A few days before the release of her book, Eloghosa Osunde took to Twitter to announce that she would give out free copies to anyone who could guess some elements of her book and say what we were looking forward to the most. I replied that I wanted to read about an alternative universe that incorporates elements of our lives, with queer people as major characters, she responded “done!”… and boy did she!
Vagabonds! Eloghosa’s enchanting debut novel doesn’t disappoint at all. The book is set in Nigeria’s notorious metropolis, Lagos, and tells authentically and spiritually the stories of queer people living their lives as fully as they can. The prologue reads, “There are simple and good and straightforward and well-behaved people, I’m sure. But this is not a book about them”, warning readers of what is ahead and telling us to stay prepared or stay away. Readers quickly realise that this book is for and about queer people who have gone and are going through the challenging stigma of homophobia in a country that rejects them.
For the first time, I saw a writer give a different kind of life to the already living Èkó (the spirit of Lagos). As a Nigerian, it didn’t take long to see why she chose Lagos, but what shook me, lifted me up, and tossed me in the air as I read- unsure if I would find softness or hardness when I landed- was the way Eloghosa goes spiritual within the city, diving into its many realms.
The book tells stories of intertwined lives drawn at the intersections of poverty, oppression, capitalism, religion and Nigeria’s queerphobic laws. Personally, my greatest fascination was with the character, Tatafo; they remain with me to the extent that I can still feel the hiss in their voice and experience their sorrow at times of introspection.
There is no definition or translation sufficient enough to contain the essence of this book and how it prioritizes the stories of the LGBTQIA+ community living in Nigeria.
The title of the book is drawn from Nigeria’s penal code which defines vagabonds as wanderers, having no settled home. To be a vagabond is to be defined as a person who is lost, a person whose otherness is criminalized, displeasing and generally categorised as unnatural.
With stories striking close to home for us queer Africans, it’s easy to see parts of yourself reflected in these characters who have been ostracized and stigmatized; characters who leave in the middle of the night wrapped in bundles of rejection; characters who recognise that those you have chosen serve better as a family than those who gave birth to you; characters who have learned to make love and say love with their mouths closed.
The chapters of Vagabonds! traverse disjointed narratives, from ‘THE BACK CURTAIN OF LAGOS’ to ‘OVERHEAD: FAIRYGODGIRLS’ (which prompted me to think back to my childhood and every book I have ever read, wondering if they were actually placed in my life by spirits) to ‘NIGHT WIND’, the tale of a girl who was abused by her uncle, who eventually finds vengeance in a relationship with the devil. With every new chapter, Eloghosa took me on a journey of my sexuality, feminism and my belief in a world beyond my physical grasp.
I particularly appreciate the chapter titled ‘THE BILL’, which opens: “Where were you on the thirteenth of January 2014, after that law was passed?”. When Tatafo starts speaking about the Same Sex Marriage Prohibiton Act (SSMPA), it immediately unnerved me, reminding me of a dangerously significant day for queer Nigerians and the passing of a law that has given way to further brutalization of the country’s queer citizens.
Letters in the chapter, ‘THE ONLY WAY OUT IS THROUGH’, show how the lives of queer Nigerians are filled with concealing and masking. These letters take us through experiences of heartbreak, love, and loss, exposing the ways that grief and yearning coexist, even when never outwardly expressed. In one such letter, Eloghosa shows what it’s like to live in a body mask- how queer people are made to live lives that are not theirs until the pretence crushes them and destroys their relationships.
Comforting me as I read, were the representations of allyship, how a mother supports her daughters’ transition and how two women of different classes lean on each other and form a kinship.
“But if everybody is normal, is it then good?” Eloghosa asks in these stories about disownment, religion and sexuality and having to choose between family or ostracization because you are the “daughter whose heart could do wild things like love girls” or a boy who loves boys.
I am thrilled at how real these stories feel, how they represent queerness surviving against all odds and the commitment of queer Africans to finding spaces to flourish and having enough will to water the love in their hearts. Because “if anybody deserves to live, it is us, it is us after all the dying we have done.”