Nadia Owusu is a Brooklyn-based writer, and author of Aftershocks: A Memoir, which considers the desire for belonging and coherent narratives of identity. Caleb Azumah Nelson is a British-Ghanaian writer and photographer living in south-east London. His debut novel, Open Water, examines love, vulnerability and Black masculinity in modern-day London. They came together in the early weeks of 2021 to discuss grief, jazz and the finding hope through devotional practice.
I am writing to you a week after a day of violence and mayhem in the capital of the United States. Some are describing what happened that day as an insurrection, others as domestic terrorism, others as an attempted coup. Whatever we call it, it was heinous. Racist and anti-Semitic symbols paraded in the halls of Congress: A Confederate flag representing the eleven states in the American South that seceded from the Union in order to preserve the institution of slavery. A sweatshirt with ‘Camp Auschwitz’ emblazoned across it. A noose erected on Capitol Hill, evoking the racial terror of lynching. The President told the violent crowd that he loved them.
On my laptop, I watched as the police stood back and allowed the mob to smash, steal, and run rampage – in stark contrast to police treatment of Black Lives Matter protestors last summer. Asked why the police were not evicting the mob from the Capitol Building, one officer said, ‘We just got to let them do their thing for now.’
I recalled a scene in your novel Open Water. Your protagonist and his love walk toward the cinema. They pass a police van: ‘They aren’t questioning you or her but glance in your direction. With this act, they confirm what you already know: that your bodies are not your own.’
My first book Aftershocks was released this week in the United States. It also engages with anti-Black racism. It will be out in the UK the same time as yours. A question I’m getting a lot: What gives you hope? My response is to quote the prison abolitionist organiser, Mariame Kaba: ‘Hope is a discipline.’ I believe that we can all make choices, small and large, to imagine and create a future we want to live in. Hope comes from our actions and from being in community with others who are equally committed. Perhaps you will be asked the same question. What might you say?
Caleb Azumah Nelson:
It’s a strange thing to hope, knowing the foundations of the world as we know it were built on violence inflicted upon our ancestors. It’s a strange thing to hope, knowing that as a Black person, we’re often much closer to death than anyone else. I encounter a confirmation of this knowledge everyday: the premature deaths of Black people at the hands of state violence, the erasure of our stories from past and present, anti-Blackness emerging into the public sphere under the guise of free speech. But hope, specifically in the faith that there are many doing the work of imagining a better world, is something I have been drawn to.
I love that quote from Mariame Kaba. Your response to the question of hope draws me to Tina Campt’s ideas concerning the future: striving for a future we want to see, in the present. Hope emerges from this being a conscious, continued effort, where we hold each other accountable and afford each other grace when we fall.
I think hope also emerges from care. I’m thinking of my father laying a cool palm on my head as he cuts my hair. Sending books to others, with little notes attached in the post. The communion of friends, who gather to eat and drink, for no other reason but because they can. Small everyday moments I encounter amongst friends and family, where we laugh and argue, celebrate and grieve. These moments have always amazed me, always felt like miracles. They have always made me feel alive. In this time of uncertainty, I’ve never been more grateful for the communities I inhabit, nor have I been more hopeful than now.
I’ve been reading your brilliant book, Aftershocks. Here is one of the many quotes I have scribbled down: ‘History is many stories. Those stories are written, spoken and sung.’ There is a delicious rhythm to your work, composed of a deep, low hum which speaks to and of the histories you explore (one of which is a complex Ghanaian ancestry, which we share), and this melody of you, writing in the present.
Your book also reads like a set of photos, arranged in an album. I’m thinking of Campt again: ‘Photography is an everyday strategy of affirmation and a confrontational practice of visibility.’ Reading your work, I think of you as someone who looks closely and keenly. Photos or images are featured throughout Aftershocks. I have returned to the description of your sister’s naming ceremony, many times, a custom intended to show us we are part of something more. Your writing has a real visual element to it. What role do photography and images play in your life?
Thank you for introducing me to Campt’s work. I am very drawn to the idea of hope emerging from care.
How are you? is a routine question, often offered out of politeness. The expected, sometimes preferred, answer is a stock one: Fine, thanks, and you? But, last year, many of us paused our mundanities and routines to extend care. Now, when we ask how are you, we preface by noting the absurdity of the question given the losses – shared and private. Given the grief. Or, we soften our faces and note that we are really asking, that we truly want to know. We don’t expect people to find a way to tell us they are fine even when they aren’t. These small shifts in how we listen to and treat each other give me hope. I see them as related to Campt’s notion of hope being a conscious, continued effort. Deep listening and care can be practiced, and practice is how we make what we imagine possible, right where we are, moment by moment, creating a more loving future.
We sometimes think of imagination as something we have as individuals, but racial justice organizers are always reminding us that radical imagination is also a practice; is something we do together. When I hold this in my heart and close my eyes, I hear music. More specifically, I hear a drum circle.
It moves me that you heard the rhythm I aspired to create in Aftershocks because I hear that rhythm in your work. Reading your rhythms brought me great joy. My Ghanaian family say that rhythm is in our blood, and so is storytelling. On my last trip to Ghana, I went to the cultural centre in Kumasi to learn about and listen to traditional Ashanti rhythms. In the music of the Ashanti tribe, to which my family belong, repetition is an aesthetic principle. Repetition fosters understanding, unity and cohesiveness. Repetition is beautiful practice. Echoes of Ashanti rhythms can be heard in jazz – a music that is all about interpretation and improvisation. Jazz was invented by Black people in a country hostile to Black people. It grows from ancient African rhythms, from repetition, and from committed practice. Out of those roots, radical possibilities bloom. Future is created with each note.
Open Water conjured, for me, a specific Ghanaian rhythm I learned about in Kumasi called Sikyi. Typically, it is performed through drumming and dancing. The dance movements simulate a courtship. There is shyness and insecurity, approach, strutting, romance, and passion. The relationship between your protagonist and the woman he loves is so wonderfully alive and complex. We need more stories about Black love. What wells did you draw from as you wrote?
You asked me about what role photography and images play in my writing. I recall a few lines from a love poem by June Jordan: ‘I train my eyes to see / what I am suffering / not to touch.’ Especially when I am finding it difficult to connect emotionally to the story I am telling, I train my eyes to see. I stare at a photograph or concentrate on an image in my mind. Like rhythm, images give me a way into more embodied language.
You are a photographer as well as a writer. What are the reciprocities between these two art forms in how you practice them?
Given the grief, I have been asking myself and those around me How are you? more and more. I understand that by asking this, I’m encouraging a form of vulnerability. I understand that by asking this, I’m presenting a moment of safety, for myself or for others, that even if the feeling is rough and raw and painful, it can still be presented and held and cared for. You’re right – given the grief, given how much we are all hurting, privately and collectively, How are you? is an absurd question. At various intervals, I have found myself overcome, found that my face softens or hardens on hearing this question, as I wrangle with grief, past and present. I have found it hard not to be angry, and not far behind that, is a sadness, as I process this continuous loss. Have you been able to grieve? And do you have practices which bring you solace? In Aftershocks, you write a tender, devastating recount of the time in which your father passed. You write about the period of waiting which is agony; you write about feeling he had passed without knowing (a feeling I experienced when my Grandma passed). And you write about losing your ‘guiding force’ in your father, how you were afraid you would never believe anything again. What, if anything, do you believe in? What is your guiding force? And how, in the face of extraordinary grief, did you go towards there?
When you speak of the drums, it makes me think of this passage, from Toni Morrison’s Jazz: ‘listening to drums saying what the graceful women and the marching men could not. What was possible to say was already in print . . . But what was meant came from the drums. It was July in 1917 and the beautiful faces were cold and quiet; moving slowly into the space the drums were building for them.’ Language has its limitations but I think the rhythm of yours fosters this kind of space building. I’m thinking of your writing on Coltrane, on the ‘fury, the joy and sadness all at once’. I’m thinking of your description of weeping, of bounding, free around your room. I’ve done this often, when music has really taken me, when I’ve felt myself lose control but in reality, have been closest to who I am, to my soul. Tell me, are there pieces of music you hold dear? And what do you have in rotation at the moment?
I have really missed live music during the past year. I’ve missed hearing musicians experiment and improvise in the moment, new interpretations and meanings emerging with every note. Your voice reminds me of jazz; specifically of a night in South East London, called Steam Down, where musicians will gather and step in and out, improvising for hours. The repetition is constant and there, as in your work, as I hope I do in mine, it encourages audiences and readers to face themselves at every juncture, every loop. We might hear or read the same thing, but we know the moment has changed, know we have changed. The same phrase never sounds the same. With every sentence, with a rhythm that pulses, your work asks what is possible for Blackness? I value your work so, because I wrote this question down, again and again, during the reading of Aftershocks and the answer was never fixed, but rooted in ideas of infinitude.
Thank you for introducing me to Sikyi, a rhythm I did know but could feel as soon I heard it. So much of my writing process is in not writing. Writing Open Water was a feverish process of research and archival exploration. I would spend my days at the library, or at my desk, reading poetry and poring over photography books. I watched a lot of film during that time. The work of Barry Jenkins was constantly in rotation. I was trying to go past the limitations of language, finding expressions that could be felt as well as read. I was trying to understand what our freedom could look like, and where that could be housed. I see fiction is writing memory and so I was exploring the loves I had known and knew. I was thinking about the way my parents love each other, and how my Grandma had loved me, and how I had loved romantically. I was thinking about the complexities of these various loves but also the freedom. How alive one can feel when they are loved. Music played such a big part in the process. Artist Arthur Jafa says, ‘music is the only place Black people don’t have to be marginal.’ I used that as a jumping off point to tap into my own inherent rhythm, and to ask myself who I was. What did I love? How did I love? I thought of myself as J Dilla, or Madlib, sampling and riffing and creating new melodies from existing sounds. Open Water, in itself, was an act of love, in that I was paying homage to my influences, to my love. I was more concerned with the writing of the novel than what I would do with it, and this afforded me a freedom in the process. It allowed me to experience a quiet reckoning with who I was, who I am, who I want to be. Did you experience something like this, a reckoning, when you were writing Aftershocks?
In January 2020, I travelled to Spain for several weeks to finish Open Water. The first part of the trip, in Seville, was marred by an unfortunate bout of food poisoning. But a week later, I would take a trip to Cadiz by train. I would stay in an apartment overlooking the ocean. Everyday, before writing, I would wobble down the beach, and walk into the water, letting it lap at my chest. It was beautiful and haunting and a painful routine, knowing the history the Atlantic holds. In Aftershocks, you write, of being submerged in a lake, ‘I was past, present and future all at once. I felt, more than ever before, and perhaps ever since, deliciously free.’ What is your own relationship to water?
My writing and my photography go hand in hand. I often feel like I’m transcribing photos when I’m writing fiction, trying to ask all of the possibilities of the snapshot I see in my mind. I only learned last year that photography means writing light. I spend much of my time chasing and bending light, trying to illuminate those in front of the lens; trying to provide the space people need to be seen.
My grief over losing my father is so much a part of who I am, and it is also a place I return to for strange comfort. I find comfort in my grief because, as Kahlil Gibran wrote, ‘Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.’
In Open Water, your protagonist loses his grandmother in ‘a summer when he thought he could lose no more’. But, he returns to memories of her, and in those memories, he is able to ask for her advice. The lines between past and present blur. This felt so true to me. I wonder if you visit memories of your own grandmother to speak to her about your present?
Last spring, I lost my maternal grandparents to coronavirus. Four months earlier, I visited with them in their retirement home in Massachusetts. My grandmother, who had lost some of her memory, had smeared red nail polish across her cheeks thinking it was blush. As she swiped at her cheeks, she laughed. Sometimes, from not remembering or knowing who people were or what things were for, she was afraid, but not that day. ‘We’re so glad you came,’ she kept saying to my sisters, brother and me, reaching for our hands. After saying goodbye, my siblings and I were in the parking lot when we saw my grandfather come hurrying out the front door. He looked worried so we went to him. Due to a stroke, it was difficult for him to say what he meant, but we understood that he had come to say another goodbye. He kissed and hugged each of us again. We have not been able to hold a service for my grandparents due to travel and gathering restrictions. Now, when I visit my grief, as well as my father and my paternal grandfather who passed some years ago, I visit my maternal grandparents too. I see my grandmother’s hand reaching for mine and my grandfather hurrying out, determined to give more love. I believe in the love my father and my grandparents had for me, and in my love for them, and in the love that holds my family and community together. Love is my guiding force.
Live music has long been an important part of my life too. At the end of December, at a small town hall in Upstate New York, with only the officiant and two kind strangers who served as our witnesses, I married a jazz musician. He plays tenor saxophone. Five years ago, we met at a jam session in Brooklyn, not unlike the one you described in South East London. I miss going to his gigs with my friends, and to other people’s gigs with him. I miss weekend rehearsals at our house – my own private concerts. Before it got too cold, my husband and his friends played a few times in front of our house, socially distanced. I sat on the stoop with tea listening to ‘Autumn in New York,’ watching people slow down their cars or bicycles. Some people pulled over and stayed a while. Even though there have been few opportunities to play for an audience of late, my husband practices almost every day. He transcribes Miles Davis and Ben Webster solos. He composes on the piano in our living room. He made me a writing playlist that I adore. I am listening to it now, as I write to you: Shirley Horn singing ‘Here’s to Life.’ Charlie Parker playing ‘I’m in the Mood for Love.’
My maternal Grandma lived with me for the first few years of my life and so the loss was devastating. It took me some time to make peace. To understand that, like you, the grief is now part of me, part of who I am. Though her body is gone, her spirit remains. She is part of everything I do because it was her who taught me how to care and how to love. I often feel like much of what I do is in conversation with her because of this. In times of grief or joy, it is her I turn towards, memories of her pounding fufu in the back of the family home in Ghana, or her, seated in the living room, her contagious laughter filling the room. She always has time for me. There is always a wry smile on her lips as I describe a difficult decision or a moment of pleasure. I will always feel the loss, as I’m sure you do – I’m truly sorry for yours – but these memories and moments of love guide me too. I agree, the past and present blur. Time does not feel like then and now but something continuous, something guided by the gifts given to those who have passed on.
As you were describing your husband and his friends playing, I was reminded of a different kind of music. I played a lot of basketball growing up, and when the weather and my knees permit, I will lace up my shoes, and gather on the blacktop with friends. We’ll play two on two, or three on three, until our legs ache and our shots barely hit the rim. We’ll sprawl out on the ground and someone will do a shop run. We’ll eat and drink and laugh and tease and rib. We’ll argue about football or music; sometimes videos or songs will be presented to state a case. Even though at this point we’re all exhausted, we’ll run one more game, and perhaps we’ll head to one of our homes, to continue as we have done. I think what I’m saying is, aside from live music, I miss the rhythm of conversations, laughter and exclamations like melody and percussion. I miss gathering with others for no other reason but because we can. However, I have found that those I am in community with have made extra effort during this time, to stay connected. I’m grateful for something as simple as a text or a voice note to check in. How have you found your communities have shifted during this time?
When I was little, I loved it when my father poured libation. He’d be sitting on our back porch having an after-work beer. I’d be sitting beside him. Before taking a first sip, he’d pour a little out. ‘If we forget to share with our ancestors,’ he’d say, ‘they might not be around when we need them.’ Then, he’d let me have a little of the foam off the top. A few years ago, when having a drink outside, I started pouring libation too. I love doing it. It connects me to those happy evenings on the porch with my father, and to all the people who came before me, made my life possible, and continue to guide me. I hope that you will always be able to find your grandma, hear her laughter and talk to her.
Like you, I miss long days with friends that flow into night. A picnic in the park, then a walk around the neighbourhood with coffee, a glass of wine at a rooftop bar where another friend works, dinner somewhere with live music. These days, especially since it got too cold to be outside for long, I see people mostly on screens. I miss hugging my friends. I miss walking with our arms linked. I miss being squeezed together at a too-small table we insisted would be fine because we were hungry, and it really was fine because we were together and laughing. My friends and I send each other little things in the mail now – a card, a candle, a good bottle of whisky. On the night of my US book launch, my friend Hafizah sent me a flower crown. We are finding ways to reach out and touch each other across distance.
I love hearing that Open Water poured out of you. That’s how it reads. Do you feel that you have discovered a process that you will return to? Aftershocks took much longer to form from the raw material I’d written just for myself. I set that material aside for two years. When I went back to it, it was like harvesting clay. I used that clay to create something completely new. I am working on a fiction project now and I am interested to discover that it is requiring a completely different process. It is coming very slowly, but it seems to know quite a bit about what it wants to be.
How are you feeling as we draw so close to Open Water being out in the world? What will you do to celebrate?
I’m working on something new at the moment, a fiction project. Initially, I felt an intense pressure to write and get it right but recently, that has fallen away. I’m watching, I’m reading, I’m listening. I’m trying to understand what it is I see in the world, so that I can find a rhythm to map and express those emotions. It’s getting to the time where the story feels more urgent. I’m beginning to hear sentences in my quieter moments, and I can see my characters in their fullness.
I’ve waited a year and a half for Open Water to make its way into the world, but I have always wanted to tell stories. I’m still getting used to holding a finished copy of my own book. I’m looking forward to the book making its way into readers hands, taking on new lives on each of these occasions. My family and friends have been in a celebratory mood for weeks and I’m so grateful for them making this release feel special. It sort of feels like a birthday! But to answer your question, how am I feeling? Joyous. There’s a healthy mix of nerves and anticipation and excitement, but overall, there’s a joy that is present in my days that I’m thankful for.
Image © Jenna Pace and Stuart Ruel