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Interview: Inspired by Hip-Hop, ‘Open Water’ Introduces a Stunning New Voice on Vulnerability

'It feels like there's music that runs through all of us...'
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  • Open Water
  • 'It feels like there's music that runs through all of us...'

Publisher's Summary

A stunning, shattering debut novel about two Black artists falling in and out of love.

Two young people meet at a pub in South East London. Both are Black British, both won scholarships to private schools where they struggled to belong, both are now artists - he a photographer, she a dancer - trying to make their mark in a city that by turns celebrates and rejects them. Tentatively, tenderly, they fall in love. But two people who seem destined to be together can still be torn apart by fear and violence. 

At once an achingly beautiful love story and a potent insight into race and masculinity, Open Water asks what it means to be a person in a world that sees you only as a Black body, to be vulnerable when you are respected only for strength, to find safety in love, only to lose it. With gorgeous, soulful intensity, Caleb Azumah Nelson has written the most essential debut of recent years.

©2021 Caleb Azumah Nelson. Recorded by arrangement with Black Cat, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. (P)2021 Audible, Inc.

Editor's Pick

To love amid trauma
I listened to Open Water over the past few days, with the twin tragedies of the Derek Chauvin trial and the killing of Daunte Wright serving as the contemporaneous backdrop, the world whispering into my ear—in between listening sessions—the undeniable truth at the heart of Caleb Azumah Nelson's beautiful debut. Nelson delivers a lot in a fairly short listen: a love story, a prayer, a travelogue of a particular buzzy London scene, several (admittedly nerdy) art think-pieces, but above all the fear, trauma, and lack of owned identity that comes with being a young Black man today.
Narrating himself (an impressive feat that most writers struggle to pull off with this kind of success), Nelson's warm delivery and London accent lend authenticity and an enhanced sense of setting, but more than that, it allows this incredibly personal story to approach the listener as a sort of confidence. I felt invited into his protagonist's personal experience, which, while not my own, is one that I am working to fully sit with and better understand.
In contrast, there is a part of this story that feels incredibly familiar and hit me with a punch of nostalgia: the early love that can blossom from the kind of intense friendship that seems to only emerge between two people just embarking on adulthood. But the open water this kind of love should afford is denied to his characters as well. Nelson seems to be explaining the unexplainable by pointing to the most universal thing and saying ''why must you take this too?'' —Emily C., Audible Editor

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Couldn’t listen to the voice

The inexpressive monotone of the reader made this book unlistenable. Tried several times. Didn’t get past chapter two.

2 people found this helpful

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Second person POV releases poignant perspective

Let me begin by saying I plan to reread this book, whether or not my white Wake Up book club chooses to accept my recommendation to discuss it over the next six weeks or to move in another direction. It is that valuable a revelation.

I was caught up with where Mr. Nelson might take me as reader, first round. I just finished a study on the Central Park Five. Would this describe a similar outcome, ie, the injustice of British or Dublin police? The horrific loss of another young and talented black man?

Without offering spoilers, I will share that what I read here was gut-wrenching due to its normalization of the world inhabited by a black, London photographer. His day to day expectation of confrontation and violence. This was disconcerting. I appreciated finally recognizing it.

I am reading next for poetics and articulate viscerality. I know the plot and how it ends. I remember emotional moments. I want to understand better what it feels like to be a black male in a world where systemic racism exists but so does love.

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes were Watching God impacted me in similar fashion. I have read it four times and will turn to it again, soon. In these stories, racism is part of existence but not all. These novels do not cater to white systems, they celebrate the human condition as experienced by courageous, inspiring people who are not white.

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A Stunning Piece of Work

I admit I haven't read a lot of love stories, but this is by far the best love story I've read in years. It's a beautiful, poetic, and meditative depiction of love, intimacy and vulnerability in black life. It's a quiet novel, but deeply engrossing. I've avoided any plot summaries because I don't want to give away spoilers, but it's a book to be admired for its writing and characterization. Caleb Azumah Nelson is definitely a writer to watch. Read it. Or listen to it. It's well worth your time.

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Black Love

Really good story about Black love ands somewhat unconventional way of Blackness. Voice is very monotone and calming.