For all the dying I have done, I have never quite read a book that permits and provokes me so violently to seize life. If I had to describe the feeling of VAGABONDS!, it was reading myself a new birth, hearing “nobody holy pass you” and accepting it, and giving in to the magic between the pages.
Individuals are at risk of imprisonment due to the 2014 passing of the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) in Nigeria. People with queer identities, affiliations to queer organizations, same-sex civil unions, and/or witnesses to queer gatherings can fall victim to criminal sanctions under this law and the social scrutiny that accompanies it. Due to this inhumane bias, many queer Nigerians are forced into hiding or to relocate, while some audacious ones fight for visibility in spite of the government, the constant probing for certainty, the societal oppression. Terese Mailhot once asked a poignant question: how can we feel good about our lives if we don’t see them represented in their full humanity? Eloghosa Osunde achieves this in her debut novel, creating a work that represents complex lives so we can look into our own with ease.
Someone once said, “The thing I love about clarity is that it doesn’t give you all the answers, but it removes the questions.” VAGABONDS!, an invigorating prose, is a testament to the clarity that comes with being seen, no questions asked. I have never had a book that I had to live-tweet like a movie as I read. The stories inside be like film trick. It tells you, this is how things are, and you can either take it like that or dust your feet from it. People will not stop being themselves and embodying their truth because you refuse to acknowledge their reality. This is a lesson everyone should learn.
A nineteen-year-old peels off her body to live new lives as easily as she drifts into them; a child can manifest from its own will and give her mother the strength to choose herself; rapture can whisk women away into a place of healing; a city can be a spirit, a trinity, the object of other city spirits’ envy, while still being a child that only answers to the spirit more powerful than itself. The city of Lagos is a drenched cloth that drips streams of chaos when wrung out.
Osunde writes life in such a tender way; she writes people raw. From the flow of pidgin into English and back again, to the stories themselves separating and coming together for a cohesive end. Her characters step into their stories fully formed, answering the call to “Come as you are,” and there is no pandering, no incessant need to break down their identities and make them digestible, for nothing is out of sight in Èkó. The cityspirit is packaging reliant on more packaging, despite the chaos it bears, the strife, the failures, the untethered beings that walk its streets. Èkó’s objective is to look glamorous and maintain appearances with his messengers, led by his head eye, Tatafo. VAGABONDS! slices open the underbelly of the cityspirit to pour out its mixture of glitz, glamor, grime, and grit. We see the literal and figurative skeletons in the closets of Èkó’s Vagabonds-in-Power (VIP). We observe the dissonance and incongruities of religion in a society that performs morals as eye service, along with the people who genuinely hold their God tightly against the smooth linings of their hearts.
People see others living freely and ache for instructions on possessing such ease amidst life’s chaos. VAGABONDS! delivers the tales of freedom and provides insights into their complexities, the power in a voice, in naming what you are, in fighting for your name, in choosing softness, in the magic of stories.
Above all, the unapologetically queer stories of Nigerians in the novel have nothing to do with the how-tos of being queer. It’s not the tragic coming-out tale, although there is tragedy. It’s not the problem of trying to embody a queer lifestyle; the people and spirits merely are. What is understood demands no explanations and doesn’t need one to be sustained either. They are who they are, easy as that. It’s a blessing for a Nigerian author to gift queer Nigerians this work, a promise of what can be, what already is, and what always was. VAGABONDS! is an acknowledgment of what can be, life without the probing for announced convictions. These are stories without the “are you sures” of how people choose to live (or die). Every idea I had of what Osunde should have woven into this Lagos tale, she addressed.
Society usually causes us to ignore people we’ve “othered”, to keep them outside our understanding of normalcy. This intentional disregard happens to the best of us, even if we would like to assume ourselves above it. Seeing that homeless person, the person with disabilities, the immigrant, the othered person, begging for money, help, a person to talk to, or the bare minimum—a listening ear. At times, our egotistical nature as people causes us to choose inaction, a path worse than others. And it leaves feelings tighter than a hangman’s knot on the floor of your stomach that multiply like cancer cells, uncontrollable and ruinous, but sometimes we feel unequipped or unnecessarily embarrassed, so we refuse to see the person for who they are – human.
VAGABONDS! strips and defines multiple facets of the Nigerian identity. It navigates the binds of oppression, power, patriarchy, shame, religion, healing, desire, and much more. It is a book you can be done with but it will not be done with you, ever. The love in the novel is so divine you can scoop it in your hands and taste it. From the Fairy Godgirls, Toju and Agbon, Wura and Adura, Adura and Nkem, Gold and her mum, a God “whose eye no one can reach,” women choosing themselves over their husbands’ Itches. We see the love that avails others in a way we can only aspire in ourselves. VAGABONDS! tells the stories of struggle, love, life, and the hereafter.
Toni Morrison once said, “It’s not possible to constantly hold onto crisis. You have to have the love, you have to have the magic. That’s also life.” VAGABONDS! doesn’t spoonfeed the longsuffering narrative of queer stories. Osunde provides insight into the point where the macabre meets the magnificent and the magic residing therein.
About the author:
Oluchi S. Agboola is a medical student living, working, and studying in the US. In addition to reviews, she writes blogs, creative nonfiction, and the occasional literary fiction. When she is not writing, she can be found at @OsoijaP infiltrating Writer Twitter, breaking through her TBR list, drawing, or trying to figure out how to return as Beyoncé’s firstborn in case of reincarnation.