Through linked stories steeped in magical realism and a narrative voice reminiscent of early Salman Rushdie, Eloghosa Osunde's exuberant debut novel, "Vagabonds!" thrusts readers into the heart of Lagos, Nigeria.
The book serves a blistering response to Nigeria's 2014 Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act (SSMPA). The law criminalized same-sex relationships and LGBT organizations, allowing violators, or "vagabonds," to be punished with a 14-year prison sentence.
Narrated by Tatafo, a city-spirit guiding us through the megacity, much of the book's anger targets the hypocrisy of Nigeria's government passing the law under the guise of promoting morality. As Tatafo explains, rife corruption means any crime in Nigeria "is one phone call away from being settled" if "you just pay the right person the right amount."
Especially poisonous for Osunde's Nigeria are people using wealth to subvert laws they set for others. As one employee of an underground sex club is told, "This thing we do here is illegal for you. Not for them. Nothing is illegal for a rich Nigerian."
Focusing just on the novel's fury or the way some stories depict SSMPA's brutally dehumanizing effects is a limited view, though. The novel's final third showcases the greatest strength of "Vagabonds!" — its ability to convey the resilience and joy of its nonbinary, trans and gay characters, even under these oppressive conditions.
In "There Is Love at Home," Osunde blends the erotic with emotional generosity in a love story centered on a lesbian dominatrix and her partner.
"fairygodgirls" showcases the power of literature as guardian fairies try to get the perfect books into the hands of vulnerable adolescent girls. The "sentence-seeds" of these stories give hope and reassurance, telling their readers, "I'm seeing you, you're not the one who needs a new mind, it's them."
"Gold" warms with tenderness when Gold, a trans woman, asks her mother, "Why didn't you withdraw your love?" The mother explains, "Because you know you more than I know you. … So it's only you that can tell me who you are. You've told me and I accept." The moment of parental understanding stuns Gold, demonstrating the psychic toll of living in a society that overwhelmingly supports SSMPA, even as a friend reminds her, "Us being loved shouldn't be rare."
Some stories vacillate between heartbreak and optimism, but the book's soaring conclusion, "Witching Hours/They Will Not Depart from It," revisits characters we meet throughout the book and reads like the uplifting choral finale of a rousing musical.
For readers unfamiliar with Nigerian slang and culture, "Vagabonds!" has a learning curve. Osunde is not here to explain what jollof rice is or what wahala means, and the interplay between the spiritual and physical worlds can be disorienting. But Osunde's method also allows us to experience the full vibrancy of her writing, and she peppers her novel with enough references to other Nigerian writers like Akwaeke Emezi and Arinze Ifeakandu and food blogger The Kitchen Butterfly that "Vagabonds!" works as a phenomenal cultural entry point for anyone who, like me, is excited for more.
Vikas Turakhia is an English teacher in Ohio.
By: Eloghosa Osunde.
Publisher: Riverhead, 320 pages, $28.