Swimming Out Into Open Water

Silence and the Limits of Language 

By Saadia Peerzada 

WE are living in times where people are constantly connected yet alienated from each other. Hyper consumerism, social media and surveillance are some of the big factors contributing to the general malaise. When layered with experiences of racialization, these power structures leave us gasping for meaning-making. Language is the primary method through which we understand our own lives and reach out to others. Yet some experiences don’t lend themselves well to communication. Sounds, silences and the body become the dominant modes through which we continue to tell our stories.

Open Water by British writer Caleb Azumah Nelson is a novel that examines these strained questions without lending itself to absolute despair. The book theorizes the limitations of language as it takes us through the life of a photographer living in London. It won the Debut Fiction Book of the Year Award in May 2022.

Language and its Lack

The narrator meets a dancer at a pub in South-east London. Their 1rst meeting is riddled with watching, a sparsity of words, the space between them 1lled with all that is yet to come. The narrator knows they have a shared past by the way they both speak but it doesn’t need to be pointed out. Dialect is a signi1er in itself. The wordlessness of winter for the narrator is followed by a horizon of possibility with the woman he’s met. Articulation is a ‘making real’ of that which is nascent until it is put into words. “What is better than believing you are heading towards love?” he asks. The text is also located in a continuum of background noises, the groan of a train passing by, the running of a tap, the sound of crying in an empty room, a variety of sounds where words cannot stand.

In the fourth chapter of the novel, the author compares conversation to a dance. He contrasts it with a world that “engulfs even the most alive.” Language becomes a shared space of movement in comparison to a world that extinguishes vitality. This movement is also present in the way silences become elastic. In lack of surety, the couple holds and eases the silences to create room for reflection, to allow space to stumble, to know what to say and what to save for a later time. Silence is the versatile presence that guides language.

“You don’t tell her that it was there, in the slight pauses, that you were able to breathe, not even realizing you were holding air in, but you were.”

Silence is also sometimes the distance between solitude and loneliness. In chapter six, the narrator reflects on being in a house too quiet. Something that is usually craved becomes a void that demands to be 1lled: with music, with company, with stories from the past. In the silence, sound carries the narrator to himself, to what is repressed by the everyday. Catharsis gives way to confession, to self avowal.

The Politics of Playing Dead

The book discusses the effects of surveillance and racial policing on the black psyche. A silencing at the core of the black experience mirrors the experiences of other forms of policing. Systemic violence haunts us with an inability to put its effects into words. “How strange a life you and other black people lead, forever seen and unseen, forever heard and silenced” (72). Racialisation leaves you hyper visible yet invisible at the same time. And this elects is made visible by the incessant gaze of power.

The police, on looking for a robber in a neighborhood, stop and check the narrator in front of his friend’s house, because he ‘1ts the description’ of the perpetrator. Which is to say he was a young black man in London. His belongings are scattered on the ground, his voice unheard, reduced to a suspect. This occurrence signals back to another he had experienced before. The narrator is tackled to the ground by police, simply because he is seen as a danger. He asks

“Lets ask anyone who has ever 1t a description: you ever had to play dead? Have you ever not been seen? Are you tired?”

Silence is also a means of preservation. Some things left unsaid help us keep going. If the trauma of political and social death was always a word away, how would we keep living? Self censorship of emotion is a function of survival. An invisible hand seems to be clamped over the protagonist’s mouth when he tries to speak of how political oppression makes the everyday impossible. He explains that his voice wavers because it is invested with the weight of reality. The narrator prays he gets to live before he dies, prays for a deferral of the day where he has to let go of the claim to his own life.

The LA Review of Books describes this phenomenon in the text as a look into what living in a world like ours does to the Black man — “the unending vigilance, constant trepidation, and inevitable consequence of an identity that appears to disintegrate by the day.”

Violence is straightforward, it simply happens. Yet the language of survival is not as plain. The psychological experience of being alive yet anticipating the next time you will be pro1led hardly lends itself to words. The human condition itself is underlined by a sense of being trapped even when language might seem to be a respite. Caleb, then, invites the reader to observe how some experiences are more untranslatable than others.

The charming quality of this novel is not what it asks of language and despair but how it does it with unbroken charm. There is a life force pulsing in this book even in its bleakest pages. And that is what Caleb is inviting us to do, 1nd the pulsing vein under our deepest pits and create a life around it, despite it all.

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