Vagabonds is a book that successfully blurs prose boundaries. Is it a novel? Is it a book of short stories? Is it a memoir of ghosts and shadows? All correct answers. What makes it a wonderful book is the way it opens a conversation with every imaginable thing, this presents very interesting dichotomies. It is a very Nigerian book. Not just broadly Nigerian, it is set in a singular generational sensibility: millennial/2000s aspiring middle class/working class and the intersection with the very poor. The language: pidgin English, standard English, local languages and slang, the speech patterns, the bombastic nature of conversation in Nigeria is evident. There is a heavy allusion to common childhood myths and wonder. Some literary outsiders would call it surrealism but it is just another day in the life of a Nigerian child.
The book is about Lagos, its spirit Eko, beings who serve Eko, and the people (not limited to human beings) who live in Lagos. It has a loosely based structure on the narratives of Tatafo, the all-seeing spirit, highly favoured by Eko who later falls from grace like Lucifer did, a biblical parallel. It is a very honest insight on the city’s parasitic nature without the cynicism. The symbiosis between the decadent splendour and the rot, showing us how both need each other to survive. It is a testimony of the realities of queer people (especially women) in Nigeria and it is also a working manual for what systemic queer liberation can look like for Nigerians but it is not really a protest book, it is a book of creation. It is the word made flesh to dwell among us. At the heart of this book is the humanity of its characters, they all are life-like, even characters larger than life, even human beings with less humanity conferred on them by society. The best stories are human stories and the author has done a fantastic job of humanizing stereotypes and lives considered disposable by capitalist brutality. Writing about the uncomfortable part of love that sits with the peculiar problems of class divide without glossing over it.
Structure of the book:
Vagabonds is a novel that is structured around the narratives of a cast of characters, both human and spirit, who are all connected to the city of Lagos, Nigeria. The stories are loosely related to each other, and they often overlap and intersect. The novel does not follow a traditional linear plot, but rather it moves back and forth in time, space and reality, creating a kaleidoscopic view of the city.
The novel begins with the story of Tatafo, a spirit who is banished from the presence of Eko, the spirit of Lagos. Tatafo's story is interwoven with the stories of other characters, including a woman named Adura, a one of many shape shifters named Nkem, there's Daisy and her lover, The These characters all struggle to find their place in Lagos, a city that is both alluring and dangerous. The novel ends with the characters coming together in a moment of convergence. The structure of Vagabonds is one of its innovative features. The novel's non-linear plot allows Osunde to explore the complexities of Lagos in a way that would be done differently in a traditional novel. The novel's fragmented structure aptly reflects the fragmented nature of the city itself.
The book opens up avenues of conversation with other artists (I love this aspect as someone who first heard about Osunde through her exhibition, Obalende); musicians (Odunsi-the-engine & Duendita come to mind), street side gossips and writers like Toni Morrison, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Akwaeke Emezi who is a friend to the author. I can imagine some sentences will be written for their recognition. The author writes like a weaver (incidentally there is a character in the book called the Weaver). A grand orchestra totally under their control. Sometimes Osunde makes bold sweeps like the angel of death and other times they are as precise as a retinal surgeon.
Tenderness is the pulse of this book, even during moments of violence, the author holds the characters so tenderly, love is overflowing in its pages. I find so much similarity between Vagabonds and the a few poems of Romeo Oriogun. The closest parallel for me is in the story titled "Overheard: Hide us in God" and the poem (my personal favourite), 'It begins with Love.' Hide us in God is a story of Adura who employed Nkem as domestic staff. What is merely an accident of employment leads them on a journey of finding and healing each other. Nkem who has shed a body and was growing into a new one. Adura grieving the loss of her lover Wura, found a kind of succour in Nkem's friendship.
My personal favourite is Gold, as an Osunde fan, this story was a bombshell when I first read it on Guernica Magazine. In my opinion, it is the culmination of the whole story of Vagabonds:
"Where were you on the thirteenth of January 2014, when that law was passed?"
All the layers are peeled back, the lines are drawn and we see it for what it is, a carceral state versus the queer body. How radical Love can be, how it can preserve queer lives. That's all Vagabonds is about, radical queer love not just as resistance but as religion, as a celebration, as a force, as liberation.
Vagabonds is a testament to Eloghosa Osunde's masterful storytelling prowess. Through its boundary-defying compositional structure, the book beckons readers to witness the miracle and the ordinariness that is living as a queer person in Lagos and Nigeria. It is also a long hug for queer folks living in fear, saying your queerness should be celebrated instead of harmed and there's space for you to be tender, in spite of the violence. At its heart, Vagabonds is about belonging and the yearning for a place to call home. Characters grapple with their identities and their quest for finding one's true home will resonate deeply with readers long after they finish the book.
With Vagabonds, Eloghosa Osunde, re-invented the Nigerian novel for the 21st century.