Birmingham Lit Fest Presents….

The Birmingham Literature Festival Podcast - Welcome to the very first Birmingham Literature Festival podcast, bringing writers and readers together to discuss some of 2020’s best books. Each Thursday we’ll be releasing new episodes of the podcast, including wonderful discussions about writing, poetry, big ideas and social issues. Join us each week for exciting and inspiring conversations with new, and familiar, writers from the Midlands and beyond.

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episode 19: Season 2: Caleb Azumah Nelson in conversation with Casey Bailey


In June 2021, we hosted an online live event with author Caleb Azumah Nelson about his debut novel Open Water. In conversation with Birmingham Poet Laureate Casey Bailey, they talk about Caleb’s beautiful love story about two young artists who met at a pub and the novel’s broader discussion of race, art, masculinity and vulnerability.

You can download our podcast episodes from all the places you would normally get your podcasts every Thursday and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. All of our festival events can be found on our website www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org. 


For more information on Writing West Midlands, visit https://writingwestmidlands.org/

Follow the festival on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @BhamLitFest

Credits

Curator: Shantel Edwards (Festival director)
Production: 11C/ Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands

TRANSCRIPT

BLF Series 2, Episode 9: Caleb Azumah Nelson


Intro


Welcome to the second series of the Birmingham Lit Fest Presents…podcast. We are really excited to be back for a second season and to continue to connect readers and writers in the Midlands, and far beyond. 


You can download our podcast episodes from all the places you would normally get your podcasts every Thursday and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. All of our festival events can be found on our website www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org. 


In June 2021, we hosted an online live event with author Caleb Azumah Nelson about his debut novel Open Water. In conversation with Birmingham Poet Laureate Casey Bailey, they talk about Caleb’s beautiful love story about two young artists who met at a pub and the novel’s broader discussion of race, art, masculinity and vulnerability. 


Casey Bailey

Hi, guys, I hope you're all good and blessed. I'm really excited about this conversation that we're about to have and I hope you all are too. I am Casey Bailey, Birmingham Poet Laureate and a writer from Birmingham and far more importantly than that, I will be talking to Caleb Azumah Nelson. Caleb is a 27-year-old British Ghanaian writer and photographer who is living in Southeast London. His photography has been shortlisted for the Palm* Poetry Prize and won the People's Choice Award and his short story Pray was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2020. Open Water, which we'll be discussing today, is his debut novel. Caleb, how are you?


Caleb Azumah Nelson

Good. I'm good. How are you?


Casey Bailey

I'm blessed. I can't complain. This a real privilege to be having this conversation really. The first thing I wanted to talk about and really get into is around the reception of the book. I first became aware of the book, I was on a podcast with Yomi Sode and Que from Dope Readers who I'm guessing you're aware of, and Que has done a feature on the Dope Readers Instagram page, where he had taken the book Open Water out into water, and took this like amazing photograph. And at the time, it was the first I'd heard of the book. And I thought, what a big response, like what an outlandish response to this book. And actually, it was just kind of like the seed of all of the responses to this book, because it has really taken the literary world by storm, and people are talking about it and can't stop talking about it. And the first thing I really want to ask is, how has that been for you as the author? Firstly, congratulations on writing the book, then congratulations on the book being published. And then this response, how's that feeling for you? 


Caleb Azumah Nelson

It’s really something, especially in the current climate of the world, to have this sort of response and to really have the energy that I spent a good amount of time putting into work reciprocated, you know. You can really feel it when someone feels the emotions and the feelings that I put into the book like you when someone really feels the texture and when they reply, that was something that I felt, without even being prompted. Yeah, I'm grateful for it, I think gratitude is the thing, I'm overwhelmed even.


Casey Bailey

Were you taken aback by how broad that response was? It’s definitely deserved but I'm sure you know, that sometimes you feel like something is going to get that response and it doesn't quite, you know, how does it feel getting that kind of, wow, yeah, this has been heard the way that I heard it when I came up with it.


Caleb Azumah Nelson

Yeah, it's amazing. I can really see the moment when I first started putting pen to page and I'm like, in a similar process in my next work and having this going on at the same time is such a wonderful reminder of where the work starts. And it is the page, us being present and really like bringing ourselves to the page and being vulnerable and being disciplined. There was a moment when I was writing Open Water where I quit my job and that was the only thing I was doing. Like I really like gambled and really was like, I need you to trust yourself in this moment because what you need to say right now needs to be expressed. I don't know, it's not that I expected that there would be this sort of reception, but for me, the writing of the thing was the prize. I was reading this book last week and there was a sentence of it that I don't think I'll ever forget. And the guy said ‘love is both the practice and the prize’. And I think this was a real act of love. Like everything I write feels like an act of love and like the prize is the practice. 


Casey Bailey

I’m kind of like obsessed with process and how we process things, how we process our emotions. So many heavy themes are dealt with in the book, and you could have dealt with them through photography, I'm sure you probably have, you could have dealt with them through poetry, through theatre. Why do you feel like this particular thing came out as a novel, had you always had this idea of writing a novel or did something make that happen?


Caleb Azumah Nelson

You know, through the different art forms that I straddle, I always think of myself as a writer, despite the fact that language can be so limiting. And we often, I know you know this, but often find ourselves like trying to like bend language to our will, it’s something that I think I'll forever just be trying to get closer to the true expression of how I'm actually feeling. I think when I started writing Open Water, I had just connected with my literary agent and she had come to help with nonfiction actually, I was writing a lot of nonfiction about photography and music and about love. And I was just consistently writing, and she was the one who was like, I think you have the voice for a novel, I think that you could write a novel and it was something that I'd always wanted to do. And I think it was that moment where it's like, okay, I can do this. It was also that moment where I asked myself - I want to write a novel, but what could the novel be like? What could it contain? I know that some of my favourite work is very subversive, or that it kind of straddles different lines, like it could be a novel, it could be verse, it could be free writing, it could be prose. So that was a question I was asking myself, what do you want this to be? Because right now, it could be anything, the possibilities are infinite, which is really scary. But I was terrified. But I think that affording myself that sense of freedom of saying this could be anything, so lean into it. But no matter what happens, like the most important thing for you to do is to try and express something honestly. For me, as long as I was doing that, I've done the work that I needed to do. And so yeah, Open Water was written really quickly. It was written over the course of the summer of 2019. So, between May and September and it came out in like one short, sharp burst. And it was because I had all this room to play with, it didn't feel like work. I was like, okay, I can do this. I'm doing this.


Casey Bailey

Wow, that's amazing. So, you know, you quoted a book, and I want to quote your book, because I think there's something really interesting, I think this was maybe a point in the book. So I read the book originally when I saw Que’s post, I had to order the book. And then I read it again, in preparation for this, and this kind of, quote, stood out to me, ‘you can't live in a vacuum. And when you let people in, you make yourself vulnerable, they're able to have an effect on you, if that makes sense’. And that quote is the photographer talking about his art, and what it means when you kind of have this label as an artist, like you're a photographer now, that you are a novelist now. And was there an aspect in that writing that was autobiographical around what you were actually doing at the time?


Caleb Azumah Nelson

I think there's definitely, there's so much, it feels so personal, the work. The events aren't autobiographical, but so many of the feelings that I was trying to explore and express were like, okay, like, this is something that I really know. And that's actually, that was my process. It was like, okay, what's the feeling that we're trying to express? Like, maybe it was a conversation that happened, or maybe it was like, something specific that happened that made you feel a certain way, and then I would work backwards from there. So I would kind of construct fictional events around those feelings. And it meant that not only was I really like inserting myself in between the lines of the work, but I was having to ask myself continually to be as vulnerable as possible, because it was me, like it is me. And it is also like a future version of myself, like I was really writing into possibilities, like what could happen here? I know, I felt this, but what could I feel?


Casey Bailey

And I think there's an element there of - I know, this is true for me and I wonder if it's true for you, and I feel like it's touched on in the book - for many of us who kind of consider ourselves artists or have this idea of art been thrust upon us, the first time we actually allow ourselves to be vulnerable is through that art form. So, you know, I was vulnerable with a pen and paper far before I would tell somebody the things I was writing in poetry. And maybe sometimes people would hear a poem or read a poem and look at me differently, because I couldn't say this to you but if you were to read the poem that I just wrote over there, you would see something in me that you can't really see. And I feel like I'm sure you probably did a lot of that within this book. What was that like? And how has that affected any kind of interactions or relationships you have with people? Do you feel like people see you differently based on the vulnerability that you displayed here?


Caleb Azumah Nelson

I think there's an expectation of that level of vulnerability all the time. And it's not even possible to be that raw and just like walking around. I think for me, I'm one of my best selves when I'm at my desk, when I have a pen in my hand, because even if I don't get to it straight away, I know I'm going to get to a point that I'm trying to make or something that I'm trying to express. But in the moment when you're in a conversation with someone, you don't get that opportunity, if someone asks you a question, they're not going to wait, like, a few days to come back or something, I asked you something, I need this now. In a way, it's encouraged me to slow down, and to actually ask when I'm asked something, when my own vulnerability is necessary in my day to day, to really take the time to try and reach that place. Like to actually say, if something is asked of me, I will get to you, but I don't have that right now. And yeah, by understanding that I have that choice, and I have the power to be like, okay, well, you know, I know I can get there, but like, I just need a little bit. That's been really transformative for me and very freeing. But I will say that, because the work is so personal people kind of expect a little bit more. And it's, it's strange to also be in that sort of realm when you're doing press and publicity, quite continuously, and so you're having to be vulnerable in those spaces because you want to be honest, I like to think that I'm being generous when I'm doing these things, when I'm doing interviews. Yeah, it's just, it's something to get used to, I think, and I think it is only beneficial.


Casey Bailey

So much of the language is so poetic. This is something that drives me wild with jealousy and rage because every now and then I read - I came into reading novels and then I started kind of reading poetry and writing poetry - and every now and then I read a novel or a longer piece of work, and there are just touches of stunning poetry that just feel like it could have been snatched from, you know, 14 lines of beautiful poetry. And they're in the middle of this wave of text. And also like the techniques that you use; so there's a quote, where in part of the story says ‘you were careful not to breach the border, except you both knew something had opened.’ And then slightly later, when the female character’s boyfriend has arrived, you use the exact same language, but you say, ‘you were careful not to breach the border, except you all knew that something had been opened’. And there's that repetition that we often wouldn't see in kind of what we might see as like traditional novels, where you know, you've told that part of the story and you're moving on. There's this really beautiful, like poetry that looks back to what's been set. And how much of that were you really conscious of in your writing, and how much of that was just you, just flowing?


Caleb Azumah Nelson

It was a very conscious thing to have that technique running through the work. But once that's there, you can't really control it, you have to surrender to yourself, and understand what needs to emerge and what needs to be repeated and what needs to be revisited. For me, it wasn't so much repetition, but it was revisiting. I'm so intrigued in this idea of - you know, I know, we're both big music heads - and I'm so intrigued by the idea of the loop and how jazz, hip hop, like any real form of black music, you could be just hearing like a loop of an instrument, constantly for three or four minutes. But each time that you have that repetition, it's like you're revisiting something. But even though it's the same, that something has changed, and more often than not, it's you that has changed, because you're not the same from moment to moment. And so, I was okay, well, you know, if I'm revisiting this sentence, five sentences later, you as the reader have changed, and I as the writer have changed between that point there and the narrative has changed as well. So that sentence takes on a completely different meaning. Yeah, and I think, so much of our daily rhythms are repetition, or revisiting, and so for me, it was just like, how can I use this as a technique to move along the narrative, because there's not an enormous amount of plot. There's like a whole lot of feeling, but there's not an enormous amount of plot and so I was just like, okay, what will keep this rhythm going? What will keep this narrative moving? It was something I was sort of testing out beforehand. And since as well, I see how the technique, at least for me, touch wood has become a bit more refined and has grown and developed. But yeah, it's just something I think I'll always be interested in.


Casey Bailey

It's written in second person, which has this kind of real urgency to it. It's written often in really quite short chapters. Were they conscious choices, or, I mean, I'm assuming they are, but what was the driver for them?


Caleb Azumah Nelson

So, the second person voice felt like the only way that this specifically was going to work because of the level of intimacy required. I think it would have been possible in the first person or third person, but the second person really allowed me to push the reader as close to the narrative as possible. You know, like, if you're reading in second person, and you read out a question in the text, you are then in that moment, both a reader and a protagonist, like you're asking yourself that question. And so yeah, you're as close as you could possibly get. And I think having those chapters short, one of the things actually, I told my agent when I first signed with her is hi, I would love to write a book that reads like an album of music, that reads like a hip hop album. And like, I wanted to have these like, what felt like - I'm a big fan Earl Sweatshirt, and some of his songs are tiny, like, 1 minute 30, 2 minutes long. I was really conscious of employing brevity and wondering how I could get to the point in the quickest way, but also in the most effective way. There's a quote right at the beginning, I’ll see if I can find it, which is a paraphrase of his work. His words are ‘if flexing is being able to say the most in the fewest number of words, is there a greater flex than love’. There was an interview where he was talking about, like, really stepping into his technique as a writer and understanding that it wasn't always necessary to have the 9-minute cut to get a point across. And he was like, sometimes it is, but most of the time, it doesn't take me long for me to say this is how I feel. And I think that was to me the pulse, both of this book and of my work generally, is how do I feel? And how can I relay that to my readers? Everything else after that is a bonus.


Casey Bailey

How much does your photography and your visual work feed into what you do as a writer? And how much does your writing feed into what you do as a photographer? How much do the two lines kind of blur when you're working?


Caleb Azumah Nelson

Writing Open Water was like the marriage of my two kinds of artistic expression. Because I think if you asked me, before I was trying to cross the line, I was trying to toe these lines, I was trying to bring them together. And I think that writing this really enabled me to like step into my strengths as someone who primarily sees first before I open my mouth. And I'm always thinking about what can I see, but also what can't I see when I see something, I'm always thinking about both presence and absence, and what narrative that absence tells us. And so, when I was writing this and something I've noticed consequently, is that so often I see, I’ll have like a snapshot of dialogue or be like, okay, well, maybe they're in a pub, or a couple of characters are sitting in a park or people are driving and I’ll have this real, suddenly strong mental image begins to assemble itself and begins to form. And then I have this snapshot, I have this singular moment where I'm like, okay, well, this is the moment I'm writing about. What are the possibilities that I can afford to these people in this moment? Like, who are they? How did they come here? And where do they want to go from here? And also, where do they need to go from it? Because the want is different from the need. And I think so often, the need is like, it's right in the depths of us, it's right at the bottom and it takes a lot of scavenging, it takes a lot of excavation work to get to what is the need. What's the true desire? And so, I think in that way, like so much of my work, both photography and writing is about desire over time. It's like what do we want? What do we need? And I think especially thinking about, my photography is mostly portraiture, is mostly portraiture of black people. And I don't really direct people in front of my lens too much. But I often am like, what space can I afford you to be yourself in this moment? What space can I afford you to be like, okay, this is who I am. And this is what I desire. This is what I want from this life that I've been given. Those are the things that really push my work as a writer and a photographer.


Casey Bailey

There is this theme that runs through the book of belonging and thinking about where we belong or where we don't belong. And there's a level of responsibility in writing a book like this, or at least I think we feel like there is, and so often we see portrayals of blackness, portrayals of black love, portrayals of black males, black females. So often we see these portrayals and it's easy to look at them and think, what's wrong with it or I wish you hadn't done that, like that. And I read things about black people and about black love with really quite a critical lens and I wish you hadn’t done that, you didn't need to say that or you didn't need to quantify that with that. And it’s just not there. I'm reading this book, and it's just not there. It just feels like, yeah, I know that point. I know that feeling. Nailed that. I get that. And the bits that don't feel like me, I know they are someone I know. Like, it's not, it hasn't been forced in, it hasn’t been shoe-horned to fake anything and it hasn't been shoe-horned to subvert anything. It’s just like this is the experience that these two people are going through. And it feels so authentic. Was it something that you were conscious of, you know, the way that these things can be received? Or did you just write it? How much balance was there between those two?


Caleb Azumah Nelson

One of the things I was really conscious of was that whatever I'm writing, I want it to be that I don't have to say anything else afterwards, whether I'm writing a novel, or a short story, or, or an essay, like, if that's the thing that we end on, I'm good. Like I left this in and this was very intentional. I think specifically with this novel where it's like, okay, well, what do you need to say? And actually recently I've been reframing it because before writing this, I didn't know if I would write another novel. Like, I knew I would write this, but I didn't know if I'd write anything else. And so like, I felt like I left everything on the page with Open Water. But recently, I've been thinking it wasn't so much like, what do you need to say but the question was, what do you need to start saying, because this really, for me, feels like the beginning of a journey and the beginning of questions that will continue to be asked in my work, and will need to continue to grow and continue to be developed as I grow as a person and as a writer. But there was real intention here in that singular moment. And I'm sure it will be the same feeling I have when I start writing what I'm writing next. It would be like, what do I need to say? And are you okay with leaving this here, drawing a line under this. With Open Water, and I think this is actually where my photography practice really helped because, you know, when you see an image or when you're told a story, there's an element of truth that's being expressed, right? Like, you know, depending on who's holding the camera or who's speaking. And then someone else might take a different image of the same thing or might tell the same story from a different lens but it doesn't make either of those expressions any less honest. And for me, I was less interested in truth, and more like, how honest can I be? Or how honest can these people be here? These lives that I'm inhabiting, how honest can I be? How vulnerable can I be, and where is the place where it might not be possible for that vulnerability to be expressed? Because so often in our lives, and on many occasions in this book, the words fail to express how someone is actually feeling or fail to express that they don't feel like they can actually express what they're feeling. They don't feel like they have those words. And that, yeah, that for me was such an intriguing idea. What can I say, but also like, what can I hold back? And what happens in that bit between presence and absence? 


Casey Bailey

I think within the novel is definitely the feeling of, you know, the question that kind of drives through is what are the things that stop us from being vulnerable. And it feels like that then opens a door as we get towards the end of the novel, of the realization of the need to be vulnerable to connect. And sometimes what we feel like is the connection before the vulnerability becomes something very different afterwards. But then it kind of leaves us with now what happens if you are vulnerable? And that's a very different question. And there's a whole kind of world of possibilities in it, which I'm personally hoping to get the answers from you because we need more of this. Within that kind of framework around vulnerability, how much of you doing that did you feel was going to inform the way people look at themselves and look at things? Were you conscious of the fact that, you know, I've read that book and I wonder what would that book have done to me about 10 years ago? Because 10 years ago, I was in it, you know, 10 years ago. And I wonder how I would manage that. And now reading it, I kind of, I just can feel like, oh, yeah, I get that. And that's good. It's good to feel like, yeah, I understand that. But there were still points in it, where I could see myself there. And there's something about the you, something about the second person which, not in a harsh way, but it has like an accusatory tone, it has like ‘you said this’, or ‘you did that’ or ‘you didn't allow this to happen’ and I'm like, I know, I know, I’m trying to work it out. Were you aware that people might read this and actually go yeah, I do need to think about that, or that is something I need to consider? How much of that did you think would inform people's lives? 


Caleb Azumah Nelson

It's funny, because before the work makes its way into the public forum, the work is for me, primarily that sort of accusatory tone was for me, it was like I need you to confront yourself right now. That was really what that was. And so much of this work was very emotional and was very difficult to pull out of myself, because there was this level of self-confrontation. When you're in that rhythm, and you're like, you know, 5,000, 10,000 words in, there's nowhere to hide at that point, it's just you, like you're very there, you're coming to the page. I didn't have any plans for this book but each morning I would be faced with a blank page and I'd be like, I need you to write something today, just to get something out today. But that blank page really, really did something. It really was like, okay, like, this is space. And not everything made it to final cut, but of that summer period, I would say that 90% of Open Water remains. And so, it was a very organic process and it was very much like I needed to confront myself, and I need you to trust yourself with the things that you don't always know how to say. I needed to try it. Because that's really the only thing that that we can do. And it was only really when the book started making its way out into the world that I began to understand what it could mean for someone else to read this and to say them to themselves, perhaps I too might need to confront something. And perhaps I too, might need a period where I need to just trust myself. And perhaps I might just need to try. Yeah, it's really humbling. You know, we were joking the other day in this WhatsApp group, there's no training for this. There's no way of understanding what this can do. But I will say it is very, very humbling to have people reach out to you from everywhere, that look so vastly different, and say, like, what effect something that you have pulled out of yourself has had on them.


Casey Bailey

Yeah. And I think what is beautiful about this book is whilst there is this real lens on blackness, on South East London, it's not just blackness, it's a real kind of basically what it is in the ends, in this kind of environment. But there's also so much about that is universal. Would you maybe read a little excerpt from the book?


Caleb Azumah Nelson

Yeah, for sure. 


‘You say the sky has erupted and there's white ash on the ground. The dog has never seen snow before. It alternates between bounding across the icy plains and staying stock still, aside from a tiny shake in its hind legs. Your grandma had never seen snow until the year you were born, while she awaited your arrival, and those tender flakes fell in a furious storm, clumping on the ground. She got on her knees and began to pray, for herself, her daughter and unborn grandchild. On the same day, your mother was on the top deck of a bus, cowering as the man waved the gun and she emerged unscathed. You're not religious. But when you hear stories like that, it makes a man want to believe. You imagine your grandma in fervour, praying for your body barely formed, your spirit in gestation. Now her body is falling apart, or rather has already fallen. Her spirit is everywhere. You don't know if you'll ever returned and see where she's been laid to rest. But on this occasion, you do not have the strength. You're not religious, but you're praying for your own mother and father as they make their journey back to Ghana. Back home. Your knees are on hard wooden floor, frustrating at the foot of your own desires. When a dog nudges you in the back, the dog has never seen snow before. The sheet above is cloudless, lacking in form and detail. Have you ever looked at the sky at night after it's snowed? Orange glow, light caught between somewhere. Makes you want to reach up and touch. So sometimes you pray. If prayer is mostly desire from the inner self, then you're praying for a safe trip.’


Casey Bailey

Caleb, I just have to say thank you. I do have one more question and I'm going to ask you to keep it brief. So, this is horrible, remember what we said about wishing you had the opportunity to think these things over? And as you said, there's no manual to this, there's no how to guide to do what you're doing right now so you become the how to guide. So, anybody who's watching this now thinking how do I or what’s the thing that that you can tell me to further me in my journey to do this? What would you say that is?


Caleb Azumah Nelson

Feel everything. Feel the terror, feel the joy, feel the real kind of like the moments that really grip us and really shake us and feel the moments that really border on ecstasy. And just trust yourself with all that. And trust that it's okay for you to want to go to these places to express that.


Casey Bailey

Nice. Well, on that note, I want to thank you very much. If you are listening to this, watching this and you haven't read Open Water yet, I am currently judging you. I do want you to take that personally, and I do expect you to do something about it. Not for me, for yourself. You can thank me later. I'm going to thank Caleb for being here with us. And that's all we've got time for guys. Thank you very much for tuning in. Caleb, thank you.


Outro


Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of the Birmingham Lit Fest presents…podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, we’d love for you to tell us about it – leave us a review or a rating and find us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @bhamlitfest. 


You can download our latest podcast episodes, every Thursday, from all the places you would normally get your podcasts and find transcripts of our episodes in the shownotes and on our website at www.birminghamliteraturefestival.org. 

 

The Birmingham Lit Fest Presents... podcast is produced by 11C and Birmingham Podcast Studios for Writing West Midlands.


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 2021-11-25  33m