter. What inspired Small Worlds? What was your process writing it?

Thinking about inspiration, I understood to write another novel, I wasn’t necessarily going to be diverging from what I had started, in terms of writing Open Water and progressing onto something else. It wasn’t, ‘I get to turn around and start again.’ It was actually, ‘I get to deepen a line of questioning I’ve already started and ask myself more and more.’

And so, in a way, despite the fact that it’s not necessarily a sequel, it feels like a progression in terms of the questions I’m asking, specifically around identity and Blackness, but really, around love, and what it means to love when you look like me or you, what it means to try to express that love, and what happens when you fail to do so. I think those are the questions at the center of both novels.

I think, in terms of process, I don’t really plan my novels. Every day, I start with a blank page. But more times, I understand what feelings and emotions I’m trying to express and then I let that dictate where I’m going within the narrative. But at the top of both novels, I started with a notebook, writing the things I want to think about or express, the feelings and all the themes and such. And that’s the north star. I’ll always return to that page because this is where I’m going with that.

With Small Worlds, I knew I really wanted to write a novel about a musician, but also that the novel could feel like music, like this long continuous song with pauses, breaks, refrains, verses, and choruses. I’m always trying to find a way, with my writing, to shorten this gap between the emotions I’m discussing and the expression of them. I think music really helps with that, in the ways in which you hear music and you can feel something immediately. I wanted to take my sentences past this thing of knowledge and more toward feeling.

You mention that Open Water continued a line of questioning you already started. Did you deliberately intend Small Worlds to work as an extended continuation?

When I finished Open Water, I was done. It was, like, I’ve said what I needed to say here. The reward I get is the process of writing. That is what’s really beautiful to me and that’s a real place of joy.

But the actual product, the package, the book you get to hold is a very different thing. It was a different experience for me, reading the work, especially with some distance, from writing it. Writing the work was a toll. It was heavy and it was really exhausting and it took me a while to get to a place where I didn’t feel constantly drained from it. But reading the work, each time I read it, I see something different, I see something new. And I know that is also true of each time a new reader gets to my work. It’s something different for each person and that’s a really humbling and beautiful experience.

But when I wrote Open Water, it was, like, that’s the line there, it’s done. But I think there’s a sense of growth that has happened between then and now in which I’ve come to understand that the work exists as a body of work, and Open Water and Small Worlds are part of what I hope to be a lifetime of writing as opposed to individual moments.

Small Worlds by Caleb Nelson Azumah. Narrative Landscape Press edition.

A technique of repeated phrases runs throughout Small Worlds, what you’ve described as “rhythm as a narrative device.” The novel is also full of song references and the description of music. But everything is contained in language. And still, Stephen speaks of the inadequacy of language, describing it as “something always lost between expression and emotion.” It is interesting, almost ironic, but also unsurprising, as someone who engages in other mediums of art, that you believe the same and embed rhythm and music in your work in an effort to transcend this inadequacy. Do you do this consciously, or is it something that happens organically, as a lover of music?

It’s a combination of the two because I think the rhythm, especially this time around, has emerged as my more natural voice. There is this sense of trying to tap into my own internal rhythms and trying to hear my own internal voice. It feels really real because the expression is coming from a very real place. This is my narrative voice at its clearest.

But I also understand there was a real intention in terms of having this sense of rhythm within the text, so I really allowed myself to lean into that. I didn’t feel like I was looking for perfect paragraphs or sentences. The understanding was to create something where the rhythm could add to the texture of the novel and it could mean, for a reader engaging with the work, it’s almost something you could touch: the rhythm, the feeling, the space that you’re operating with. That creation of that rhythm was something that was very intentional on my part.

I’m a writer first before any other interest. But when I think about the writing that I love and the ways I know I like to create narrative, the feelings and emotions are centered. The ways in which we express things, within the English language at least, doesn’t get close to the feeling. I’m always just trying to find ways of bending language so that it might work best for me.

Your protagonist, Stephen, often speaks of space, in terms of individuality, Blackness, intimacy, belonging. Your characters find solace in the small worlds they cultivate and inhabit for themselves. But you also show us what it looks like when those spaces are ripped away from them. What does space mean to you? Why is creating and preserving spaces such an urgent part of the book?

When I was thinking about space in this novel, I was thinking about the ways in which Black people can reach toward a sense of freedom in the community I occupy. Where I live in South London, there’s a really big West African and Caribbean contingent; there’s a lot of Ghanaians, a lot of Nigerians, a lot of Jamaicans, people that have come from one place or the other to make their homes.

So often within this space [when] they are trying to make their homes, there isn’t space, and I was thinking about the spaces that we carve out for ourselves in order to have these pockets of freedom: Aunty Yaa’s shop or going to a music concert, or even the act of Stephen gathering with people to make music. I think so much of this notion of spaces is really related to freedom, to liberation, and I think I’m always trying to write toward that when I’m thinking about Blackness and what it means for us to reach toward a sense of liberation for ourselves.

There is much sacrifice in the migrant experience. It is a loss Stephen’s parents carry while building their lives in London. Like Stephen, you are a second-generation Ghanaian immigrant. What was it like writing Eric’s chapter? Why was his perspective necessary? What research or experiences informed his life in Accra and in London?

I think, for me, that generation [of parents] have never had the opportunity to have their stories told, at least not within the community I occupy. And it’s not even just a matter of space. I think it’s also the fact that their stories are so heavy, they don’t always want to go toward it. So I wanted to make the space for someone of that generation to be able to speak the things they have felt and feel but can’t always articulate, or to try to anyway.

I took a trip back to Ghana last year and was trying to almost write into the space of history that I was walking in. I was trying to do a journey in reverse, go backwards and understand what it would mean to try and fit your life into a suitcase and go from a place you know is home to a place you don’t know is home and try to build something, and think about the things you want to take with you but also the things you have to leave behind. I spent a lot time in my family’s photo archives as well. They’ve got a really extensive collection, so I was looking at my dad’s brothers, and my mum’s as well, trying to see who those people were.

Looking at those images, I was, like, I know these people but I don’t know these people, because these were lives they were leading before I even met them. And so I was trying to fill in the gaps of those spaces, and having photographic material as research and texture was really useful.

The novel engages intergenerational trauma, vulnerability, and understanding between a father and his son. What do you think of the reconciliatory power of storytelling?

More and more, as I continue to write and just grow as a person, I’m beginning to understand how much I value closeness and intimacy and connection. And I think so much of storytelling, in whatever medium, in writing, music, visual work, can serve as points of connection and ways in which we can begin to open our closeness with each other.

I don’t necessarily think a story could bridge a gap between two people, and they would immediately go toward each other. But it’s an opening, it can crack something open and serve to begin that process. ♦

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Paula Willie-Okafor, Staff Writer at Open Country Mag

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