Eloghosa Osunde on Toni Morrison, Vagabonds!, and his music-filled writing process

Penguin Random House / Eloghosa Osunde

“I always thought I would write a book eventually,” says Nigerian writer Eloghosa Osunde, “but I just thought I was too young to have anything to say.” This long held belief was quickly changed years ago when Osunde applied for a fiction writing workshop located in Nigeria and was accepted. “Being alongside other Nigerian writers and swapping stories, talking about dreams and seeing that some of them would go on to become published authors showed me that it is possible.”

Since then, Osunde has had his writings published in several publications such as The Revue de Paris, Catapult, and Berlin quarterly. This year, she won the ASME Award for Fiction for her short story “After God, Fear Women,” which appears in the second half of her debut novel. Wanderers! Released on March 15, the book takes its title from the Nigerian constitution which designates anyone who is queer or defies cultural and societal norms as a “vagrant”. “I discovered this in 2019,” she says. “I didn’t know it, but I remember seeing that word and thinking, ‘Oh no, that’s not for them to decide.'” Thus, the title was born. The novel, set in Nigeria, tenderly puts people on the margins of society center stage, while shedding light on their passions, frustrations, and even complex relationships with God. “It’s such a thing in Nigeria,” she said. “You can’t really escape the conversation about religion. I thought to myself that if I make a world that looks like another Lagos, then there is no way to ignore the fact that part of being in Lagos has to deal with the question of God.

Below, Osunde spoke to ELLE.com about Toni Morrison’s impact on her work, the need for music in her writing process, and how this book changed her from the inside.

I like that you present Wanderers! with not one, but two quotes from Toni Morrison. The second being: “Definitions belong to the definers, not to the defined.” How did she influence you as an artist?

Toni Morrison is important to me, not just because of her writing, but because of the way she occupied the space. It’s such an important thing because I think by doing work sometimes people think they can tell you what to do. And I love that she never even allowed it to be a conversation. I love how she sat inside herself and I love how she viewed her stories as pivotal. I think most of the time we’re expected to pretend we don’t know that work is changing something in the world. We are supposed to act as if something happened by accident. I love that she made it clear that she knew exactly what she was doing. She intended to write with that impact in the first place. When I saw that quote, I remember thinking, “That’s exactly what I’m trying to say with this book.

Are there other writers who influenced this book like she did?

The main text that was instrumental in the book is actually the Bible. I feel like it’s one of the highest expressions of what language can do to a spirit or what language can do to spirits over time. One of the things I said to myself while writing this book was that I wanted to write it from a place that was spiritually true. I’m no longer a Christian, but I respect this book and think the imagery is sick. Have you heard how the Bible describes angels? I feel like a lot of my inspiration comes from there.

You write about love in a very beautiful way throughout the book. My favorite chapter is “The Only Way Out Is Through” which is told in the form of letters to a lost love. One sentence stands out the most: “Beside you, I loved myself completely. I forgot my favorite fake faces. I remembered all my skin. When you were conceptualizing the book, was romance always going to be a big part of it?

It was always going to be in my job. I think love is what saves our lives, don’t you? The world is brutal most of the time, but I think we can create small worlds where we are safe. Love is a great way to do that. It was also very important for me to represent different types of relationships, because the fact that these two in this story do not end up physically together does not mean that it is not a real love story. I’ve always thought about showing how people take care of each other. There’s a quote I’m thinking of [by Jenny Holzer] who says, “It’s in your own best interest to find a way to be extra tender.” I like this. By writing about love, that’s what I show.

“I think love is what saves our lives, right? »

I also want to talk about music because you mention a lot of songs throughout the book and I wrote a few of them. My new favorite is “Big Booty Problem” by Full Crate.

Oh, I love that. It’s such an amazing song. The first time I heard it was while watching the Savage X Fenty show. I paused it because I was like, “Wait, did I just hear that?” Then when I was writing the book, it came up in one of the scenes and I was like, “You know what? I’ll go with it. This song won’t leave me.

Do you listen to music while you write?

I listen to music every day. It’s transportation. I love being able to go from an Afrobeat song to James Blake. It is also related to memory; if you think about most of your memories coming back to you easily, there was probably music somewhere in the background. So it’s also a way to strengthen my memory. I listen to music when I write, when I go to sleep and when I drive. One of the best and most effective questions to ask a character is what music they listen to, because once you know that, you can tell a lot about them. Also, another thing about my relationship with music is that I’m currently learning to DJ. I appreciate this process of preserving music. I think the DJs do a hell of a job, to be honest. And I think when people aren’t just trying to play the best hits anymore, they’re actually asking more interesting questions, like, “What kind of set would I play if I was trying to give everyone something people in the room?” I know I won’t stick to any one genre because I believe it’s all connected. So, I guess the way I think about and experience music also carries over to my songwriting. Music influences my writing more than writing itself, more than literature.

Which chapter or character was the hardest to write and which was the most rewarding?

The most difficult to write was “The Only Way Out Is Through”. There is such grief in this series of letters that I literally couldn’t write it from my brain, I had to write it from my chest. There were times when it hurt physically. So that would be the most difficult. And the most gratifying would be either “Hide us in God” or the ending. Oh my God. I’m so proud of how I closed the book.

It is so good. So many twists. Did you always envision this as the end or did it come to you as you were writing?

This came to me as I was writing. The last sentence came to me the day before the end of the manuscript. Once I heard it in my head, I thought to myself, “The book is finished.”

Since Wanderers! is so deep and introspective, I wonder if you felt like a different person after writing it.

Yes, this book almost drove me crazy. [Laughs] There is this. Wanderers! demanded so much silence from me. I grew up in a home where it wasn’t a scary thing for something to reveal itself spiritually to me before it became real. Once I knew the form and destiny of my book, it presented itself to me. My book knew where it was going. He knows what he wants from the world. I think it changed me in the sense that when it came to me, I realized I wasn’t brave enough to write it yet. Writing this book in Nigeria is actually out of whack. [Laughs] I had to decide that my job is more important than the law and more important than what the people who love me will think. My work is more powerful than my shame. It is more powerful than the world itself. It changes you. It changes the way you walk. I walk differently because I wrote this book. I feel more spacious inside. Bolder. I feel bigger. I feel braver.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Scott R. Banks