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 By Mejebi Momuwahala, BookArtville’s PAGES Correspondent

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to wake – James Joyce

Award-winning British-Ghanian writer Caleb Azumah Nelson weaves words and does magic with them. And his writing oscillates between the two mutually exclusive but symbiotic worlds of poetry and prose, which he makes huge successes of.

He first proved his mastery of language, his magical ability to turn prose into poetry, to make what is familiar unfamiliar yet unforgettable – just like turning water into wine – to get the reader entranced by his prose with his critically acclaimed debut novel, “Open Water.”

And he is so adept at it so much so that the reader, entranced by the seductiveness of his poetic prose, its sexiness, sometimes feels they are engaging with poetry rather than prose, lost, as Roland Barthes, the French Post structuralist would say, savouring “the pleasure of the text.”

Still, Nelson has achieved a similar feat with his second offering, “Small Worlds“, a 256- page novel published in 2023 by Narrative Landscape Press, which like its forerunner has been receiving rave reviews across the globe.

The novel, divided into three parts: 1. Two Young People in the Summertime, 2. A Brief Intimacy and 3. Free and written in the first-person singular as well as in present tense, gives a kind of connection, immediacy and a sense of deja vu to it, which every African immigrant in the United Kingdom can relate to. 

Yet a common thread runs through them: Stephen’s journey of self-discovery and search  for self-fulfilment and love.  Still, the questions begging for answers are: where does one start from while interrogating a novel with so many ends and interpretations like Small Worlds? Where does one start from while reviewing a novel that has so many entry and departure points?

That indeed is one of the major strengths of this novel, its many entry and departure points, which tells the story of Stephen, an eighteen-year-old second generation immigrant trying not only to find his way in the labyrinthine world that is Peckham, southeast London but also his place as he makes a way for himself faced with daunting challenges.

Stephen , who hopes to become a musician in the future, wants to study music in the university but his dad Eric wants his son to do something that will give him “a sense of stability,” telling him to “make smart choices.” “Love won’t pay the bills …” Stephen’s dad responds, when Auntie Kay tells him that “it’s important they get to do things they love.” And both dad and son are already on a collision course. ”

Stephen eventually gets admitted to study music at the University of Nottingham, but later drops out, which indeed is the last straw that broke the carmel’s back in the rapidly deteriorating relationship betwixt father and son.  “How long can you stay working nothing jobs for someone else? You’re shaming me,” Stephen’s father blurts out when, after he has dropped out of university, he starts working in Femi’s restaurant.

The novel is as much  a story about Stephen’s journey of self-discovery and fulfillment as it is about his immediate family, his parents Eric and Joy and his brother, Raymond, his friends whose lives his is entangled with and with whom he  shares the same love for music, dance as well as their fears as immigrants. It’s a story about Stephen’s heartthrob, Adeline simply known as Del and other characters such as Auntie Yaa and Uncle T.

It’s a story about the small worlds – from which the novel got its title; small worlds that are havens they often turn to again and again as they grapple with forces beyond them, small worlds that often times seem to be the missing link, they always go back to as they interact, bond, love and pursue their dreams in a racial society that seeks to erase them. It’s a story of love, fulfilled and unfulfilled. It’s also a story of loss Yes, there are so many losses in the novel, personal. family and communal.

A very salient aspect is the losses and griefs that dot the nvel. It takes Stephen a long time before he recovers from the death of his mum, Del, his girlfriend never recovers from the death of her parents, Auntie Yaa tries to recover from the losses she suffered when her Afro-Caribbean shop, which links home and exile, is shut by relocating to Ghana. Stephen’s dad Eric never recovers from the death of his wife Joy. When Joy dies, she takes his joy away.

Right from the outset, the writer makes no bones about a recurrent motif, dance, that connects the various characters. For Stephen, dance is not just dance but something that his life and the other characters’ lives revolve around, something with which they find the truth, something with which they are free and open to one another; something with which they don’t need to explain themselves but just be.

“There’s rhythm happening everywhere,” Stephen says, as well as faaji. Little wonder, dance. as an act of freedom, as a metaphor for freedom and self realization in a society in which lives are circumscribed and controlled, is the world in which Stephen finds joy and happiness and around which his life ambition to pursue a music career is revolved, since it is “something that can solve most of our problems.”

Stephen’s decision to study music and become a musician is itself an act of defiance and freedom, the freedom not just to be but also to be who he wants to be. And it pains him so much when he realizes that his dad tries to constrict that freedom in a society lives are already circumscribed and freedom is limited by telling him what course to study in the university

“Since the one thing that can solve most of our problems is dance, it only makes sense that here ….“ This line, which is the opening sentence in the book and dots the pages, shows the enormous power of dance and the immense role it plays in the lives of the characters. Dance is something through which the characters express themselves and hope to achieve their dreams pf self-fulfilment and wholesomeness as immigrants.

“And since the one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing, we turn our mourning into movement.” And there are so many losses in the book, as well as mourns: Stephen’s mother’s death which he takes a long time to come to terms with because of their closeness is a clear example.

That immediacy and sense of presence plays out in every situation; that need to cherish every little time they share with one another, whether in the bars, restaurants, in the coziness of their homes, being immigrant that are always at the risk of being erased is very strong in the book. One can see it in the relationship between Eric and his wife Joy (in whose arms she is safe), between Stephen and his older brother, Ray, who tries to play the big brother, albeit subtly, between Stephen and Del who dashes in and dashes out- the brevity of their interactions, of their conversations, the silences and words not spoken and Stephen’s desire to consummate their relationship and makes it real.

“I gaze at my parents and see that a world can be two people, occupying a space where they don’t have to explain. Where they can feel beautiful. Where they might feel free,” Stephen says about his parents in the opening chapter of the book, and that speaks volume about the sense of the other they feel as immigrants.  

The case of Mark Duggan who is killed by the police and whose death sparks a riot reminds one of  the global outrage that the death of George Floyd in a similar circumstances in the United States engendered and which every immigrant in a racist society can relate to.  “’History is haunting them boys so they’re out on the street, haunting  the city. We’re all haunted in some way … You see what is happening, we’re seeing what happens when a solo is silenced,” Uncle T tells Stephen, as he also tells him similar incidents have happened “in Brixton, in ‘81. ‘85 and ‘95 when your father and I were running around.”  

The novelist links the violence to history, to the Atlantic Slave trade. When Stephen visited Ghana, Auntie Yaa took him to Cape Coast castle and Elmina Castle – signposts of the trade in humans –  tieing the immigrant experience to the slave trade. “This is where we lost ourselves, or rather, where we were taken … And I’m thinking how does one begin to comprehend such loss when it does not stop? I’m thinking of Totteham and Brixton and Peckham. I’m thinking of all the places we, as Black people, are made to disappear,” Stephen says. 

This indeed is where Nelson exhibits his writing prowess in “Small Worlds” to the hilt. His  ability to write about the collective experience of a people through Stephen’s personal experience, his ability to link Stephen’s and other characters’s personal experiences in Peckham to the experience of the black race, to the horrendous Atlantic slave trade. What C. Wright Mills calls the sociological experience. Here he says, we are never really insulated from history. History haunts us, Uncle T. would say, that’s why we haunt the city.

Small Worlds is a triumph, a triumph of the human spirit in spite of adversity, in spite of losses, in spite of the grim realities that stare the characters in the face in Peckham, as they go about their daily activities. It is the triumph of the human spirit against centuries of subjugation.. Man will prevail, as William Faulkner says in his Nobel speech. No matter what man goes through, as he wade’s through turbulent history, he will prevail.

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s “Small Worlds” begins with dance and ends with dance. In spite of all what Stephen and his friends go through, in spite of the frosty relationship between him and his dad so much so that they are not on talking terms for a long time, the novel ends in triumph, as, after the demise of his mother, Stephen and his father finally reconcile, as the son now takes care of the father.

The novel ends with Stephen and his dad Eric in Femi’s restaurant, where Stephen works. Recall that that restaurant was the one  the father, disappointed at the course his son’s life had taken, had once rubbished and told him he was shaming him.

After they have eaten a meal Stephen cooks, father and son settle down to listen to music and dance. “We move like mirrors, haunting the space with our motion, our bodies free and flailing and loose. I’m pulled to tap my father on the shoulder, to try to say to him, I wish we would always be this open…” Stephen says.

After they have danced for a long time and they both begin to tire, they sit opposite each other. “Who are you? What do you dream of? Father asks son. Stephen tells him that that place is wonderful and Femi has been nothing but good to him, that he is not going to work there forever, that one day he will have a restaurant of his own.

“One day, I want to have a place for us, a restaurant of my own. On the menu will be food from home; you know that usual, jollof and red-red, fish grilled in front of you, stew cooked long and slow. Live music on the weekends. I want a place for people to gather, to come together, eat and look good and dance, just he wanted.”

“And he (the father) places a tender palm on my forearm, saying ‘I believe in you. I believe in you, son. Your mother too, she always did. She would be proud.’. I’m overcome. Maybe this is all we need sometimes, for someone else to believe in the possibilities you see for yourself.”…

 And the novel ends with Stephen feeling a sense of triumph and freedom. “… Soft summer light graces his crown as he shakes his head, almost disbelieving of this moment, asking what would we be if we always had this kind of space? And I tell him, in the quietness of the moment which falls, what I know, what I feel in this moment: free.”

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