Ways of writing – In search of unconditional love, with the Anglo-Ghanaian Caleb Azumah Nelson

Caleb Azumah Nelson is an Anglo-Ghanaian writer born in 1993. In his first novel Open Water translated into French this fall, it tells a love story like no other with rare sensitivity. Implicitly, the novel tackles questions about African art, music and what it means to be black in contemporary British society.

“She goes from London to Holyhead and then she takes the ferry to Dublin. On the platform, she kisses you, one foot on the step, the other on the ground. A whistle sounds (…° You hold back your tears until the train has left, until you have left the platform in a hurry. (…) It is a pain you have never known and you can’t name. It’s terrifying. And yet you knew what you were getting yourself into. You know that to love is both to swim and to drown. You know that to love is to at the same time to be whole, partial, a tie, a fracture, a heart, a bone. It is to bleed and to heal. It is to be part of this world, honest… »

The excerpt above is taken fromopen-water, an intense, poetic and captivating first novel, from the pen of a 28-year-old Anglo-Ghanaian. Born to Ghanaian parents who settled in England in the 1970s, Caleb Azumah Nelson grew up in south-east London where most of the action in her novel takes place.

According to family legend, Caleb was a voracious reader from childhood. At the age of 11, he stormed the principal’s office at his primary school demanding the creation of a library worthy of the name so that he could read to satiety without having to steal money from his sparsely stocked wallet. his nursing mother to buy books. We do not know if the headmaster had responded favorably to the student’s request, but his passion for reading led young Nelson on the path to writing very early on.

The young man made a name for himself by publishing essays in British literary journals, before taking up the challenge of writing his first novel on the universal theme of love. “It was during the summer of 2019 that I wrote this novel, tells the author. I quit my job so I could devote myself entirely to writing. I had the impression of being animated by a sacred fire, which pushed me to go forward. Every morning, when I woke up, I hurried to get to the British Library, located at the other end of the city. I was in front of the doors of the library when it opened, at 9 a.m., only to leave again when it closed, in the evening, at 6 p.m. It was my daily routine, during the two summer months, July and August. At the beginning of September, the novel was ready”.

open-water, published this fall in French translation, speaks of unconditional love, of rupture, but also of the black condition. It recounts the fate of a heartbreaking passion that does not resist the bad weather of the world.

It all starts at a reasonably drunken birthday party somewhere in contemporary multicultural London. A young black man asks the host of the evening to introduce him to the young girl seated at the end of the table. He is attracted by her shyness, ” something resembling kindness in his open features “. Recalling the circumstances of this first meeting, the narrator recounts: In fact, you were so overwhelmed by the presence of this woman that you first tried to shake her hand, before opening your arms to give her a hug, which caused an awkward flapping of your arms. »

Elegant, precise, evocative: such is the prose of Azumah Nelson in this short volume of some 200 pages. The story is told in the second person, creating both distance and intimacy. Never named, the protagonists are both black. The narrator is a photographer, the woman he is courting is a dancer, and shares her life between London and Dublin where she studies.

The novel traces the story of their romance, the love that deepens over the months, while remaining both romantic and platonic. Haunted by desire, the protagonists of Nelson will not however be lovers, for fear that the fusion of bodies will complicate that of hearts and souls. They draw a new cartography of the tender, both original and of a rare sensitivity.

“Love is indeed the theme of this novel, support the novelist. Much of the plot here revolves around the question of how we love and how we express love. It is also a question of the place of desire in romantic love and in platonic love. Finally, the enunciation in the second person of the singular just like the sentences which return like refrains, or the unfolding of the action during the summer months which sharpen our emotions, these narrative choices were not innocent. They served me to better explore the feeling of love in all its range of offers. »

Even if desire is not excluded from these pages, we are here more in sensuality than in sexuality, a sensuality that feeds on literary and artistic interests shared by the protagonists. During interviews granted on the occasion of the publication of his novel in England, the author had explained that the genesis of this book was linked to the successive disappearances of his three grandparents. To combat the melancholy born of mourning and the feeling of loss of meaning, the young man then spent a lot of time in African art galleries, in museums, or simply locked up at home listening to music for whole days. . He extracted himself from this period of gloom by writing lyrical texts on his artistic discoveries and on his work as a professional photographer.

Open Water is inspired by these texts, and brilliantly mixes meditation and fiction. The love story is coupled with a conversation on contemporary African art, which gives visibility to the African presence. But it is above all through the musical references that punctuate the story of the headlong quest for love of its protagonists, that Azumah Nelson manages to make up for the inability of language to make the music of emotions heard. ” Music plays a major role in this novel. confirm the author. While writing, I was often confronted with the limits of language to express love and feelings. Music and rhythm, used as narrative devices, allowed me to circumvent this difficulty and compensate for the inability of our languages ​​to capture emotions in all their complexities. »

The unconditional love that tells Open Water by Azumah Nelson also has its moments of doubt and suffering. They are linked in these pages to the daily experience of racism and discrimination which leads the narrator to question the question of being black in post-colonial British society. Reader of James Baldwin and other progressives whose remarks allowed him to glimpse a world where he would be free to love and be loved, he refuses to sink into his ill-being. A losing battle?

Open Water, by Caleb Azumah Nelson. Translated from English by Carine Chichereau. Editions Denoel and elsewhere. 208 pages, 19 euros.

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Ways of writing – In search of unconditional love, with the Anglo-Ghanaian Caleb Azumah Nelson


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