Open Water: Promising novel on pervasive racism in London

Caleb Azumah Nelson’s debut novel is strong on race relations but doesn’t quite land

Caleb Azumah Nelson

Caleb Azumah Nelson

Towards the end of 2020, two news stories from literary circles emerged within a week of each other. One was writer John Banville’s comments about despising a perceived “woke movement” in publishing, which he made when questioned about the subject during an online interview for the Hay Festival. The other was a New York Times article, Just How White Is the Book Industry?, written by Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek to document their analysis of about 8,000 English-language books issued by mainstream publishers since 1950.

“Black people or transgender people should not be given a special place,” Banville said in reference to the publishing world. “They should be given the same treatment as the rest of us.” Compare this with the stark findings of So and Wezerek, whose data showed that of the 7,124 books for which they were able to identify the author’s race, 95 per cent were written by white people.

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