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Nyah Hardmon

Book Review: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

This lyrical debut speaks to the universality — and complexity — of love in its many forms.

By Nyah Hardmon

This book review was first published April 16, 2021 in Washington Independent Review of Books here

A refreshingly poetic ode to Black love, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel, Open Water, follows the relationship of two young British artists who meet by happenstance, or perhaps fate, and traces their intricate journey as they navigate what it means to find the right person at the wrong time.

Nelson’s bold writing style — which includes leaving his main characters unnamed and using intimate, second-person narration — allows the reader to step directly into the story, embracing the familiarity of love rather than hiding from it. Although the plot is composed of a series of specific events, from not catching someone’s name at a party to taking late-night strolls to Shake Shack, the tale is universal. A love story is a love story, and Nelson deliberately plays into this strange phenomenon we call human connection:

“Last time we met, you said you were a photographer,” she says.

“No, someone told you I was a photographer, and I squirmed at the idea,” you say.

“Why?”

“You did the same when your dancing was brought up?”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I dunno,” you say. “But yeah. I take photographs.” On the other side of the window, Piccadilly bustles. A man swells his bagpipes, the sound drifting up towards you. Friday evening and the city is bordering on frenzy, unsure of what to do with itself.

From its opening lines, the novel’s casual construction is apparent. It reads like a story being told by an old friend, so much so that by its closing paragraphs, you can’t help but feel emotionally drained, as if you’ve experienced love and loss alongside the characters.

Still, this book isn’t perfect. But neither is love. Neither is life. While its lyrical nature is one of its most appealing aspects, the narrative sometimes becomes too reliant on obscurity at the expense of clarity and brevity. In moments as tender as the physical joining of two bodies, the intimacy should speak for itself; flowery metaphors only cloud the beauty. Yet even with the author’s word choice booming like a yell when I, at least at times, would’ve appreciated a whisper, I understand. Love is exciting. It makes me want to yell, too.

And then there’s the music, which courses through the novel from page one. The author does this not simply by including song lyrics — that would be too obvious — but by connecting the beauty of love with the beauty of music, an artform as universal as love itself. The seamless but consistent integration of music is so foundational here that it’s necessary to mention the soundtrack.  

Nelson’s musical choices ring authentic. He doesn’t rely on the same overused love songs. In fact, he barely relies on songs explicitly about love at all. Instead, he lets the music speak for itself, such as by opening the novel with a quote from Earl Sweatshirt and, later, having his protagonists sing their hearts out to Isaiah Rashad. (Even those not hip to the underground hip-hop scene will be able to follow the author’s references — an impressive feat.)

Open Water isn’t merely the story of two young Londoners. It’s everyone’s story. Yes, physical attraction plays a part, but it’s about so much more than that. “You came here to speak of what it means to love your best friend. Ask: if flexing is being able to say the most in the fewest number of words, is there a greater flex than love? Nowhere to hide, nowhere to go. A direct gaze.”

This may not look like the love stories of my grandmother’s time, but it’s just as relatable. It’s about familial love. Friendly love. The kind of love that feels good and the kind that hurts. Caleb Azumah Nelson has taken many risks in this promising first project, and most of them pay off.

An Interview with Leeya Mehta

The poet/columnist talks community, multiculturalism, and feeling terribly possessive of her desk.

By Nyah Hardmon

This article was first published March 16, 2021 in Washington Independent Review of Books here

Award-winning poet, novelist, and essayist Leeya Mehta writes because she’d “die otherwise.” In her work, Mehta — who is also a columnist for the Independent — confronts her heritage head-on, showcasing a distinct pride in where she comes from and how that upbringing affects where she is going. She does so most recently in her new poetry collection, A Story of the World Before the Fence.

In A Story of the World Before the Fence, you journey from Persia to India all the way to DC. Do you find that your work is influenced by international cultures?

Yes. I come from this community of [Zoroastrian] Persian immigrants. Most Parsis came to India over a thousand years [ago], but my father’s side is third-generation Iranian. Living in India, you’re at the crossroads of so many civilizations; you’ve had multiple colonial masters, and they’re integrated into our culture. So growing up there and coming to America in my twenties, having gone to England for my education and living in Japan and then spending the better part of the 2000s in Washington, which is a big international city, there is no one home, but then at the same time, we have to create the sense of home.

In this collection, you discuss that sense of unbelonging, but then you use relatability to make audiences feel like they do belong right here in the text. Talk to me about that paradox.

For many, there’s this sense of “Where is home?” I remember growing up with a family that I was very close to, and the man was the first chief of police for India after Independence. He was posted everywhere around India, and my grandfather, who was his friend, was posted everywhere. They were all “company men,” or people who were always moving, and there was a sense of “Where is home?” Home is where you were born, to some degree, but at the end of the day, human beings have always migrated. I’ve come to embrace the reality this family shared, that “Home is where I am.” A lot of my poetry is rejecting that idea of belonging that’s nihilistic [in favor of] a belonging that’s more inspirational. The idea of sanctuary, of potential.

Because your writing takes readers on transcontinental journeys, do you find any trouble in embracing your own culture without being boxed into the “international” genre?

I haven’t so far. Having multiple identities is so useful since I come from such a small community. I’m culturally from a community of 80,000 people, and so it’s like a little tribe. There’s so much specific humor and culture that I think people are drawn to. I don’t find it very limiting given I write fiction, short stories, poetry, and I do a column [for the Independent] called “The Company We Keep.” I have this really great opportunity to explore a variety of places and people. It’s really very liberating.

You dive heavily into ancestral trauma and how it travels to future generations.

My poetry tends to refer back to historical events a great deal, but my fiction is where I really carry the intergenerational trauma. My novel Extinction is about four generations of women from India who pass this intergenerational trauma to each other. The idea of Extinction is how do we stop it, how do we end it, how do we get past it, and that’s what the title signifies.

I notice you play with different styles, jumping from this somber, serious tone to lighthearted humor. Do you mix elements of different genres into your work?

Thank you for saying that. I love it when someone says they notice some lightheartedness or humor. I was actually deliberating how to be both somber and humorous at the same time. My genres tend to be quite separate from each other. The fiction is very different from the poetry. The only time that they do tend to overlap is when I write certain poems where the prose and the poetry work really well.

Talk to me more about your creative process.

I have a playlist for each book, and sometimes I’ll listen to one when I’m doing another. I don’t have a space of my own, really, except my desk. So I’m terribly possessive of my desk. Ideally, I work six hours a day. I have specific music. I tend to only read for my book, and I read for my column. It’s very difficult for me to add in other reading because to stay pure to the voice of the novel — in different directions, especially when you’re writing a novel over 10 years — it’s difficult to step out of it and go off.

Has your writing been affected by the pandemic?

Definitely. Very much affected. The nice thing is that I’m enjoying doing more podcast-style interviews on Zoom of other writers. Especially before the 2020 election, there was this sense that we had a community depression from the last four years, and then [again] with covid, and I suffered from all of that just as much as everyone else. It deeply impacted my ability to write. At the same time, I have been writing 80,000 words of a new novel, so I’m sure that I’m actually writing but I don’t feel like I’m writing. There’s this sense of disconnect with the outside world, but I am very grateful to have writing as my profession right now. I feel like it’s a big blessing.

Besides Extinction, do you have any other projects on the horizon?

I’m focusing all my attention on Extinction because I’m trying to get it ready to send out to publishers this year. And then the next novel is a romance novel that’s set [against] the backdrop of a very big riot. So those are the big projects, but I have so many projects. The next three years are going to be very exciting.