Sections 249-250 of the Nigerian Criminal Code Act has classified sex workers, people who seek financial aid, and/or “every person who cannot give a good account of himself” in public settings as ‘idle and disorderly persons’ or ‘rogues and vagabonds’ since 2017. This code has disproportionately been used to prosecute and arrest poor, disabled, neuroatypical, and queer people which means they are often arrested without warrant and imprisoned for a minimum of three months. In her debut novel, author Eloghosa Osunde takes the judicial label ‘vagabond’ and weaponizes it against those in power by centering the voices of characters who would fall victim to this governmental persecution. The result of Osunde’s thoughtful and artful maneuvering is easily the queerest book I’ve ever read.
My first recommendation for approaching Vagabonds! is that potential readers avoid reading the book description. If you read it the same way I did, you may come away with the idea that the novel depicts people who are reclaiming the label of vagabond from different points of view that later unite in a final story. While the novel unrolls in short stories involving several different characters and a few of them later display ties with each other, it would allow readers a better opportunity to become invested in the story if they approach it as a collection of unrelated characters who all share a similar status in Nigerian society. From mothers who find love in each other under the authoritarian society that sees their husbands abuse all the women in their lives, to young sex workers who remind themselves daily who it is they love, queer love runs rampant within the novel’s pages. Especially admirable is Osunde’s poetic turn of phrase in nearly every section of these stories. I’ve read several books that lend poignant wordplay to their social critique, but Osunde’s writing has left me with pages of quotes. In the section, “Tatafo (Half the Sky),” we’re given:
…balance is how all economies work. It works because we name them when we talk power, but we don’t name them when we talk harm.
This is a passage that resonates deeply as it comes directly after the visceral description of women within the book’s version of Lagos literally losing their ability to speak for themselves or any agency at all against men’s loudness. In “There is Love at Home,” we are treated to what queer love truly means when it ushers lovers to each other in response to the love they no longer feel from the families who have disowned them.
They saw each other so far past the pain that, no matter how hard their families tried to unsee them, they could never be invisible again.
Vagabonds! is, indeed, a very contemplative book that I urge you to read for a loving, yet, tangible reflection on queer life and love in a world that does its best to erase queer existence. This is not a book about grit, resilience, or strong Black stereotypes. This is a book that confronts the hypocritical passages of laws by the powerful who resent seeing people live their secrets aloud. A book where sex work is a means to an end but also where lovers can care for each other’s needs. A book where acceptance goes beyond tolerance in the communities built for queer people, by queer people but also in unexpected places. Sharing love means embracing vulnerabilities, which is at the heart of the many stories in this novel. Some vulnerabilities are shared to build trust and kinship while others are shared to aid revolutions. Vagabonds! captures it all and, if you give it the chance, it will capture your thoughts long after you’ve put your copy down.