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Caleb Azumah Nelson Books In Order

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Publication Order of Standalone Novels

Open Water (2021)Hardcover  Paperback  Kindle

Caleb Azumah Nelson
Caleb Azumah Nelson is a British-Ghanaian photographer and writer. His work has been published in Litro.

Caleb has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Prize 2020 and the Palm Photo Prize. He has won the People’s Choice Prize.

His own upbringing helps explain his multigenre approach to storytelling, as he grew up with either a camera, a book, or a violin in his hand, having been raised by parents that emigrated from Accra, Ghana to England while they were teens. He and his younger siblings have lived their whole lives in South East London, where “Open Water” is set.

Caleb played violin for ten years while he was growing up, and has been interested in music from an incredibly young age. He grew up in a Black Pentecostal church, and gospel music was always a staple in their house. And his dad is enthusiastic about music, with a huge record collection that Caleb’s been slowly stealing from.

Every Friday when he was a child, he would go with his mom, who is a midwife, to the local cinema. Here they would watch the same movie again and again until the theater switched it out for something else. They didn’t care about the movie, they just liked being in a dark room among strangers, sitting and absorbing something.

When he was eleven, his family went to Accra for his grandma’s 80th birthday, and his dad brought along a camcorder. Looking at the jerky footage today, he admits that the camera wound up in his hands for the majority of the trip. Caleb’s had a want from quite a young age to document. Especially Black people. He’s especially grateful for these trips to Ghana, because he was able to see what it could mean to be in such a place where he’s the majority.

But in London, his education took him far away from this sort of place, from his close-knit and predominantly Black primary school to the elite Alleyn’s School in the affluent neighborhood of Dulwich. This was his very first exposure to wealth and to the “supreme confidence” that it can confer.

He attended on a full scholarship, one of just four Black people in a class of around 120. Often he felt out of place, except while on the basketball court. Since deciding he wanted to be an artist and writer at the age of sixteen, there was a real reckoning with himself and who he was in his identity, and how he saw himself, as well as how others saw him.

“Open Water” began life as an essay collection which many literary agents rejected before Seren Adams at United Agents read and offered to represent him. She liked the tone and voice, but suggested he weave these elements into a narrative which focused on the couple. Not only did he go back to the drawing board, he did what every single crazy person does. He quit his job.

So instead of writing just between sales shifts at the Apple Store, he could now spend eight hours a day at the British Library, facing a blank page after the other without ever mapping out where he was heading beforehand. He looked so distraught during the entire process that every other day the same librarian would come and check on him. He would just be sitting there writing scenes with the cops, or discrimination in some form, just leaving everything that he had down on the page.

There was a lot that he was thinking about when he began writing “Open Water”. Part of beginning work on this novel was an attempt to corral all of these various versions of himself and express them in a rather honest way. The beginning point was less a specific color or sound, but a feeling, an idea, which was actually love. It was the feeling of freedom and warmth which he associates with love in its various forms.

Caleb originally had written short, lyric essays about film, photography, music, and Blackness and freedom. They were a testing ground, quite a few of them were written in second person, the form he’d later use in the novel. First he wanted to explore the feelings he was interested in, and then write the fictional events outwards from there.

“Open Water” is the first stand alone novel and was released in the year 2021. An exploration of vulnerability and intimacy between two young artists learning to be soft with one another in a world which hardens against Black people.

Two young people meet while in a crowded London pub. Both are Black British, both of whom won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong and are now artists. She is a dancer, and he’s a photographer, and both are attempting to make their mark in a world that by turns celebrates and rejects them.

Tenderly and tentatively, they each fall in love. However two people that seem destined to be with each other can still get torn apart by violence and fear, and over the course of one year they find their relationship still being tested by forces that are beyond their own control.

This novel, narrated with deep intimacy, is a potent insight into masculinity and race and a beautiful love story which asks what it means to be a person in a world that views you only as a Black body. To find safety in love, just to lose it, and to be vulnerable when you’re only respected for strength. With blistering emotional intelligence, gorgeous soulful intensity, Caleb gives a profoundly sensitive portrait of romantic love in all of its comforting beauty and feverish waves.

This is a very heartfelt and touching novel, passionately written, that brings London to life in an emotive and painterly way. Readers love its musical richness and espousal of the power of the arts: movement, pictures, and sounds. This is a beautifully and delicately written novel about love, for self as well as others, about being seen, about mental health and vulnerability. With each and every sentence, it oozes grace and longing in equal measure.

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