Eloghosa Osunde is a Nigerian writer and artist. In 2021 she won the prestigious Plimpton Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review. Here she takes us on a personal, literary journey through her hometown of Lagos through the perspective of a fictional character in her novel..
What is a city?
Look, every place has a spirit to match its concrete, a temperament to match its beauties — a genius loci. It’s just the way it is. To gather any set of buildings, people, things, roads, sky, waters and call it a place is to make something alive. And what did you learn from Genesis 1? To breathe life into a created thing is to give it permission to use its own lungs. It will walk one day, talk one day, reek of its own independent desires, bite into an apple you forbade, and there will always come a point where you — creator and inhabiter — will no longer be able to control it.
Ok fine, maybe that’s untrue. Some cities stay docile forever, loving the surrender of agency, wanting the submission. Some are sharp animals, chameleons. Others happen like a light broth added to a pot already on a sure fire, wafting off gently into the air. Easy to miss their hereness if you walk too fast. Some cities are children, wide-eyed and hopeful, demanding. Others are cheetahs, swallowing ground in long strides.
But Lagos? Enter it and what you will meet there is a sprawling shapeshifting masquerade. When it encircles you and makes a whirlwind of your world, stay calm. We’re only trying to move beyond that script you prepared, we’re trying to sniff your skin, assess your desires. It will only take a few seconds.
The five commandments of Lagos
Ah, so you are hunting down the art, the books, the music, the culture and colors that’ll keep you coming back? I won’t lie, I’ve met your type. Plenty. This will be a memorytrail for me, having done this many times before, but I know the first stop you’ll enjoy. In the meantime, let us go through the commandments:
1. This is a city for all. You share this place with flesh and not-flesh, and it’s just as much their city as it is yours. You’re not more important because you’re alive or because you see this way up or because you walk with your legs and breathe from your face. That it’s the only way you know does not mean it’s the only way there is. Don’t think that just because spirits forgive you all the time—for running into them, for bumping against them, for slamming their fingers into doors, for not answering when they call you, for stepping on them as they’re sunbathing on the road’s shoulder– they no longer exist, that their lives will not still touch your life. They are only giving you chance.
2. This cityspirit has uncountable parallels, is something different to every person – its spiritface a mirror. If the city answers to many names, if even it cannot define itself, then just as the world will never agree on the color of God’s iris, we cannot agree on who or what Lagos is.
3. To look closely at what this place produces is to look at yourself, to watch your own face, to meet who you are when there is no witness and only you can see you. To say, just as there are twenty one million Lagosians, there are twenty one million Lagoses. Choose your own adventure.
4. Be careful, keep a few eyes at your back, and have respect.
5. This is the only commandment with a promise: that if you do anyhow, you will also see anyhow.