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Jailed in the Black Body: A Review of Caleb Azumah’s Open Water

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s recent novel Open Water (2021) explores the psychological impact of the stereotypical representation of “black body” as a source of diseases, violence and evil in colonial travel accounts, novel literature and media. Open Water focuses the reader´s attention on imagining Black peoples’ experiences, feelings, desires, and moral values beyond the stereotypical colonial representation and discourse that imagined black bodies as fixed and without agency and  negate the impact of individuals’ diverse experiences.

Azumah Nelson is a British-Ghanaian photographer and writer. He writes short stories and was a finalist for the BBC National Short Story Award, and Open Water is his first novel. He lives in southeast London, where Open Water is set between 2017 and 2018. The novel is an honest and moving expression of his real environment. He describes writing about his neighbourhood, saying: “It is where my world begins and ends… It is just this place that I know I’m going to be writing about for so long. He adds in interview with The New York Times, “I have been trying to work out how I can go from feeling to expression.”

Open Water is a slim book of 166 pages narrated in thirty chapters from the perspective of an unnamed Ghanaian photographer. It tells the story of two black persons falling in love at first sight when they meet in a bar on a winter night: a British-Ghanaian photographer and his friend’s ex-girlfriend, a dancer. Their relationship lasts for a year in southeast London and is a test for the strength of their feelings towards each other and for the impact of emotion and being “black” on their daily life’s affairs and choices in a white-majority society.

Open water urges the readers to “see” the black protagonist and not only to look at him saying, “it’s one thing to be looked at, and another to be seen.” While looking at him reduces him merely to his “black body”, seeing him enables others to recognise his difference, desires, hopes, and distinct voice beyond the stereotypical monolithic representation of the black body as dangerous and evil.  Nelson describes the protagonist’s longing for a sense of trust and safety that he believes could be offered to him only in love: “She tells you she loves you, and now you know that you don’t have to be the sum of your traumas, that multiple truths exist, that you love her too” (121).

Love enables them to be seen with their own distinct, individual, physical, beautiful features. Azumah Nelson crafts these human feelings by having his protagonist describe experiencing his girlfriend’s body in beautiful, passionate, and poetic language in the following lines:

You wrap your arms around her, letting them linger, comforted by her warmth. Her curves and juts are familiar. The shape of her recognisable, even with the newly cropped blond hair. She smells like her, which is a cop-out…but you would say she smells like a place you call home (106).

But even with a passionate, intimate relationship evolving to bear fruit when his girlfriend provides him care, love, and a sense of belonging to the home, he fails to hold on to this love because his trauma torments him. The unnamed narrator is overcome by his feelings of insecurity, living a precarious life that could end at any moment because of the suspicion of criminality that falls over him because of his black skin.

Azumah describes these profound feelings in one scene when the narrator is stopped on the street and asked by the police to get out of the car. The scene depicts the impact of each racist encounter on the characters and how their repetition can shatter their self-esteem, on the one hand, and stress their loss of the sense of safety and control over their life and fate on the other. These feelings of helplessness, when repeated, can lead to depression, as studies on psychological and mental health show. Nelson has the characters describe the aforementioned psychological impact through the following scene:

Walking towards the cinema, you 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…. You would like to be bulletproof. You would like to believe the shots will never penetrate. You would like to feel safe. (114, 116)

Through feelings and expressions of fear and weakness in the novel, Nelson challenges the stereotypical image of masculinity. The concept of masculinity and femininity varies from place to place. While men are almost always considered strong and independent, and women weak and submissive, men are also often encouraged to be hard-hearted and restrain their emotions or be a joke to the community. In Open Water, we are introduced to the male protagonist who challenges this stereotypical image of masculinity by letting the reader listen and feel his aches, cries, and weaknesses. He seeks solace and refuge in the presence of the body of his girlfriend. Furthermore, even when he is given a chance to be loved and trusted, he breaks and cannot hold on to his love. It is a quest to interrogate and redefine our understanding of masculinity in light of the different contexts and challenges they represent to the male’s psychological and physical health, such as migration and colonialism, as recently defined by JJ Bola in his recent book Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined (2019).

Indeed, the novel swings between celebrating the beauty of the “black body “, represented in the protagonist’s lover’s beautiful physical features, and the description of their body as the carrier of “evil, danger, contamination, horror, darkness and Otherness.”  It shows how personal love and success are not enough for Black people to lead a stable, safe and healthy life in a contemporary white society; instead, they have more awareness to liberate themselves from the burden of the past colonial memory. They are granted freedom of movement and equal places in schools and bars, unlike previous generations, but they are still jailed in their own “Black body “.

The novel is written from the second-person perspective and present tense, a rare narrating technique. This unnamed narrator engages the audience (“you could be any black guy reading the novel”), creating a greater urgency for change and looking beyond the limited possibilities seemingly available. Moreover, writing from the second-person point of view offers a further possibility for the novel to be read from the narrator’s point of view. By extension, black people face current situations and have to free themselves from their agony and express their feelings aloud before suffocating in open water.

Overall, the novel is a captivating debut that explores the concept of masculinity, belonging, identity, and the black body’s trauma in a racist environment. Open Water describes the psychological impact of harmful racist stereotypes on black people in heartfelt and moving language. In addition, it is a poetic piece of writing about love and the vulnerabilities and strength that come with it. This novel has you hooked right from the first page.

Amany Abdelrazek-Alsiefy
Amany Abdelrazek-Alsiefy
Dr. Amany Abdelrazek-Alsiefy is a writer and lecturer at the Zentrum für Transdisziplinäre Geschlechterstudien at Humboldt University in Berlin, Germany. She holds a Master's degree in English Literature and a Doctorate in English Literature and Language, both earned from German universities. Her academic pursuits encompass a broad spectrum of fields, including gender studies, postcolonial literature, secularization, and fashion theories. With a substantial portfolio of publications in Arabic, English, and German, she is the author of 'Modern Egyptian Women, Fashion, and Faith: Discourses and Representations' (2023).

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