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

Here are excerpts from Stephen Narain’s interview with Trinidadian writer Andre Bagoo and his forthcoming collection of short fiction, The Dreaming (Peepal Tree Press, 2022). For full interview, see Los Angeles Review of Books.

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.

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 BAGOOThe 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. [. . .]

[This interview was conducted by Stephen Narain via email in October 2021. Author photo by Azriel Boodram.]

For full interview, see https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/what-is-old-can-sometimes-feel-new-a-conversation-with-andre-bagoo

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