Book Review: VAGABONDS! By Eloghosa Osunde
To describe it lazily, ‘Vagabonds!’ By Eloghosa Osunde is an anthology series about a range of queer characters in Lagos. You see the rich, the poor, the lovers, the spirits and the spoiltness of the city. Unrealiably narrated by our ‘good’ guide, Tatafo, Eko’s loyal minion, you’re thrust into the mechanisms and machinations of the wild, corrupt and rambunctious haven that is the playground of Eko, the spirit of Lagos.
To describe it with more pizzazz, to show Vagabonds as it needs to be seen, it is a deep dive into the magical hyperworld of Lagos, Nigeria. Osunde weaves the political with the poetic, and illustrates the dangers of corruption loudly. Here, the author’s thoughts are not shyly kept. Osunde discusses real topics such as religion, queerness, love and oppression with tactical hyperrealism. In a stylistic and unique manner Osunde balances fantasies of human suya, AI sex robots and 'fairygodgirls' with political corruption, capitalism and serial killers. There is humanity and raw relatable emotion in all the characters. Skillfully, Osunde fleshes them all out in their short stories. The ‘Vagabonds!’ writing style is philosophical, metaphorical and opinionated. It is unashamedly and confidently Nigerian, using phrases like ‘treat your fuck up’ and ‘abeg’. It doesn’t seek to filter or whitewash and this is refreshing to see.
At the heart of the anthology is queerness. How queerness has previously existed in oppression and how it deserves to exist in freedom. It reflects and (rightly!) condemns the homophobia in Lagos society. In a particular story, a transgender woman questions, disbelieves and is in awe of her accepting, supportive and loving mother. In another, two sex workers in a lesbian relationship are depicted as the pinnacle of love.
Stories like this offer a glimmer of hope and provide a path that I sincerely hope Nigeria follows. Osunde looks directly into the hearts of Lagosians and asks for reflection with chapter titles such as Why be happy when you can be normal? and with lamentations from Tatafo who soon recognizes its master, Eko, may be unnecessarily malevolent to our dear vagabonds.
There isn’t really a cohesive plot. Not actually. Not really. Some of your favourite characters would love and leave you. Some will slowly float to you again. Visiting for mere seconds. In the book club I attend, The Comma Club, criticism is highlighted by the book’s lack of structure and the wide array of different characters. I understand. These elements can be distracting and hard to follow. It isn’t for readers who prefer conciseness as the amount of stories contained could be viewed as excessive, but the book does warn readers that it isn’t for the ‘straightforward’ nor the ‘good’. The book could have benefitted from content warnings as triggering themes of murder, cannibalism, assault, domestic violence and suicide are entwined into the various stories. As a Lagosian reader with sufficient eco-anxiety, I immensely enjoyed how the book spoke about the possibility of Lagos flooding with words such as “When The Water from Bar Beach hurled itself into V.I’s lap, that was rage, that was water warning the city.”
The ending gives us a sense of justice for the characters but it is easy to get lost in the metaphors of it. After two rereads, I can see this justice is fleeting in itself. However, delivering Freytag’s Pyramid is irrelevant for this book, I argue that ‘Vagabonds!’ is not something to only read but to experience. The sympathy you feel from watching a young boy pray against the gay and find a new meaning to God, the butterflies of a Lagosian meet-cute between two women and the fear of wondering if you ever ate human suya.
I say, let those feelings consume you and change you.
You may need to go over some pages again. You need to reread and reflect, particularly when Tatafo speaks to you. Directly, Tatafo asks where were you on the thirteenth of January 2014, when the anti-LGBTQ+ Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act was passed in Nigeria? Bodies dropped, people lived alone in madhouses and all vagabonds had was hope, is what Tatafo tells us. In saying this, I believe ‘Vagabonds!’ is asking for us to be better and do better. The book makes you wonder how can you save people. How much do you want to help ? What are you doing to help?
Even with its lack of structure, the message is clear. ‘Vagabonds!’ inspires, as it states that with all our flawed humanity perhaps if we can love, help and accept ourselves and others, our very beings can be magical and even better, happy.
When discussing with The Comma Club, about Vagabonds! someone asked me if it was true to Lagos. I answered that in ‘Vagabonds!’, I’m back home. They treat fuck ups here, discuss the hollowness of high society and throw bodies from Third Mainland Bridge.
Lagos is messy. Lagos is painful. Lagos has etched itself in my veins. I bleed Lagos and I’ve seen the blood of Lagos. Lagos gave me vipers. It taught me how to stand on my toes. I remember the salt of it. The sand of Eko beach between my toes, the wonkiness of Lagosian development. How we would shirk rules and regulations. The hiding of characters by moonlight. The ways it flourished and crushed me. Money controls Lagos. Sex persuades Lagos. Water will soon sink Lagos.
Eko o ni baje o. All in all, I believe that Osunde’s description is true.
Lagos is messy. Lagos is painful. Lagos has etched itself in my veins. I bleed Lagos and I’ve seen the blood of Lagos. Lagos gave me vipers. It taught me how to stand on my feet. I remember the salt of it. The sand of Eko beach between my toes, the wonkiness of Lagosian development. How we would shirk rules and regulations. The hiding of characters by moonlight. The ways it flourished and crushed me. Money controls Lagos. Sex persuades Lagos. Water will soon sink Lagos. It would make sense for Lagos to be controlled by a spirit that seeks glory and gore.
It makes sense that Tatafo speaks to us because Gossips can’t exist without forming a relationship. Their narration smoothens and calls to us. The book leaves you with an eerie message. If you listen, you can hear Tatafo saying, I’m here because of you. I am me because you are you.