yeset in and around Lagos, Eloghosa Osunde’s raucous debut is dotted with glimpses of the city’s famous nightlife. At a party in the Old Ikoyi district, “[the] apartment was high out of its mind. The bodies inside were teeming with energy… They could turn the music down, but why? It was a good night to feel this alive. A great night to feel the beat in your thighs, in your stomach, in your chest, pounding through your veins. You can’t breathe, sure, but do you want to? This loud love, the rapid-fire desire, all of it is what resuscitates you after all, is what makes you want to love the world again.”
Even when it confronts darkness in its condemnation of Nigeria’s political and religious corruption and homophobic legislation, Osunde’s partly magical realist novel is imbued with this rich sense of the kinetic and the possible. As intimated by the titular exclamation mark, it is a loud work. It boldly rails against the pernicious sexual orthodoxies and hypocrisies of Nigerian life. It also joyfully resists conventional formal boundaries, both linguistic and generic. Written in “standard” and pidgin English, adopting prosaic and poetic modes, Vagabonds! is a kind of queer phantasmagoria. It consists of short story-like snapshots about disfranchised dreamers and otherworldly beings living in Lagos’s thrall, all drawn with Osunde’s skill for foregrounding moments of quiet connection amid metropolitan cacophony.
A celebrity seamstress who must hide her relationship with another woman gives birth to a preternaturally wise, shamanic daughter. A gay chauffeur is made horrifically aware of how dangerous it is for him to love. A group of abused wives create a safe space in which to share their trauma – and begin to disappear. A pair of sex workers find transcendental solace in their devotion to one another. A corrupt politician gets more than he bargained for – or perhaps his de el just deserts – in an encounter with an AI rent boy.
The fantastical tone of the writing throughout serves to draw attention to the speciousness of othering whole groups of society. It also underscores the illusory nature of binary distinctions between “us” and “them”. Most movingly, it highlights how the experiences of persecution can make one feel strange to oneself. The thread that holds together these surreal and hyperreal sketches, not always effectively, is the character arc of Tatafo. Tatafo is a mercurial presence, one of the underlings of Lagos’s presiding spirit, Èkó. Tatafo is sent into the city to spy on its inhabitants. At the unjust Èkó’s command, Tatafo wreaks havoc, sustains inequality and stokes hunger for excess. But soon enough, Tatafo begins to question Èkó’s autocratic regime. He finds himself ejected from Èkó’s inner circle, full of questions and bent on change.
While the mobility of the narrative shape makes Vagabonds! an energizing read, there are moments when episodic similarities in tone, texture and content undermine the reader’s immersion in this bustling world. Underdogs, in their different guises, are always worthy of empathy. The powerful are unfailingly malevolent. Feelings are strongly felt. Especially at the beginning of the novel’s final act, as the tales become more compressed and floating, one might question the purpose of the narrative’s meandering structure. The slightly abrupt and unexpected conclusion – an imagined reckoning between the city’s elites and armies of the dispossessed – offers some answers, and uplifting hope too. But it is a long and wiggling route towards this culmination.
Overwhelmingly, what readers will be struck by is the powerful sense of freshness, newness and aliveness here. Osunde gives readers a visionary version of what Lagos is and what it could be. Reverberating with musicality and shot through with innovative figurative language, this patchworked, fabulist novel messily and mischievously appeals for a freer and more open Nigeria. In its experimental celebration of individuality, Vagabonds! is always defiantly and resolutely itself.