Interview with André Bagoo

ILYA KAMINSKY describes the work of André Bagoo Essay Collection 2020, The unknown 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 men who sell double in the beloved city of the author of Port of Spain everyone, willingly or not, walks in chaos. In these essays, Bagoo, poet, journalist and fiction writer, asks a series of provocative and penetrating questions: how do we write about chaos? What lives outside the news? What are we missing when we label an entire city as “postcolonial”? How does our appreciation of the character of VS Naipaul change when we learn that someone close to him sexually assaulted the novelist in his youth?

Bagoo’s allergy to reducing, erasing and manipulating narratives leads to one of the most formally daring nonfiction books in recent Caribbean literature. A room in The unknown country asks if we can even define Trinidad and Tobago as ‘independent’, while another struggles with Heathcote Williams’ 2016 leaflet Boris Johnson: the blonde beast of Brexit. Yet another meditates on the West Indian penchant for snakes and ladders, with Bagoo exploring the game’s history, possibly originated in the 13th century as a ‘lesson in morality’ 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’s a motley study of colliding morality lessons from one writer that we watch take flight. We finish the last essay in the collection, “Crusoe’s Island”, which references the geography of Tobago, Thomas Jefferson, JM Coetzee and Prospero, asking what comes next for this irreverent, rigorous and 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 short fiction, The dream, which explores the lives of queer Trinidadian characters. How do you see your work in relation to this great tradition of writers – VS Naipaul, CLR James and Earl Lovelace – who are inspired by the music of Port of Spain?

ANDRE BAGOO: The dream follows a group of gay men as they seek sex, adventure, pleasure, self-fulfillment and love in Woodbrook, Trinidad. Of all the writers on your list, this book is the most in dialogue with Naipaul, especially 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 fit with my own artistic vision. But there are also important thematic connections, with the politics of my book meant to serve as a response to Naipaul’s worldview. I see The dream as its own thing, but it can just as well be considered extended literary criticism.

As a boy growing up in Belmont, I always wanted to be a writer, but never had the chance to meet one. Like anyone in Trinidad with ambitions to write, to see Naipaul, to see someone who vaguely resembled me, to be a writer – and the kind of writer who attracted international attention – was powerful. Her books were at home (one of my sisters liked Miguel Street as she slept with it under her pillow). When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, it was impressive. But when I looked for myself in Naipaul’s writing, I couldn’t find it: all his homosexual characters are timidly rejected, make you want more or end terribly. Outside of the lyrics, Naipaul also made matters worse with his unmistakably homophobic remarks against EM Forster and others. So, I saw myself but then, as a gay man, I was erased as well.

Yet if you come from a small place like Trinidad, where our nationals must defy great odds to reach the world stage, it’s hard to completely let go of what this writer has done. The hypnotism of his refined prose. The humanism of his first books as A house for Mr. Biswas (1961). The precision of his rendering of Trinidad as a backdrop. You can’t help but go back to it all over and over again, because you can come home intermittently, even if you’ve violently rebelled and left home. In some ways, then, Naipaul resembles Ezra Pound of Trinidad: as problematic as it is inevitable. Novelist Brandon Taylor has a great phrase – problematic ancestor. I think it applies.

So the idea of ​​a book full of gay people 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 an update. day too bold to resist, and my editor at Peepal Tree Press, Jeremy Poynting, who was the first person to read the finished draft, certainly didn’t discourage me down that path.

And CLR James? Earl Lovelace?

As readers of The unknown country might suspect, James is a key figure in my thinking. Although I differ from him in terms of final destination, the overall trajectory of his ideas about colonial processes dovetails with mine. To a large extent, the plight of members of the LGBTQ community in Trinidad is a direct result of colonialism: homophobic laws subjugating the gay body to police power originated in Britain and were imposed on the colonies. In Trinidad, the failure to remove a series of homophobic laws (we have an immigration law which prohibits homosexuals from entering the country, an anti-discrimination law which punishes homophobia and laws which have in the past controlled gay sex) is directly linked to a political system subjugated to racial politics, generally paralyzed or insufficiently attentive to the protection of human rights. The experience of homosexuals here (which is certainly varied) gives the lie of the term “Publish-colonial.” I don’t see it in terms of writing about “chaos.” I see it in terms of writing about the ongoing catastrophe of colonialism, of history.

But I do not mean that my new book will in any way be a didactic treatise. They are above all stories about living and breathing characters, people of flesh and blood (with an emphasis on the flesh) who work and hope against thick and thin. I had Lovelace in mind when I was writing a story, “The Forest Ranger,” although, of course, I went where all my characters took me.

Discuss the place of music in your life and work.

Until my voice broke, I was an altar boy at an all-boys Roman Catholic school. Well, after that, things weren’t so hot. Nevertheless, music remained a big part of my life, especially because of its role in my writing.

I counted the days until I published my Spotify playlist from The dream. I found that for this book, which is so much about writing and writers, the music has become surprisingly integral. I think writing begins in a space before language. The germ of an idea first comes in the form of an emotion, something that is born out of a specific situation or set of conditions, and then that emotion takes shape. As a writer, I care first and foremost about the reader. Not in the sense that I wish to flatter, but in the sense that I remain deeply engaged with the reader’s response and seek to curate a specific experience that I hope will take the reader where I would like them to be. Anything that runs counter to this, any indulgent or gratuitous stylistic intervention or impediment to it, must be justified.

Music can show us how to find the right balance, but it also moves us forward 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, love dogs. This album is a striking example of the power of leitmotif – lyrically and musically. It also demonstrates an effortless fusion between concept and experience, politics and history. Although there are heavy and important themes that run through my fiction, above all I wanted to make readers to feel. In these pages you will also find Kes the Band, Destra Garcia, Machel Montano, Bunji Garlin, Taylor Swift, Drake, Beyoncé and many more.

Which works of new Caribbean literature are you most passionate about?

I love short stories from writers like Alexia Arthurs and Zalika Reid-Benta, and novels by David Chariandy, Lauren Francis-Sharma and so many others. I can’t wait to read the new books by Marlon James and Merle Hodge. In terms of non-fiction, I recently enjoyed Rajiv Mohabir Antiman (2021), and I can’t wait to read Andil Gosine’s nature is wild (2021). But I must confess that I don’t see things in terms of “new Caribbean literature”, because what’s old can sometimes seem new, and what’s new can sometimes, in a good way, seem old.

Light up your best double 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. This vendor had the fluffiest, meatiest bara and the line would always, always be long. I don’t know if queuing that long did it, I don’t know if I was still hungry after mass. I don’t know if it was something in the sauces, but this double was still delectable.

My brother-in-law passed away in June of this year. Since then, I have stopped going to mass. But I remember him and those Sundays all those years ago. These days, when I have doubles, I’m just grateful. Each is my best experience.

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Stephen Narain is a Caribbean writer now living in Florida.

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