It’s the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and I’ve just finished what I know will be the best book of 2022: Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson.
“You stroke each of the dogs’ heads and watch them cower at your gall. You’re descending at a hellish pace but there’s no fire here, the fire brought you here. In this nightmare, there is only water lapping at your feet, nipping at your heels. Show me your scars, the monster asks. Show me where the snake wrapped itself around your arm and sunk its teeth into soft flesh. You roll up your sleeves and show him holes littering your limbs. Come out of the shadows, he says. There’s no solace in the shade. Show me where it hurt, he says. Don’t wait for the water to rise. The water won’t save you. You look down and see a warbled reflection in the ripple of the black depths. God had many faces. Many voices. A song in the darkness. Have faith. Suck at the snake’s bite, spit out the venom at your feet. To swallow is to suppress. To be you is to apologize and often that apology come in the form of suppression, and that suppression is indiscriminate. Spit it out. Don’t wait for the water to rise. Don’t apologize. Forgive yourself.” Open Water, Nelson C A, 2021. London: Penguin Random House, pages 114-115
I don’t know what it’s like to be a Black man, but somehow Caleb Azumah Nelson knows what it’s like to be me. The words he uses — words he claims not to have — to describe the life of that Black man in 21st Century London could be used to describe the life of this European white woman in 21st Century Britain.
Last night my sister had a dream that I told her that I’d lost hope and planned not to live anymore. It is a fact in her subconscious that I carry a darkness inside me that she can’t help or reach. It’s true, there is a darkness that I lack the words for; but that someone else, in describing a different experience, has managed to articulate.
I have no rights to publish there words again, but as prophets throughout history will testify: once you speak or write your truth, the words are no longer their own. To this reader’s eyes, Mr Nelson’s novel is no longer his reality of being a Black man; it’s my story. I make these words my own, while recognising they came from him first.
“Your brother knows what it’s like to not have the words […], so he holds you, he holds you close, he holds you with care. You allow yourself to be held, as you have done for him before. You allow yourself to be soft and childlike in his arms. You allow yourself to break.” Pages 123-124