Caleb Azumah Nelson’s ‘Small Worlds’: A poetic experiment that requires patience- Olukorede S Yishau

The winner of the £20,000 Swansea University Dylan Thomas Prize will be unveiled on May 16th, 2024.
One of the six short-listed authors is British-Ghanaian writer Caleb Azumah Nelson. His presence on the list is thanks to his sophomore novel, ‘ Small Worlds’, exploring relationships: family, friendship, and more. It dissects the dynamics of father-son relationship, nephew-aunt relationship, mother-son relationship and brother-to-brother relationship.
At the beginning of the novel, we meet Stephen, who is also the narrator, in a church. But, don’t be deceived by that because Steven will still get involved in stuff that aren’t compliant with that setting. Through him we meet his older brother, Ray. We meet their father and mother and we meet their aunt. We also meet others in Stephen’s different small worlds.
Through these characters, we see the struggles of this close knit Ghanaian circle to survive the culturally- (in)different London.
From the get-go, we aren’t in doubt about Stephen’s attachment to music, a path his father once toed but had to abandon after relocating from Ghana to the UK.
He tries to earn a degree in Music but his father urges him to study something more sustainable. So after high school, he begins to study Business but university life threatens to snuff life out of him. He is miserable, lonely and eventually becomes depressed and decides to take a drastic decision to save himself, a decision that stretches the family bond. And there lies the clash between father and son because his father simply doesn’t understand why getting a higher education in a practical course can make anyone depressed.
Before migrating to London, Stephen’s father was part of a band but surviving in the London of his era had no room for music as a way of ekeing out a living and he doesn’t believe it can be different for his second son. Because of this ehe believes his son’s path is a sheer waste of time.
Using the narrator and his father, the author brilliantly explores parental expectations and the need for children to dance to the drum beats of their hearts.
Nelson explores how migration makes us lose our essence, leading us to settle for what we would not have at home. We are afraid of chasing our dreams because of the fear of failure. In exploring this, the book succeeds as one that will make us ask questions, critical questions about life and living.
Small Worlds, Azumah is less interested in plot. The book is character-driven. His evocative language makes up for what is lost by his decision to favour characters over plot. His diction and syntax come across as well-woven fabric.
 He is also not interested in fitting into a particular genre. The book is genre-bending: coming-of-age, contemporary, literary fiction and more. Elements of all these genres snake out from time to time. This genre-bending nature is likely going to make not a few readers wonder what the author is up to.
The author’s writing is lyrical and poetic and requires some patience to get into.  In many parts, it feels like soliloquy; a troubled soul talking to himself in order to find a way out of the quagmire that life has become.
Nelson does not bother to explain Ghanaian words and phrases to non-speakers. This makes the poetic-prose flow without the encumbrance such explanations require. Even in instances where he offers some context, he does so clearly with the mindset of someone who is sure that English language doesn’t have the weight to carry the nuances of many African words and expressions.
After reading this book, a reader is likely to start seeing music as just music. He imbues music extraordinary meanings. We see it as something we fall back on when we are happy, sad or in-between. He also gives a sexy twist to dancing and we see it as more than just shaking our bodies rhythmically to songs. In fact, it comes across as a problem-solver.
With this highly-experimental work, the author shows that we can have our own small worlds devoid of crowds. Two people can make a small world and a whole world of difference.
**Olukorede S Yishau is the author of In The Name of Our Father, Vaults of Secrets and United Countries of America and Other Travel Tales. His sophomore novel, After The End, is forthcoming from Masobe Books in May 2024.
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