ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
"Open Water" is a slim novel under 150 pages, and the story is brimming with references to Black art, music, poetry, photography. This is the debut novel by Caleb Azumah Nelson. Like the book's protagonist, Nelson is a photographer, a Black man in his 20s living in London. And Nelson builds this story on a familiar premise. Two young people meet and fall in love.
CALEB AZUMAH NELSON: So we have a pair of artists - a young man, a young woman. He's a photographer, and she's a dancer there. And they meet in a bar by chance at the beginning of this story and have this very instant connection with each other and spend the majority of the story falling in love and trying to navigate their love across distance and circumstance.
SHAPIRO: You capture the experience of falling in love so vividly. Like, there's one moment where you describe thinking about whether you are overthinking it, which inevitably means you are overthinking it, which means it's too late.
NELSON: As soon as you've had that thought, it's gone. That's it. It's too late at that point.
SHAPIRO: Yeah. You're in the quicksand. It's over.
NELSON: Those moments where you are, you know, in that early stage of falling for someone and not quite knowing where it's going - it's kind of - your moves feel, like, a little bit more measured. Like, you want to be a bit more on, like, your best behavior. But inevitably, like, thinking about being on your best behavior leads to not behaving - like, just kind of coming across as a little bit more like, oh. Like, what have I done? Like...
SHAPIRO: It's when you actually have the least control over your interior life and your emotions.
NELSON: Yeah, yes - agreed.
SHAPIRO: This, in a way, feels like a universal story - the experience of falling in love. But at the same time, this love story is extremely specific to the experience of being a Black person in the world and particularly in London. And, like, you juxtapose these scenes of these people letting down their guard with each other and becoming vulnerable with each other against scenes of encounters with police that feel just fraught with tension. Do you think the intimacy that you are portraying looks different in that context?
NELSON: I think there's - so something I was really conscious of was, you know, this level of vulnerability that I had to reach in order to, like, even portray these two characters and to even write this book. But that isn't limited just to their interactions. It's also - it also stretches to the interactions with the police and other kind of state-led violence, where there's an inability to kind of hide. Like, you're front and center. And all of that is very raw.
And it's like, you know, you can't really contain those emotions. But you have to in those moments because when I've been stopped and searched, like, I know that I'm a few steps away from my death, to be perfectly honest. And there's this holding of emotion, this continual sort of, like, balancing where, in the space where the couple are, they can be free. They can be with each other. They can afford each other the space to be joyful but also to break a little bit, to grieve. But in the moments where, you know, you interact with - for example, with the police, you can't really afford yourself to do that. You have to survive.
SHAPIRO: And so does that make the intimacy and the vulnerability more precious and beautiful, more difficult and fraught? Does it contaminate it? Does it highlight it? Like, what's that dynamic?
NELSON: It puts - there's sort of a hidden pressure on that because you know that as a Black person, when you love, that's a space of freedom. But in order for you to kind of, like, have that and continue to have that, you have to be really active in that love. I think there are occasions in the book where it gets too much for one or both of the characters, and they don't know how to express their hurt or express their grief in a space where they're meant to be truly free. There's this putting on of a mask and taking it off, like, repeatedly when you move from the private space of freedom to the public space, where you don't know what you're going to encounter. And that's where we see the relationship kind of begin to pull and tug and, at times, fall apart.
SHAPIRO: I think one of the lines in the book that really stood out to me most is a section about a painter named Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. And the character says she's externalizing her interiority, which isn't something Black people are afforded very often. First of all, what do you mean by that - externalizing their interiority isn't something Black people are often afforded?
NELSON: I think Black people live these very whole and very full lives. And so much of that life is constituted of their interior desires, the ways that we love, the things that we love. And I think what Lynette does so well and what I actually am always aspiring to do is to really communicate what I love and who I love and how I do that. In many ways, like, this work was an act of love both in terms of, like, telling a love story but also to say, this is what I love, and this is how I do it.
SHAPIRO: So she paints a lot of portraits of Black people.
NELSON: Yes, yes, yes.
SHAPIRO: And they're shown in very kind of, like, intimate and casual moments - arms around each other or reclining in a chair or, you know, sort of huddling together in a little cluster.
NELSON: Yeah. Even you describing that, it's really safe to say that she was one of the biggest inspirations for me writing this book.
SHAPIRO: So why are Black people so rarely afforded that power to externalize their interiority?
NELSON: I guess we're - both in the U.K. and in the States and, really, anywhere you go where Black people are the minority, we're kind of still living in the wake of colonial violence and of state-led violence that - you know, the world was kind of built with Black people in mind at the bottom. Like, it wasn't like, OK, like, these will be the leaders. These are the people that we're, like, uplifting.
And I'm really conscious of my work and where it sits and how I'm not trying to directly address those issues, but inadvertently it will. More so, I'm trying to write about the Black experience from the inside looking outwards. Like, I'm trying to write from inside the circle. I'm trying to write for Black people to be able to see themselves in a way and to really, like, embrace, like, their fullness, embrace real, like, moments of grief but, like, real moments of joy, too.
SHAPIRO: So you describe the ways in which society has kind of been built on the backs of Black people and the way that your art and the art of others can kind of undermine that and externalize this interiority. Do you think that can actually reshape society? I mean, like, does art have that power?
NELSON: I think, you know, you want Black people to continue to have hope, and, like, you want to continue to be able to imagine a world in which, like, Black people aren't suppressed or they aren't murdered or in a world in which Black people can live their lives freely and wholly. But I think, you know, that work of imagining has always been done by Black people. I think now is the time for those with the power to think about how we can restructure this world to make it better.
SHAPIRO: Caleb Azuma Nelson's new book is called "Open Water."
Thank you for talking with us about it.
NELSON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES' "IN THE ANDROGYNOUS DARK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.