On the shelf
By Eloghosa Osunde
Riverhead: 320 pages, $28
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Does lack of belief make something unreal? asks Tatafo. Tatafo, a spirit and collector of boons and fortunes, doesn’t care what the reader thinks. Eloghosa Osunde’s world and her characters including ghosts are so well drawn in Vagabonds! that while I may not have an answer to Tatafo’s rhetorical question, here is a list of things I will never do after reading this powerful debut: 1) Bend down to buy something at a market in Lagos on Christmas Eve. 2) stay down when a group of other Nigerians are fleeing a bad wind, or 3) lie and say I’m dumb to get a job.
Reading Osunde’s novel, so compelling in its story and prose, is like sitting around the campfire late at night telling scary stories and checking the back seat of your car before you get in, just in case a man with a knife is hidden there. Aziza, a spirit and god cast into Osunde’s sides who loves to sweep people away and transport them to an underworld, is exactly the kind of being that lies in wait.
“Vagabonds!” begins with a list of dictionary definitions for the title word. Osunde will soon illustrate its more slippery connotations, touching both the marginalized and the powerful – albeit differently, of course. The following cohesive stories, with occasional heckling from Tatafo, are set in a Nigeria where ghosts are as real and dangerous as warmongers waiting for reason to chop off someone’s head. Their stats aren’t much different either. money is power beauty is power Money is Owo, a spirit above power. Money is also “a legion” of spirits, “a battalion, a pantheon.” And money “makes beauty possible”. In Osundes Nigeria, both can only secure you a secure existence… as long as you also carry a machete.
In Osunde’s narration, the vagabond is a uniquely Nigerian spirit that she brings to life as ghost, body, spirit and even blood. “Miami and New York have a different bloodline,” she writes. “America is not Nigeria. Our own is different.”
“Vagabonds!” touches on old religious tropes: the forgiveness of “good sinners”; the retelling of human creation; the notion of a busy devil possessing human forms. But Osunde is also irreverent, taking a critical, wry look at those who are both religious and powerful. More than that, it shows how threatened these elites are by those who marginalize them because of their class, gender, sexuality, poverty or physical “ugliness” – and by dreamers trying their luck in big cities .
This novel is by no means morally naïve; it is well populated by those who do wrong with little to no consequences. And it knows why jails are filled with poor people: “To replace them with bigger crimes.” Those words echo Ariana Grande’s 7 Rings lyrics: “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems , must not have had enough money to solve them.” Ah, capitalism’s taint on justice.
In one of the linked stories, “Johnny Just Come”, Johnny is a man from Raffia City whose cousin Clement gets him a job driving rich men in fast-paced Lagos, Nigeria’s vast metropolis. To take the job, which pays many times more than he could make at home, all Johnny has to do is change his name from Aniekan to something others could easily pronounce. And the other little thing? He has to pretend to be mute. “To work in Lagos, you have to make sacrifices,” explains his cousin. “Everyone does.” They discuss deafness as an option since he will hear the secrets of powerful men, but decide against it because how would Johnny obey orders?
Johnny takes on many tasks: carrying his boss’ children and a severed head, delivering messages and threats, collecting money and building a house for his mother – a dream of many sons. Soon it could cost this vagabond his name, his mistress, his sanity and his life. Osunde’s stories challenge readers to look again at what has become of us. Among her questions: Did you think your silence would save you?
Vagabonds! is spirited, but defines the vibrant city of Lagos and its very real rules. And while these rules can be difficult for a reader to grasp at first, and the voice dictating them can sometimes be out of step, they become the novel’s powerful structure — or rather, the gameboard upon which complex characters are forced to play out . And her cashier, Osunde, is becoming a bold new voice for bold new generations.
Deón is a criminal defense attorney, college professor, and most recently the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Perishing. She lives in Los Angeles.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-03-20/a-spirited-nigerian-debut-gives-heavenly-voice-to-lagos-persecuted-vagabonds Review: Eloghosa Osunde’s Nigerian debut novel Vagabonds!