por/by Francesca Bellei
“If anybody deserves to live, it is us. It is us, after all this dying we have done.” The arresting last sentence of Eloghosa Osunde’s Vagabonds!, her much anticipated 2022 debut novel (Penguin Random House), reads like the fulfilment of a promise: the promise to get inside, fill, stretch and finally reverse the very meaning of its title.
As it appears in the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, a 2014 law which criminalizes sex-workers, queer, trans and unhoused Nigerians, vagabonds is a negative word by definition: Osunde opens the book by calling them the “unbelongers,” the “unforgettably unloved.” And yet, even as she tackles the difficult task of naming and meticulously unpacking their oppression, Osunde does so with palpable love and care for her own community.
As a series of interlocked stories unfolds, it soon becomes clear that not all experiences of oppression she names were created equal: many queer Nigerians who hold other forms of privilege can afford to hide, or even hide by making a spectacle of persecuting their own, like the unnamed Pastor and the Politician. But in Osunde’s spirit-filled Lagos, where darkness shines a light on truth, ghosts mingle with the living, and the devil is a mischievously moral force, both get their just deserts, punished by the very powers (divine and technological respectively) they had conjured.
There is something comforting and wondrous about Osunde’s manipulation of the boundary between the supernatural and the real, which effortlessly blends traditional West African stories with contemporary influences, like Pose and Carmen Maria Machado: the dead are not lost, those trapped in between can go on living, slipping in and out of different bodies in which to be loved, and Nigeria’s queer ancestors continue to be there to shepherd the next generations of their own through to the year 20XX, when the book ends on a joyous note, with vagabonds having been thoroughly reclaimed.
Like the fairy goodgirls of “Overheard,” the spirits of girls whose unjust deaths have kept them trapped in Lagos, Osunde is here to make sure that young “rascals” of all stripes get the books that they need to resist, of which Vagabonds! is, hopefully, only the first.
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