Rediscovery

Andre Bagoo, The Undiscovered Country: Essays (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 2020); 196 pages; ISBN 978-1845234638 (paperback)

• June 2021

In his 2021 OCM Bocas Prize–winning anthology of essays, Andre Bagoo flexes his versatility across a wide range of subjects that he takes on with creative, critical gusto. Also underlining his playfulness with form are four essay-poems, two of which comprise striking visual art; in “An Essay into the Visual Poetry of S. J. Fowler,” he makes the point that “all poetry is visual” (105).

Sharing intimate details about his own upbringing in Port of Spain and his travels outside, Bagoo positions himself as a “queer” reader of literature, food, film, music, and politics—both in the sense of sexual identity and in the inventiveness of his takes on various matters. The sixth essay in the volume, “In Plato’s Cave,” is especially illustrative of Bagoo’s approach. It begins with his recollection of a United Nations animated short he viewed on Trinidad television in 1992, in which the overconsuming Nguyamyams threaten the survival of their planet, Pakaskas. Contrary to the film’s intended message, Bagoo admits that he took the “wrong” side as a kid. “To a slightly chubby boy from Port of Spain with an ever-growing penchant for macaroni pie, pone, roti, and doubles, their hedonism was irresistible,” he writes. “Who could say no to all those carbs?” (38). References to the Nguyamyams continue across Bagoo’s discussions of other films that proved formative during his childhood, including two that bear special relevance to queer audiences: The Sound of Music and Maurice. Bagoo recalls how his first encounter with the previously censored ending of The Sound of Music—the one in which the von Trapp family flees to the mountains to escape the approaching Nazis—challenged his own sense of self:

If before I could image myself as Maria in love, singing on the mountaintops, now I could imagine my young gay self thrown into a ghetto, forced to wear a pink triangle, policed by the state, stripped of dignity in a manner too cruel to contemplate. (40)

Bagoo’s detailed description of how he experiences the British gay romantic tragedy Maurice on Trinidad and Tobago Television is especially vivid, as is the way he recognizes subconscious resonances about his sexuality before understanding sex. But the most memorable film reminiscence Bagoo offers in the essay is of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. While much has been written about the attempted coup in Trinidad in 1990, no one has yet analyzed, as Bagoo does here, why the insurrectionists picked The Little Mermaid to play “on loop” during their attempted grab for power (41).

In the introduction to the collection, Bagoo explains his purpose as a writer of essays: “In 15th century Europe, ‘to essay’ was to test the quality of something. The Old French word essai meant trial” (7). And as promised, throughout Undiscovered Country Bagoo considers various persons, texts, entities, and ideas from and beyond the Caribbean, often creatively and seamlessly threading together otherwise disparate subjects. For example, he draws from Robinson Crusoe, Aimé Césaire, and Frantz Fanon in a sobering examination of Trinidad and Tobago’s postcolonial development in the collection’s longest essay, “The Free Colony.” Bagoo’s scope is broad as he presents case studies that stretch across centuries and span a global geography—section 1, for example, is titled “From Columbus to Brexit”—and draws on sociology, economics, and political science. But his purpose in the essay is clear: a withering takedown of the mirage of neoliberal nationalism. The urgent tone of his analysis appears to foreshadow a manifesto for freedom that he may yet present.

Bagoo’s effectiveness as provocateur is also on display in “You Can See Venezuela from Trinidad,” in which he weighs the absurdity of Trinidadian claims to the Venezuelan concoction of “bitters,” alongside their xenophobic responses to the arrival of Venezuelan refugees. At five and a half pages, this essay, like many in the collection, might feel too brief for an in-depth discussion of key details. Bagoo’s critical voice is most effective when he lingers on a moment, as with “Naipaul’s Nightmare,” in which he considers the Nobel laureate’s admission to his biographer Patrick French that around the age of six or seven, he was subjected to sexual abuse by an older cousin. “I was corrupted, I was assaulted,” Naipaul recalls. “It was done in a sly terrible way and it gave me a hatred, a detestation of this homosexual thing” (14). Admonishing French’s inattention to this remark in the biography, Bagoo intervenes as a queer reader and puts Naipaul on the couch. He deploys his considerable skill to undertake a psychoanalytical analysis of the confession, weighing it for ten times as many pages as French does. Pointing to interviews and referencing other essayists on the polarizing writer, as well as drawing on film and literary works in which he finds relevance, Bagoo makes a compelling case to consider how this trauma has shaped Naipaul’s writing and to revisit (but not excuse) his alleged homophobia, sexism, and racism. Characters in Naipaul’s works—the gaffe-prone murdering brothers in “Tell Me Who to Kill,” Bobby in In a Free State, Bryant in Guerrillas, and Leonard Side in A Way in the World—are offered by Bagoo as a kind of exculpatory evidence. “Is it possible,” he asks, “that [Naipaul’s] own homophobia was to some extent the expression of internalized conflict, directed at nascent tendencies, tendencies which then triggered shame and self-loathing and the desire to violently squash the legitimacy of such feelings?” Insistent that he is not apologetic about Naipaul’s homophobia, Bagoo writes, “I want to ask questions. I want to observe, as was observed of Hamlet’s mother, that Naipaul doth protest too much” (20).

Bagoo’s questions not only are directed toward an analysis of Naipaul but also act as challenges to the divisive author’s fans and critics, who often leave veneration or condemnation as the only choices available for speaking about him. “But it can be complicated,” Bagoo concludes. Yet it is through this “complication,” suggests Bagoo, “by this admission into the evidence of [Naipaul’s] own frailty,” that restitution lies: “We can restore the little boy who once held his sister’s hand as they ran together through Petit Valley away from a house on fire” (23). Consideration of the fullness of Naipaul’s humanity, Bagoo seems to say, is the kind of exercise that might bring better recognition of the complicated truth of Caribbean peoples’ experiences and culture, still too often flattened out in various modes of representation.

Bagoo conveys energetic curiosity throughout all his explorations in The Undiscovered Country, whether he is taking on Boris Johnson or imaginatively engaging poets Thomas Gunn and Ishion Hutchinson. He is convincingly argumentative without slipping into polemical speech, and he brings a coy playfulness to his effectively engaging discussions of far-ranging topics.

A final note on what warmed me to his collection: while Bagoo is clearly a voracious consumer of the higher arts—literature, especially poetry; fine art; and film festival fare—he also gives a platform to, and respectfully and seriously engages with, several underappreciated forms of culture, such as food (in “Doubles”), music (in “Soca”), and board games (in “Snakes and Ladders”), and a food confession in “Mark Twain’s ‘Corn-pone Opinions’” suggests that Bagoo does not confine himself to an elite circle:

I’ve had “gourmet” pone, from a restaurant that specializes in “deconstructed local classics.” I’ve had pone from a tired lady selling snacks to raise funds for her sick son. I’ve had pone warm, lightly drizzled with a caramel sauce. I’ve eaten it cold, as if it were some kind of iced treat, on the warm sands of the northern coast. (28)

 

Andil Gosine is a professor of environmental arts and justice at York University and the author of Nature’s Wild: Love, Sex, and Law in the Caribbean (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2021).

 

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