‘I yelled with joy’: how Caleb Azumah Nelson went from Apple store employee to Costa First Novel award winner

3 months ago 82

One day, during the archetypal Covid lockdown, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s begetter offered to chopped his hair. “He’s not large with his words, but that’s a precise circumstantial mode of saying: ‘Can I attraction for you?’” explains the 28-year-old writer and photographer, who spent the pandemic backmost successful his household location successful south-east London with his parents and his younger duplicate siblings. It’s conscionable specified moments that illuminate his debut novel, Open Water: tender, cautiously observed and reported, casting a gentle airy connected the limitations of masculinity.

A batch has happened since the publication was published: he’s toured Germany, Austria and Switzerland; won the American accolade of a listing among the National Book Foundation’s “5 nether 35” for breathtaking young writers; and this period helium scooped his archetypal large prize, the Costa archetypal caller award, which brings with it the accidental of being chosen arsenic the wide publication of the year, adjacent month. He was lasting successful the thoroughfare erstwhile the quality came through: “I yelled with joy. It perfectly hadn’t been connected my radar. I’ve been excessively engaged trying to constitute the adjacent one.”

novels Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson;

At the bosom of the caller is simply a emotion matter betwixt a young mates – helium a photographer, she a dancer – which repeatedly runs up against the man’s inability to process his choler astir the injustice and unit helium sees each astir him. “When I was writing, I wasn’t conscious that I was trying to recognize and benignant done this thought of masculinity,” helium says. “I was exploring 2 radical who were trying to beryllium arsenic honorable arsenic they could with each other. And I deliberation truthful often successful love, men aren’t needfully dishonest, but they don’t cognize however to explicit the full truth.”

Azumah Nelson wrote the publication successful 2019, aft a grim 2 years successful which helium had suffered a unreserved of household bereavements. “I was opening to consciousness precise hazy. Like I’d mislaid immoderate form, and immoderate detail, successful myself,” helium says. He would spell to the cinema, to creation galleries, walk hours listening to euphony – “just trying to beryllium arsenic contiguous arsenic I could be”.

And that, helium says, “is wherever the penning started from”. At archetypal it was “very lyrical essays that were a spot each implicit the place, to beryllium perfectly honest”. He was moving 4 days a week astatine the Apple store astatine Oxford Circus (hard connected the feet but precise useful for dialogue) and devoting the remainder of his clip to his photography and writing. “I was sending worldly astir to literate agents, because, contempt the information that I was rather young, I truly felt I had thing to say.”

He was reaching the bottommost of his database erstwhile 1 cause yet bit, suggesting that fabrication mightiness beryllium wherever his talents lay. Within a period helium had submitted an aboriginal draft, which she batted back. So helium scrapped it, discontinue his job, and by September had produced a novel.

In the strength of the narration it depicts, Open Water has been compared with Sally Rooney’s Normal People erstwhile successful information it is thing similar it. For a ample portion of the novel, the unnamed characters aren’t adjacent lovers; they stock a furniture arsenic friends, exhausted aft nights retired connected the town, getting to cognize each other. “I person thing against Sally, due to the fact that I enjoyed her books and loved the adaptation arsenic well. But I deliberation I favoured sensuality implicit sexuality,” helium agrees. Besides a emotion story, Open Water packs into its 160 pages a passionate speech with the artworks that person described and shaped young Black radical similar Azumah Nelson: the penning of James Baldwin and Zadie Smith, the paintings of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and the euphony of the southbound London streets connected which its writer grew up.

The lad of Ghanaian parents, some of whom arrived successful the UK arsenic children, Azumah Nelson was a bookworm who, by 11, was petitioning his Catholic superior schoolhouse to instal a room due to the fact that helium was getting done novels faster than his midwife parent could bargain them for him. Like some characters successful the novel, helium went to a backstage secondary schoolhouse – successful his case, winning a assistance earlier becoming a prima hockey subordinate and reaching the under-16s nationalist hoops squad.

This comparative privilege didn’t springiness him immunity from being stopped and searched by the police. “It happens truly often: adjacent arsenic I was penning the book,” helium says. Nor did it support him from much insidious forms of organization racism. The backstory of the caller is afloat of uncomfortable details from his narrator’s schooldays, specified arsenic being confused with different pupils who besides happened to beryllium Black. Was this his ain experience? Yes, helium says. There were 4 Black pupils successful his year. He had large PE and English teachers, “but we were ever made to consciousness grateful”.

Running done Open Water is an exploration of wherever the state to afloat and safely beryllium oneself is to beryllium recovered successful a nine riven with dangers for young Black men: it mightiness beryllium successful a barbershop, a nine oregon a loving relationship. “You would larn that emotion made you interest but it besides made you beautiful,” reflects the narrator. “Love made you Black, arsenic in, you were astir coloured erstwhile successful her presence.” His usage of the 2nd idiosyncratic is not a stylistic affectation but an outward look of his narrator’s conflict to ain his ain feelings.

Both his caller and abbreviated story, Pray, which archetypal brought him to nationalist attraction with a shortlisting for the 2020 BBC abbreviated communicative prize, are shaped by acts of unit wrong the Black community. “I haven’t been straight connected to radical who person passed, oregon person inflicted that violence, but you ever cognize idiosyncratic who has,” helium says. “It’s ne'er acold distant from you, and it’s thing that has had a important effect connected me. There’s a batch of corporate grief successful these communities I’m portion of.”

Such acts, helium says, “are moments successful which we neglect each other, and I don’t deliberation that’s happened connected its own. It’s straight influenced by authorities violence, whether that beryllium the authorities making it harder for marginalised communities, oregon constabulary stop-and-searching idiosyncratic yet again, and that idiosyncratic not knowing wherever to enactment the choler and reaching for the idiosyncratic closest to them.”

Fiction, similar euphony and art, tin assistance to springiness a manageable signifier and absorption to those feelings, helium believes – and responses to Open Water carnivore this out. “I’ve had rather a fewer messages from guys who person said I understood what it meant to not beryllium capable to explicit something.” Women, meanwhile, study being drawn successful by his antithetic depiction of love. “It’s specified a astonishment to spot what resonates with people. It depends connected wherever they are. So portion chiefly I was penning for Black radical and for myself, it’s been a existent joyousness and a pleasance to spot truthful galore antithetic radical link with the work.”