Hello, Hello! Welcome to my column, Queer Naija Lit, where I’ll be reviewing some of my favourite queer Nigerian books. It has been eight years since Nigeria passed the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) in an attempt to erase its undesirables, or at least push us away from its center, depersonalize and unname us. Queer Nigerians — writers, poets, speakers, activists, lovers, fighters — responded to this with a resounding NO! So they wrote, and lived, and wrote some more and they gave us, their community, our selves back. They gave us our stories, our lives, as terrifying and brave and beautiful as it is. These are the stories that helped me remember my name, remember that no person has the right to unmake me, remember that I am not alone and most importantly, that I am loved.
What better place to start than with Eloghosa Osunde’s Vagabonds!, a novel about the lives of Nigerians whose existence is criminalized? Vagabonds! debuted Mar 15 and — deservedly — broke Twitter. Even a week before its debut, my Twitter feed was filled with Vagabonds! anticipation, and a few hours after it was launched, glowing Vagabonds! reviews started to come in. Other tweets were from people eager to get a copy (sorry Joel!) or the lucky chosen that got signed copies. I love how communal my reading experience was. I live in the US, so I feel the distance from my community. With plane tickets being so expensive, and now a global pandemic, I don’t get to go home often. I was sad I couldn’t be reading this book in community like I would prefer, but that space was created online. I think so much of that is because the book itself is communal.
I read the book as soon as I could calm down enough to. Now, at the other end of it, I’m not the same person I was when I started.
From the responses I’ve seen, my experience is a common one. This book has changed lives, taken people apart and, with love and care, put them together again. It’s only been out a few days. So what kind of book could do this? What kind of magic did Osunde conjure? I’ll tell you, then you can buy the book to see for yourself.
Who are the vagabonds? In the book: “the queer, the poor, the displaced, the footloose and rogue spirits.” In Nigeria, vagabond is used in the criminal code of several states to refer to different forms of perceived or actual gender non-conformity. It’s a term the government gives to those it wants to see punished, erased or hidden. The novel’s vagabonds include poor Nigerians across ages and backgrounds, rich elite that hide secrets their peers legislate other people to death for, and queer Nigerian youth and kids struggling to build a life while being punished for their attempt. It also includes the spirit realm; the other face of the world and Lagos, pressed right against it and often going ignored. The spirits also have their hierarchies and power games. Therefore, vagabonds exist even among spirits, and the story weaves through realms. The characters deal with central questions a lot of Nigerians have to grapple with. Like, how do you find safety when your life is subject to the whims of the stronger person? That’s a question Johnny has to answer when the cushy job his cousin hooks him up with turns out to have a cost beyond the abuse rich people already subject their drivers to.
How do you love as queer Nigerians in Nigeria when the country could snatch everything from you in a heartbeat? There are different answers in the novel. Some characters navigate through privilege, others through hiding so well they forget they’re hiding. My favorite characters find ways to survive together; to grow fangs and learn to hold each other gently in them. These characters are a bold contrast to the government that denies their existence as unafrican and a “western ideology” or invisible.
To quote Daisy who works at one of Lagos’s underground sex clubs, “Being in a country where dykes were ghosts and shapeshifters for a living, for a life, meant that shit here didn’t work like it did aborad. But that didn’t mean it didn’t work at all, because people still found ways to love each other, even in nervous conditions.” The issue is not the presence or existence of queer Nigerian lives, but the cost. It’s this rising cost, not just for queer Nigerians but all Nigerians deemed not part of the elite that pushes the tension through the pages, to the novels end. Osunde rests on this: You can only keep people from living true lives and loving publicly, and never completely. Sometimes, you can’t stop people at all.
The novel has many hearts, and therefore many whole-parts. The music referenced in the book, for instance, is its own spirit. Its heartbeat rises and falls with the story. It’s a good thing there’s not just one but two playlists to accompany your read.
Another spirit Ékò — the city spirit of Lagos, Nigeria — is central to the novel. Quick background: Ékò is an old name for Lagos, and even before that, it was known as Oko by the Awori, its indegenous people. Lagos is a behemoth of a city, and Ékò is exactly that. The novel switches between Ékò’s spirit and human faces with dizzying speed that is reflective of Osunde’s skill with wordcraft. “See the cityspirit as a simulation glitching, mutating into hundreds of selves gathering in a sideways crowd”. Ékò is split into as many selves as the 21 million Lagosians inhabiting it.
Our first guide and narrator is Tatafo, Ékò’s favorite creation. Tatafo is an eye spirit, one of many created to see what Ékò needed seen. It is through Tatafo’s eyes that we see the beings that give the novel its name, Vagabonds, scattered between realms. It is Tatafo that shows us the glitz and glamor of Lagos, as well as the bodies that lie underneath and the blood that keeps the city running. That’s the thing about Lagos, it must keep running. It must, and the city’s vagabonds pay the price for it.
If it wasn’t obvious already, names are important in this book. Like their name, vagabonds are pushed to the edges of what is visible to allow those with privilege to look away or deny their personhood. At the same time, vagabonds are hypervisible, their sacrifice and blood a constant spectacle: househelps, hawkers, meguards, drivers, and sexworkers are the economic lifeblood of Lagos, yet are subject to endless violence from the upper class that makes up the minority.
Tatafo as a narrator doesn’t look away from the realities that vagabonds face. Through Tatafo, Osunde touches on experiences I had forgotten about, repressed, or didn’t know how to contextualize: schoolmates being pulled out of school to get married. The ceaseless violence women and children are subjected to, the pain, the sweat, the hunger. All of it gets jumbled in my head as [Nigeria] right next to home and love. It’s hard for me to make sense of, but Tatafo does so with ease. It’s what the spirit was made for, to be in everyone’s business. We are conditioned to look away from the things Tatafo picks apart. Abusers, serial killers, body snatchers, corrupt politicians, and violent spirits run amok under Ékò’s watch, often doing his bidding. Tatafo reports it all.
Something that strikes me is Tatafo’s confusion about Ékò’s inexhaustible demand for blood and bodies. To me, Vagabonds! contains stories within stories, and this is of them: Lagos was named by the Portuguese who settled there, named after their own coastal city. They used Lagos’s ports to sell and ship enslaved Africans across the ocean. The blood money helped consolidate Lagos’s emergence as an industrial center, particularly for the British colonizers that came after. You could say the blood spilled became part of Lagos’s spirit. Today, Lagos is Nigeria’s financial capital.
So Ékò demands blood, and his spirit creations work to keep him fed. But even Ékò must bow his head to a greater spirit: money. Money creates and protects the blessed elite, who steal and kill with abandon. The vagabonds pay the price. They’ve been named expendable. Vagabonds get hurt. They die. This is the hardest aspect of the novel for me. The violence is not gratuitous — it’s real.
Many times, Tatafo backs away from a description, choosing to spare the audience more detail. Instead, the violence is just present, and that’s enough. My memories filled in the places Tatafo did not go, but even that was a kind of healing. Vagabonds in my reality also get hurt and die. For a lot of us, the stories of our communities begin with death. As a result, this kind of telling is necessary.
Osunde writes that hope is fear transmuted. Vagabonds! Is exactly that. The novel is hope given form. A beast, formed by one of the strongest of all forces: love. At first Tatafo shares the scary things, the not-so-secret secrets. By the end of the novel, the thread of love-formed-resilience that connects all these stories is visible and solid. It spins all the way back to the first web on the first page. The thread is made even brighter by the sheer aliveness of the characters, and the love (or rejection of love) that is central to so many of their stories.
There’s also Thomas, who sees more than he knows how to see. Thomas, like me, grew up being told stories and given lessons the “civil” world tries to get him to forget. Indegenous knowledge is dismissed as superstition. In Ékò that’s dangerous. There’s Johnny, a driver who is way over his head and trapped in a Nightmare of a job. There’s the Fairy God-Girls, girl spirits whose unfair deaths have kept them in Lagos, wanting to protect still-alive girls who don’t have the power they do. There’s Toju and Agbon: lovers separated by changing bodies, lives and their own fear. There’s Wura, who wants to die well, and Adura who loves her even after. Adura who says: “It’s not that I didn’t love you enough to stay. It’s that I loved you enough to burn all the courts down” and “this is Nigeria. Even if we manage not to kill each other, they might still find us and eat us.” Then there’s Gold. Gold, who showed me what it would look like to be queer and Nigerian and loved by a parent.
“Where were you on the thirteenth of January 2014, when that law was passed?” Tatafo asks. Most queer Nigerians don’t need to look up the date.
I was in New York, finishing my second semester of freshman year of college when the SSMPA was passed. The summer before, I had been in Nigeria. I remember thinking things were different: far too many pastors at my house warning me to behave well. My cousins let me know they thought conversion therapy was a suitable, ethical response to having a gay family member.
I wrote it all in my diary. My aunt read it, and I was shipped off to Christian Camp with the aforementioned cousins. For two weeks no one who loved me knew where I was. Not long after, I left for New York to start University. Months later, that law passed. The shockwaves arrived fast and relentlessly. For Nigerians in the diaspora, there was an uptick in being disowned or being sent home for “training.” In some households, pastors were summoned for “deliverance”.
For Nigerians back home in the epicenter, it was even worse. Cishet Nigerians didn’t need more of a reason to be violent towards queer Nigerians — colonisation and prejudice did their work well — but the country was squeezing even more of its people’s lifeblood from their veins, and the guys in government make scary opponents. Why not direct the violence towards a readily available target? They killed, burned, jailed, and did much worse. Are still doing much worse. And the country looks away as their children, friends, family are taken because someone else named them wrong.
When I heard they passed the law, I thought nothing. Have you ever had your body hijacked by fear? I didn’t know how to think or begin to process. Trauma like that never goes away, not really. You just learn to make room, because you must, but that fear still grips until it’s released or transmuted. I grew bigger, but it will bring me to my knees everytime something brushes against it.
So in Vagabonds!, when Gold folds over after she hears the law is signed, and all she can say is, “Mummy, they’re coming for me” — I understood a part of her helplessness and fear. What shocked me was her mother’s response: “Before they get to you, they would have to kill your mother first.”
I used to know that kind of protection. I remember when my mother cussed out my brother’s teachers in four different languages because they framed him for something he didn’t do. That kind of protection extended to me, too, until I became undeserving, and then it didn’t. Like Gold, I spent my life waiting for the other shoe to drop. Unlike Gold, that moment came for me. I know now that I can love myself even when those that brought me into this world do not, and it is not a sin. Still, when no one you know has a parent that loves them in their truth, that sort of thing begins to feel impossible. Osunde made it possible. I’ve seen what the love I deserve would look like. It hurts, and I’m angry, but feeling is healing.
Osunde makes clear what is needed to defend queer Nigerians and vagabonds alike: Stepping in to move power we can’t move ourselves. The status quo is that poor, queer, Nigerians continue to be the scapegoats, while other Nigerians pretend the machete cannot reach them. But the police do not only chase down Nigerians they perceive to be queer. The violence of those in power extends far beyond the scapegoats. The homophobia the government is drumming up is a distraction. While you are looking, they will take the ground from under you. It’s a different story if those who want us gone have to fight all of us. In Osunde’s words, “love is, after all, what fights for us so that we can hold our peace.”
Love is central to the book, and Osunde writes about communal love so well. Better than anything I’ve ever come across. This is not a story about villains, and you find yourself rooting for the sometimes-bad guys. Because being a vagabond is not often a choice, you know? Because poet Staceyann Chin’s words resound strongly in the novel: All Oppression Is Connected. You do not unmake your suffering by continuing to paint with the oppressor’s brush. A different world means new ways of being and loving and reading each other. The ending of the novel echoes this sentiment. The vagabonds’ greatest strength is each other. We grow when we create the space for each other to be. That’s love. The ending we deserve.
Vagabonds! will continue to be written about, because it’s not done yet. It just got started. You should read it if you haven’t already. Get it for anyone you love (including yourself). Me? I’m going to read it again. Then find the audiobook and read that together. Then I’ll read it one more time just for fun. I know I’m not alone in feeling this:
Thank you Eloghosa, for naming the things people would rather look away from. Vagabonds! is righteous and unflinching truth. Which is another name for love. When you go through the kinds of things Nigeria’s vagabonds are subject to daily, yet people walk past like they don’t see anything, it invisibilizes a wound. Vagabonds! names what oppressive power would like to see hidden: the power of those it oppresses. When we name the wound, it makes space to address and heal hurt. Healing gives strength, and strength is needed to fight for ourselves and our communities. Vagabonds! brings queer Nigerians closer to living true and free lives. Thank you.
Queer Naija Lit is a monthly series that analyzes, contextualizes, and celebrates queer Nigerian literature.