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Novel voices: Caleb Azumah Nelson and Brandon Taylor appear as part of Manchester Literature Festival

  • Authors speak about the experiences of young black men in their new novels
Writers Caleb Azumah Nelson and Brandon Taylor took part in a Manchester Literature Festival  event hosted by Ellah Wakatama for the first ever Narrator Voices series.
Wakatama is a senior research fellow at the University of Manchester and said the debut novels of both authors have “for me illuminated the inner lives of a group of people, young black men that I have found to be woefully in short supply in Western letters”.
The author of Clear Water, Caleb Nelson, was born to Ghanaian parents. The short novel is set in contemporary south east London and centres on the lives about a young black couple.
It was described by Wakatma as a “love letter to London”, the city where Nelson grew up.
With the use of poetic language, the novel looks at the difficulty in maintaining relationships  as well as a look at the interior of people.
When speaking about the experimental form of the novel, Nelson said: “I wanted to imbue the narrative with this real rhythm that was very close to own voice.
“At the beginning I wanted to use second person because this story is intimate, and I want the reader to sit close as possible to this story. 
"Like, I want the reader to feel like the questions that are being asked in the narrative are questions that they need to ask themselves.”
The novel was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize.
 
 
Wakatama spoke about the importance of the books in contempary literature
“I’ve worked in publishing for 20 years and I have felt the lack of these two stories so much, you know to the point of writing to publishers to say, where are all the black, young men?," she said.
"And I've felt that with Real Story and Open Water you’ve given me that story. Clear Water celebrates black love and art.
Nelson said: “So, for me I was really insistent that not only was this a piece of writing about love, but it was also like a description of all the things that I love, and it was also an opportunity to build a new language in a sense in order to build up this narrative.”
Throughout the novel there are mentions of musicians such as Kendrick Lemar and writers such as Zadie Smith.
Nelson's work as a photographer allowed him to be shortlisted for the Palm Photo Prize.
 
Brandon Taylor’s novel, Real Life, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2020, John Leonard Prize 2021.
Real Life is a campus novel with a protagonist called Wallace who is the only black person in his class and who struggles against coming to terms with his sexuality and his complicated relationship with his recently-deceased father.
The American writer said: “I set out to write a novel about my campus experiences and what it felt like to be a queer black person in a sort of ostensibly progressive white spaces.”
Discussing the theme of grief in the novel, Taylor said: “I thought about what happens when you do try to tell someone about the worst thing to happen to you and the way that your language when under duress of that intense emotion undergoes a kind of phase change.
"How it sort of shifts, has to shift to register intensity or viscosity.” 
Admitting that the book is based on some of his own personal experiences,Taylor said: “It was hard to write honestly [about racism] because I had to internalise those defence mechanisms the same anybody else.
"The book contains all the things he could not say typically in his life. I stripped out most of the backstory through the first half of the book, compressing it.
"I thought he couldn’t be honest about his trauma about what happened to him in the usual sort everyday language."
The graduate from Iowa’s writer workshop has also wrote a collection of short stories titled Filthy Animals.
This is another one of the Manchester literature festival’s digital events that will be available to watch online this month.
 
 
Caleb Nelson is currently working on his second novel entitled Small Worlds, which explores the world of two jazz musicians over a 10-year period.
He is also working on a TV original and a feature film.
Brandon Taylor has also recently finished a draft of his next novel, The Late Americans, which is about trying to be a contemporary black artist living and working in America.
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