Review: A spirited Nigerian debut gives heavenly voice to outcast ‘Vagabonds’
On the Shelf
By Eloghosa Osunde
Riverhead: 320 pages, $28
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Does lack of faith make something unreal? Tatafo asks. Tatafo, a spirit and exactor of harms and blessings, doesn’t care what the reader thinks. Eloghosa Osunde’s world and her characters, including spirits, are so well drawn in “Vagabonds!” that even though I may not have the answer to Tatafo’s rhetorical question, here is a list of things I will never do after reading this powerful debut: 1) Bend over to pick something up in a market in Lagos on Christmas Eve. 2) Stay put when a group of other Nigerians is fleeing a bad wind, or 3) lie and say I’m mute to get a job.
Reading Osunde’s novel, so convincing in its storytelling and prose, is akin to sitting around a campfire late at night, telling scary tales, and having to check the back seat of your car before you get in just in case a man with a knife is hiding there. Aziza, a spirit and god cast into Osunde’s pages who likes to sweep people up and place them in a netherworld, is just the kind of being to lie in wait.
“Vagabonds!” begins with a list of dictionary definitions for the title word. Osunde will soon illustrate its slipperier connotations, which touch both the marginalized and the powerful — albeit differently of course. The interconnected stories that follow, with occasional interjections from Tatafo, are set in a Nigeria where spirits are as real and dangerous as warmongers waiting for a reason to cut off someone’s head. Their values are not 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 Osunde’s Nigeria, having either may just secure you a safe existence … so long as you also carry a machete.
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In Osunde’s telling, the vagabond is a uniquely Nigerian spirit, which she brings to life as mind, 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 ancient 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, casting a critical, ironizing eye on those who are both religious and powerful. More than that, she shows how threatened these elites are by the people they marginalize for their class, gender, sexuality, poverty or physical “ugliness” — as well as dreamers who take their chances in big cities.
This novel is in no way morally naive; it is well-populated by those who do wrong with little to no consequence. And it knows why prisons are filled with poor people: “To replace those with greater crimes.” Those words bring to mind Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” lyrics: “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems, must not have had enough money to solve ’em.” Ah, capitalism’s taint on justice.
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In one of the linked stories, “Johnny Just Come,” Johnny is a man from Raffia City whose cousin Clement gets him a job as a driver for rich men in fast-paced Lagos, Nigeria’s vast metropolis. To accept the job, which pays multiple times more than what he could earn at home, Johnny simply has to change his name from Aniekan to something others could easily say. And the other small thing? He needs to pretend he is mute. “To work in Lagos, you have to give up something,” his cousin explains. “Everybody does.” They discuss deafness as an option, as he will hear the secrets of powerful men, but decide against it, because how would Johnny obey orders?
Johnny ends up taking on many tasks: carrying his bosses’ children as well as a severed head, delivering messages and threats, collecting money and building his mother a house — a dream for many sons. Soon it may cost this vagabond his name, his lover, his sanity and his life. Osunde’s tales are asking readers to look again at what we’ve become. Among her questions: Did you think your silence would save you?
“Vagabonds!” abounds in spirits, but it defines the living city of Lagos and its very real rules. And though these rules can at first be hard for a reader to understand, and the voice dictating them can at times fall jarringy out of range, they become the powerful texture of the novel — or rather the game board on which complex characters are forced to play. And their teller, Osunde, becomes a bold new voice for bold new generations.
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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.
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