One evening, when Eloghosa Osunde was a child, their mother calmly explained to them the meaning of their first name: It is not too hard for God to do. It was a prayer on their head, their mother said, and it would answer them all their life.
“I’m not sure how old I was then,” they recalled, “but I do remember it sinking down to a deep place inside me and fueling the audacity I began to walk around the world with. The meaning of my name made me believe whatever I made with my hands or turned toward with my might would prosper. My life tests that, so I can say for sure that it is solidly true. I was young when the power of my life first occurred to me, and I was also so much more right about the road ahead of me than I could ever have imagine.”
It was their great childhood epiphany. Although they also described it as the first time they conquered fear, their becoming a chronicler of alternate realities took many turns, from fear to uncertainty, to insecurity, before they arrived at what they deem their most authentic stories.
They knew from a very young age that they were a child that “not many people knew how to place.” They told me that, in the world they came to be aware of, even as a child, “many things overlapped, many planets and visions and prayers and ideas and hopes had to collide to make the me that’s happening in real time — right now — possible.”
They were brought up by a Christian and bibliophile mother — “a seer and miracle worker,” they called her — in a house full of books, and it was from the worlds in those books that they partly learned what was expected behavior from a “normal person.” As a child, they modeled their writing after the books they read, and, in primary four, wrote a collection of short stories imitating Enid Blyton.
“I was scared of words that came straight from my mind, so I only wrote words in the shape of the stories I read,” they said. They did not see how the world inside their head could be accepted, so they imitated what was acceptable. Fighting it had consequences. Afraid of what their stories could conjure, even by age seven, they constantly destroyed them, setting them ablaze or soaking them in water.
“Over time, I think I realised that my mind wasn’t a place to fear,” they said, “at least not the parts where words come from for me. The other rooms? Well, that’s another story. What has changed now is that I believe the flow of my own mind and spirit more than most things on Earth, and nothing — no matter how great it looks on the page or sounds in the ear — supersedes that for me.”
Osunde was raised in Lagos but their parents came from Benin City. From childhood until their mid-teens, they attended school in the former and spent Christmas in the latter, with a close extended family. Although the family visited other countries during summer holidays, one of the most jarring location-based contrasts that they picked up was the difference between the air in Lagos and that in Benin City. “It’s like two different worlds,” they said, “and I had a place in both.” It was, in a way, a macrocosm of their relationship to reality.
At 16, they moved to the University of Nottingham, in the UK, to pursue a degree in Economics. At first, they wrote sparingly, even though they read voraciously. They returned to writing regularly when they began a blog with friends.
If the great epiphany of Osunde’s childhood came from their mother, a key one of adulthood came in a workshop they attended in 2015, right after graduating. There, they met other writers doing the unconventional in their stories. “That changed everything for me,” they said. “I hadn’t realized before then that I didn’t need to edit my words to the point where they’d sound like they could have come from any other place. I could. . . make Nigerian writing. I could sound like myself.” They returned to their work with acceptance. The workshop led to their first published story, “Shapes.”
Over the greater part of the past ten years, Osunde has published short fiction and essays that imagine a surrogate reality to urban life. Their writing fits into a tradition of alternative realism, in which aspects of tangible human experience, usually unseen or relegated to the fringes, are brought to the forefront. They take from realism, surrealism, and magical realism. In their stories, people usually alienated from society are humanized. Those regarded as lost make sense of their experiences and find themselves, even in precarious times. Ghosts are protagonists and recount how they died. Unspeakable experiences take center stage. By illuminating these, they have created a parallel experience of fiction for readers, one in which outsiders feel less lonely and are understood by insiders, and insiders perhaps recognize some similarities in their lives to those of outsiders.
It was during this spree of writing that they reached for the Nigerian constitution, and, in the penal code of section 250 (6), came across a word: “vagabonds.” The document used it to describe marginalized groups — prostitutes, cross-dressers, homosexuals, beggars — whose ways merit punishment.
It rang an old bell in their head: that tendency of society to alienate those whose life circumstances or choices made them different. It brought back a memory, too, of a friend who died. It was a writing instructor with whom they held discussions on freedom, queerness, and the importance of telling impactful stories, even at a substantial cost. Their instructor had assigned them to outline a collection of stories they wanted to write. The outline was skeletal and they kept it aside. Their new epiphany of how language is used to alienate dissidents brought them back to the idea.
Looking now at the Nigerian Constitution, they decided that that was what the book would be about. They began collecting stories they had published over the years, aligning them to their new subject: a redefinition of what is normal. It was an effort to make sense of their own life. They opened that book, their debut novel Vagabonds!, with a clarification:
There are simple and good and straightforward and well-behaved people, I’m sure. But this book is not about them.
The novel is a shifting form, and writing Vagabonds! as a novel-in-stories was both a literary and psychological choice for Osunde. They’d once attempted to write a novel with a single plot, but stopped fighting once they realized that their mind did not work that way. “I think in vignettes, in bites, in thought clusters and concentric circles,” they said. “Stories happen for me in a cumulative sequence I can’t really describe. This was the perfect encapsulation of that. I am a weaver who knows what to do with pieces. Once I have put them down, it’s really just threads from there.”
The book is set in Lagos, referred to by its Yoruba name: Èkó. Among the 22 stories are the Tatafo stories — tatafo is Nigerian Pidgin for gossip, here taking the form of a character — of Lagos personifying and telling its stories from a fourth-person point-of-view. These stories have no main characters and view society from its most obvious features, including people whom society ignores but who are still there. The first Tatafo story, “Genesis,” begins:
Not one person, living or dead, has ever seen Èkó’s face, neither has any single person heard Èkó’s voice because Èkó does not talk to people. So, in the beginning, there was Èkó. Èkó looked around its own sprawling body — where concrete meets lagoons and beaches and bridges and great great noise — and saw that it was good.
Osunde’s presentation of Lagos — first as an elusive but felt metaphysical presence and then as geographical matter — is typical of how, in African myths, spirits are attributed to places. One Tatafo story, “Manual,” lays down rules about how to cope in the city.
Another story, “Half the Sky,” examines, with biting wit, the malevolence of men towards women. It is a society in which a man’s refusal to disrespect women would put his masculinity in question. You’re powerful, unstoppable, untouchable, society tells men with respect to women: there are no consequences for you. But Èkó, in its ironic sense of humor, acknowledges its own reluctance to blame men because they have been so programmed by society: a chip has been implanted in their brains so that they cannot behave in any other way but malevolently. Yet it is the women who continue to heal and regenerate that are Èkó’s heroes.
The main stories follow characters who struggle away from the central gaze of society. “Johnny” is a love story set in a dystopian world. The titular character falls in love with his colleague, Livinus, while they both live with their boss who deals in human parts and prohibits talking. Johnny is scared to talk, and, as they make love, Livinus talks to him quietly. Livinus becomes his voice, until Livinus is beheaded. The epistolary “The Only Way Out Is Through” tracks former lovers who meet after failed relationships with other women. It is cathartic: a long life of learning to navigate the tricky mazes of relationships, abuse, and coping mechanisms like drugs and dissidence.
In “Rain,” Wura Blackson realizes, on her deathbed, that her successful career and life were lived mostly for others, and decides to die for herself. In the chaotic, Marquezian “After God, Fear Women,” which appeared in The Georgia Review and won the ASME Award for Fiction, women begin to disappear as a result of the mistreatment from men.
“Thomas” has a choreographed hallucination of the childhood football lore about Nigeria playing against India: every time Nigerian players retrieved the ball, the Indians transformed it into the head of a lion. The Indians were leading 99-0, until they offered to relinquish their win if Nigeria scored just one goal. Nigeria did — and won: Nigeria 1-99 India.
Osunde’s treading of generational memories is similar to E.C. Osondu’s. Like in Osondu’s collection This House Is Not for Sale, the stories in Vagabonds! are not connected by plot. Where Osondu’s are held together by the history of a particular house, Osunde’s are bound by the turns that the inner lives of their characters take as a result of dissident choices or unfortunate circumstances — all happening under the watchful eyes of Èkó.
In an interview for Astra Magazine, Osunde told the poet Logan February, “I love Tatafo. I love that his character and actions are always in conversation with his name. He’s completely unbothered by goodness as a concept and is more interested in efficiency, because he knows he was made to serve, to choose and move, to act — not to be accepted. I learn from the way he moves, how he looks at himself, even when he is ashamed.”
In this sense, Vagabonds! is about people who are never credited with “virtues.” It is not that these characters are incapable of virtues; it is that, by societal standards, virtues are largely unnoticed in people like them and are instead gate-kept for people who qualify as normal — and so they free themselves from those expectations. Society may have its dictionary and definitions, they know, yet the world extends beyond what it deems acceptable.
Osunde’s fictional dissidence tears through the fear and loneliness that pervade lives in hidden corners. I first wrote about their work for Afrocritik, and what impressed me the most is how — despite its bravado and penchant to ignore story threads, resulting in a kind of writing that could lose coherence — it embodies real emotional insight.
In “Grief Is the Gift That Breaks the Spirit Open,” Agbons exits her body, goes to a place where they is unknown, makes men fall in love with her, and leaves afterwards, breaking them. Then she meets a woman who makes her fall in love, yet is elusive. When Agbon tries to know this woman, she leaves, just as Agbon has left her men in the past. The characters in “Grief” are perhaps the best written in the book; they show the nomadic life of vagabonds, how they are often in search of safety, how love seems to offer this safety, and yet, powerful as it is, they feel unsafe in love.
There are readers who have followed Osunde’s work for years and, upon the book’s publication, trended it on Nigerian Twitter. Some of them became an online tribe of sorts, proclaiming a sentiment of kinship. Osunde told me that they sometimes received photos of tattoos from readers imitating their characters, and that, once, they walked into a tattoo shop in Abuja to find that the piercer read and loved the book. They told me about an 80-year-old man in London who used to live in Ibadan, who told them where on his bookshelf he kept the book and why.
The writer Nasiba Mbabe Bawa, whose Twitter account name is Senior Vagabonds, told me, “This book has held me closely and warmly in a way I could not imagine. I feel a closeness to the stories, a belonging. It’s as if I were the proverbial square peg attempting to fit into a world that didn’t fit into me and one day I came across this other world that just had space for my shape and everything started to make sense. they has provided me with an understanding of life from the perspective of people that are trying.”
Some of Osunde’s readers have said that they felt more. “The book has an amazing spiritual element to it,” the poet Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto said. “I finished it in a sitting or two because it drew me into a totally new world that interested me.”
That glint of spirituality might have been transposed from Osunde. The Bible, they told me, affected more than just their mind. “The verses will always live with me,” they said. “I carry them around in my body.” Their online personality is a bohemian mix of the artistic and the spiritual. I asked about that aspect of their work.
“Is it an aspect?” they replied. “I’m not sure. It’s how I do life. It’s how life happens for and around me. I have always been around spirits and spirit readers, seers and spiritual giants. I believe that what separates this realm from the spiritual realm is not even a thin line; it’s a haze. Some people live fully here, some spirits live fully there, and some entities straddle both. My first address and real location is somewhere in that haze, and that knowledge has followed me my whole life.”
Like their book, their worldview falls within African philosophies which posit that the spiritual and physical worlds are not demarcated. “There’s no contrast or even a dichotomy to me,” they added, “it’s all just life in varying forms. States of matter. Solid. Liquid. Gas.”
Osunde’s flitting between forms mirrors their capacity as a multidisciplinary artist — in literature, the visual arts, and dance. In 2015, their first visual arts exhibition, Obalende, the King Pursued US Here, opened at Freedom Park, Lagos. Their visual art has since appeared in Vogue, Paper, and The New York Times. The three arts have different processes. They connect their concerns in a way that has allowed them to shed personal truths. If writing and visual arts are where they interrogate ideas, dance is where they heal. They told Afreada, “When I move, there is a place I touch that sort of situates me in my body and reminds me of it as a (habitable) place.”
In 2016, Osunde moved to Florence, Italy, their favourite city, to escape the heaviness they felt in Lagos. In Florence, they enrolled in the New York Film Academy’s satellite campus. Later, they dropped out to begin work on Vagabonds! With the book out, their relationship to Lagos has been altered a bit. “I love Lagos from where I live,” they said. “I go there when I need to, and I don’t often feel like I’m missing anything when I’m not there. That’s pretty much it now. But it’s an entity/energy/spirit/city that always has my respect. It’s still unforgettable to me. Always will be, I think.”
This year, Osunde worked on Victoria’s Secrets World Tour, creating a custom monologue voiced by Naomi Campbell, as well as some portrait codirection and choreography of their own movement. Currently, they are collaborating on a TV project for Vagabonds! Just before our interview, they signed a deal for their second book, Necessary Fiction, based on their short story, “Good Boy,” which won The Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize. There is a third book, too, which, they said, “is not a novel; just a fun playground I get to work in.” Meanwhile, last week, Vagabonds! won the Museum of African Diaspora (MoAD) African Literary Award. It was its first notable win after a slew of recognitions, including selection as a New York Times Editors’ Choice and finalist placements for the Edmund White Prize for Fiction, the Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize, and the VCU Cabell Award. Earlier this year, the novel ranked at No. 10 in the fiction category of The Rovingheights Bestseller List: Presented with Open Country Mag.
Osunde’s work and journey to self-discovery benefited from books by authors they saw as disobeying convention. “I don’t think a book had ever sucked me in with as much force as The God of Small Things did,” they wrote to me. They listed more: “Jhumpa Lahiri. Khalid Hosseini. Those writers’ work met me at the right time. I really enjoyed Jacqueline Wilson and Malorie Blackman as a teen, too. Toni Morrison. Maya Angelou. Soyinka’s plays. Ama Ata Aidoo. Celine Dion’s songwriting. Whitney Houston. Helen Oyeyemi. Lidia Yuknavitch. I just recently found stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa.”
Yet, for their own work, they needed to find a different way. “I would’ve suffered so much less internally if I didn’t keep a mental picture of what a novel should sound like whenever I got to the page,” they said. “My work did not, does not, and will not ever be or feel like anything else around — and thank God for that.”
All of this brought them to a place of focused personal observation and artistic duty. “I’ve come to understand my work more over time — through study, through stillness. There are things I’m cleared to say that no one else can, and I know this. I read a lot still, so I know that sometimes there’s power that can’t find language and then there’s lively language that just doesn’t have power. Vagabonds! is many marriages between beauty and power; spirit and structure; rhythm and madness. And, yes, I could talk to you about craft, but that’s not what makes the book the book; that’s not what caught fire. Writing a novel like Vagabonds! was a literary choice, and, more importantly, it was a commitment and understanding between me on this side and me on that side. Then accepting, and doing.”
There is pleasure in taking all of these in. “I’m swimming in many lanes at the moment,” they said, “and it works for me beautifully, because I’m ready and plenty. It’s all just starting, really.”
Osunde’s work has put them in a mainstream of opportunities, but they still exist in the social and mental margins from where they draw their characters. This may explain why they do not present the marginalized as those to be pitied but as unseen heroes rising from the shackles, rebelling when they can, finding skins of comfort. From the sidelines, they awaken the consciousnesses of even normal members of society to their own internal vagabonds. The restless stories jump in the face of the reader, like a shove to recognize difference as a thread connecting our humanity. In so doing, Vagabonds! elicits empathy.
“The deeper I go into life, the more I see that it isn’t a game of opposites,” they said. “The dominant reality is not the only one, and neither is the smaller reality. Dark things can hide in margins, in the crevices, in any space available — even inside light, even in the day. Characters come to me who understand that. We talk. They trust me and that changes me on the same scale as core relationships have. My characters teach me things, they sit with me for years, they hold my hand when I find myself in situations they themselves have overcome. They are my collaborators and friends in creating a world in which we will all be free.”
It is a world in which things overlaps. It is a way of seeing that guides their perception of life: love, deservedness, worth, spirituality, space, disparities, binaries, and all that bleeds into their work.
“My work does a specific kind of uprooting by confronting a thing head on,” they said. “Mostly, I have watched life from behind some heavy curtains; I have hidden in dark whispers, let shadows fall on me; I’ve been on roads long enough to know the things many people don’t see. There are systems that need to come down, and so my work starts from a speculative place: What if another world was possible? What if it isn’t just this or that? What if this isn’t all? ♦
“The Overlapping Realisms of Eloghosa Osunde” appears in the forthcoming second issue of The Next Generation Series, an Open Country Mag project profiling rising African writers and curators, edited by Otosirieze. The groundbreaking first issue, featuring 16 voices from nine countries, was released in April 2022. The second will be published in 2024.
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