“What Is Old Can Sometimes Feel New”: A Conversation with Andre Bagoo

February 4, 2022   •   By Stephen Narain

ILYA KAMINSKY describes Andre Bagoo’s 2020 essay collection, The Undiscovered Country, winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Nonfiction, as a “manifesto, a literary criticism, a personal chronicle of literary life, a book of days, a stage” where writers and artists and the men who sell doubles in the author’s beloved city of Port of Spain each, voluntarily or not, walk into chaos. In these essays, Bagoo — a poet, journalist, and fiction writer — poses a series of probing provocative questions: How does one write about chaos? What lives outside the short story? What do we miss when we describe an entire city as “postcolonial”? How does our assessment of V. S. Naipaul’s character change when we learn that a relative sexually molested the novelist in his youth?

Bagoo’s allergy to the reduction, erasure, and manipulation of narratives leads to one of the most formally daring books of nonfiction in recent Caribbean literature. One piece in The Undiscovered Country asks whether we can even define Trinidad and Tobago as “independent,” while another wrestles with Heathcote Williams’s 2016 tract Boris Johnson: The Blond Beast of Brexit. Yet another meditates on the West Indian fondness for Snakes and Ladders, with Bagoo exploring the history of the game, possibly created in the 13th century as a “morality lesson” by the Marathi poet-saint Gyandev. One version of the game, Bagoo writes, “had one-hundred squares, the 12th square was faith, the 51st square reliability, the 57th square generosity.” Here is a motley study of colliding morality lessons by a writer we are watching hit his stride. One finishes the collection’s final essay, “Crusoe’s Island,” which references the geography of Tobago, Thomas Jefferson, J. M. Coetzee, and Prospero, asking what comes next for this irreverent, rigorous, vital Trinidadian voice.

This interview was conducted via email in October 2021. Author photo by Azriel Boodram.

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STEPHEN NARAIN: In 2022, Peepal Tree Press will publish your first collection of short fiction, The Dreaming, which explores the lives of queer Trinidadian characters. How do you see your work in relation to that great tradition of writers — V. S. Naipaul, C. L. R. James, and Earl Lovelace — who draw from Port of Spain’s music?

ANDRE BAGOO: The Dreaming follows a group of gay men as they search for sex, adventure, pleasure, self-realization, and love in Woodbrook, Trinidad. Of all the writers on your list, this book is most in dialogue with Naipaul, specifically his classic Miguel Street (1959), which is also set in Woodbrook. A character from Miguel Street makes an appearance in the collection, as does Naipaul himself. Humor is a key overlap, as are certain stylistic preferences that accord with my own artistic vision. But there are also important thematic connections, with the politics of my book meant to serve as a reply to Naipaul’s worldview. I see The Dreaming as its own thing, but it can just as well be regarded as an extended literary critique.

As a boy growing up in Belmont, I always wanted to be a writer, but I was never lucky enough to meet any. Like anyone in Trinidad with ambitions to write, seeing Naipaul, seeing someone who looked vaguely like me, be a writer — and the kind of writer who commanded international attention — was powerful. His books were in the house (one of my sisters loved Miguel Street so much she slept with it under her pillow). When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, it was awe-inspiring. But when I looked for myself in Naipaul’s writing, I didn’t find him: all his gay characters are coyly dismissed, leave you wanting more, or come to terrible ends. Outside of the texts, Naipaul also made things worse by his unquestionably homophobic remarks against E. M. Forster and others. So, I saw myself but then, as a gay man, was also erased.

Yet, if you are from a small place like Trinidad, where our nationals must defy great odds to reach the global stage, it is hard to fully let go of what this writer has done. The hypnotism of his uncluttered prose. The humanism of his earlier books like A House for Mr Biswas (1961). The precision of his rendering of Trinidad as a setting. You cannot help but return to all of it again and again, as one might go home intermittently, even if one has rebelled violently and moved out of the house. In some respects, then, Naipaul is like Trinidad’s Ezra Pound: as problematic as he is unavoidable. The novelist Brandon Taylor has a great phrase — problematic ancestress. I think that applies.

So, the idea of a book full of gay men living their lives, dreaming their dreams, seeking happiness and a path to a better future — all in the same space where Naipaul’s characters once roamed — was too audacious an update to resist, and my editor at Peepal Tree Press, Jeremy Poynting, who was the first person to read the completed draft, certainly didn’t discourage me from this path.

And C. L. R. James? Earl Lovelace? 

As readers of The Undiscovered Country might suspect, James is a key figure in my thinking. Though I differ from him in terms of the final destination, the overall trajectory of his ideas on colonial processes accords with my own. To a large extent, the plight of members of the LGBTQ community in Trinidad is a direct outcome of colonialism: homophobic laws subjecting the gay body to police power originated from Britain and were imposed on the colonies. In Trinidad, the failure to remove a range of homophobic laws (we have an immigration act that bans gay people from entering the country, an anti-discrimination law that sanctions homophobia, and laws that have in the past policed gay sex) is directly related to a political system in thrall to race politics, which is generally paralyzed or inadequately attentive to protecting human rights. The lived experience of gay people here (which is admittedly varied) gives the lie of the term “post-colonial.” I do not see things in terms of writing about “chaos.” I see things in terms of writing about the unfolding catastrophe of colonialism, of history.

But I don’t mean to suggest that my new book will in any way be a didactic treatise. These are stories, first and foremost, about living and breathing characters, flesh and blood people (with emphasis on the flesh) who work and hope against the odds. I had Lovelace in mind when I was writing one story, “The Forest Ranger,” though, of course, I went where all my characters led me.

Discuss the place of music in your life and work.

Up until my voice broke, I was a choir boy in an all-boys Roman Catholic school. And, well, after that, things weren’t so hot. Nonetheless, music has remained a huge part of my life, not the least because of its role in my writing.

I’ve been counting the days until I release my Spotify playlist for The Dreaming. I found that, for this book, which is so much about writing and writers, music became surprisingly integral. I think writing starts in a space before language. The germ of an idea comes initially as an emotion, something birthed by a specific situation or set of conditions, and then that emotion is given form. As a writer, I am first and foremost concerned with the reader. Not in the sense that I wish to pander but in the sense that I remain acutely engaged with the reader’s response and seek to curate a specific experience that will, I hope, take the reader to where I’d like them to be. Anything that works against that, any stylistic intervention that is indulgent or gratuitous or that gets in the way of that, must justify itself.

Music can show us how to get the balance right, but it also gets us going as writers. As the title of my collection suggests, Kate Bush was a huge force behind the composition of the book, including her classic 1985 album, Hounds of Love. That album is a stunning example of the power of leitmotif — lyrical and musical. It also demonstrates an effortless conflation between concept and experience, politics and story. While there are weighty and important themes coruscating through my fiction, I wished primarily to make readers feel. In these pages, you will also find Kes the Band, Destra Garcia, Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, Taylor Swift, Drake, Beyoncé, and much, much more.

Which works of new Caribbean literature most excite you? 

I enjoy the short stories of writers like Alexia Arthurs and Zalika Reid-Benta, and the novels of David Chariandy, Lauren Francis-Sharma, and so many others. I’m looking forward to reading new books by Marlon James and Merle Hodge. In terms of nonfiction, I recently enjoyed Rajiv Mohabir’s Antiman (2021), and I am looking forward to reading Andil Gosine’s Nature’s Wild (2021). But I must confess, I don’t see things in terms of “new Caribbean literature,” because what is old can sometimes feel new, and what is new can sometimes, in a good way, feel old.

Illuminate your finest doubles experience.

Every Sunday, after church, my brother-in-law and I would line up at a doubles stand just outside Long Circular Mall, St. James. That vendor had the fluffiest, meatiest bara and the line would always, always be long. I don’t know if waiting in line so long did it, I don’t know if I was always hungry after Mass. I don’t know if it was something in the sauces, but that doubles was always delectable.

My brother-in-law died in June of this year. I have since stopped going to Mass. But I do remember him and those Sundays all those years ago. These days, when I get doubles, I’m just grateful. Each and every one is my finest experience.

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Stephen Narain is a Caribbean writer now living in Florida.