Deji Olukotun by Beowulf SheehanDeji: I’m not sure what the point of another interview is. What can you tell me that Google can’t?

Bryce: Slow down, there, Deji. You’re way too pushy.

Deji: It’s a Nigerian quality. We like to get things done.

Bryce: You’re half-Nigerian. Anyway, not all Nigerians are like that. Some of them do yoga.

Deji: They were probably disinherited from their families. So, about my question–answer it.

Bryce: I’ll pretend you asked me what Nigerians in Space is about so people can decide whether to click to the next article or whatever. The book is a thriller about brain drain from Africa. It follows a Nigerian scientist who works for NASA who dreams of going into space. There are two other major characters, a South African abalone smuggler and the daughter of a Zimbabwean freedom fighter.

Deji: What’s this brain drain thing?

Bryce: 82 million people born in developing countries now live in developed countries. Some of these people were the best minds of their country, people who would have excelled at high-skilled jobs in the sciences, medicine, and other professions if their home country had opportunities for them. They leave instead. They send home a lot of money each year but that’s not the same as keeping that knowledge within the country to the benefit of the broader society.

Deji: I just fell asleep. Have you answered my first question yet? About Google?

Bryce: So one fact about the book that Google won’t know relates to the character Melissa. In the story, she has a mysterious skin condition that responds to the light of the moon. This came out of a personal experience. You see, when I was writing the book I had skin problems and I was mis-diagnosed with vitiligo. That’s when your skin doesn’t produce pigmentation. It’s hard on everyone who has it because it’s not contagious or anything, but it’s especially humiliating if you’re a person of color. The most famous example is Michael Jackson, though he never really revealed his skin in public, and today it’s probably the fashion model Chantelle Brown-Young. She’s a courageous woman, and so is the brand Desigual for promoting her.

Deji: I’ve got places to go and people to see. What shelf would I find Nigerians in Space on? African literature?

Bryce: I wrote it while I was being taught by a mystery writer named Mike Nicol. So you could put it there. But it’s got some sci-fi in it, so you could put it there, too. Just put it on any shelf and I’ll be happy. If you do, I will buy you a chocolate croissant for breakfast.

Deji: I like palm oil with my eggs for breakfast. You’re the one who likes cappuccinos and chocolate croissants and dainty things. I am naturally caffeinated.

Bryce: I saw you sneak a Red Bull the other day.

Deji: That’s true. Puts fire in my belly, Red Bull. Makes you strong. You can dance all night.

Bryce: Yes, I remember your dance moves all too well. Now, let me ask you a question, Deji. Why are you so excited about science? Why did you put that in the book? I mean, I stopped caring about science when I was in high school. I couldn’t see the value of organic chemistry and physics and whatever.

Deji: That’s because you gave up learning when science required you to actually study. I write about science because I grew up around scientists of color. My father is one and his friends would drop and in and they’d chat about nuclear medicine as if they were discussing sports. Our next door neighbor studied interplanetary weather at the Institute for Advanced Science at Princeton. I used to mow his lawn. Once you start to ask questions about what we’re doing here and why, you’re going to run into science. And with new technology, science will permeate deeper and deeper into our lives. You can’t just stare out the window all day and daydream about dragons and peregrine falcons like you do.

Bryce: Touché. But if I didn’t stare out the window I wouldn’t be writing a sequel.

Deji: I didn’t know that was happening.

Bryce: I didn’t want to tell you. You’d say you didn’t have enough time in your schedule.

Deji: That’s true. I don’t. I’ve got a day job.

Bryce: Remember that trip to Nigeria in September?

Deji: That’s right. I was working with the writers group PEN Nigeria on some new legislation. Boy was I sick!

Bryce: Yeah, you had a nasty cold while everyone else was worrying about Ebola. And people told you not to walk around in the markets because you’d be a target for Boko Haram.

Deji: They were just being protective. There have been two bombings but it’s generally not that dangerous in Abuja. People get on with their lives.

Bryce: Anyway, while you were working with PEN Nigeria, I went and met with the lead engineer of the Nigerian Space program. We had a good long chat and it really inspired me to write the next novel. I’m not sure where it’s going, but I think I’ll push the story deeper into the realm of sci-fi and speculative fiction. I think there will actually be two sequels. That will make it a trilogy.

Deji: What is it with you and Star Wars?

Bryce: I can’t help it. I like trilogies. Jeff Vandermeer did it. So did Elena Ferrante. Good things come in threes.

Deji: But, I mean, Jar Jar Binks? I can’t believe you found him funny.

Bryce: For the record, I only laughed at one Jar Jar Binks line during all of Episode I.

Deji: That was a good line. What was it again?

Bryce: If I told you then Google would know everything there is to know about us.

Deji: Yes, let’s draw the line at Jar Jar. We’ve talked for long enough. I need to get back to my career.

Bryce: And I need a chocolate croissant.



DEJI BRYCE OLUKOTUN graduated from the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town, where he was taught by South African writers André Brink, Mike Nicol, Andre Wiesner, and Henrietta Rose-Innes. He also holds degrees from Yale College and Stanford Law School. His novel Nigerians in Space, a thriller about brain drain from Africa, was published by Unnamed Press. His work has been featured in Vice, Slate, GigaOm, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, Guernica, The Millions, World Literature Today, ESPN, Chimurenga, Global Voices, Joyland, Words Without Borders, Alternet, Huffington Post, PEN America, The London Magazine, Molussus, The Beat, and Men’s Health. Deji is an attorney with a background in human rights and technology. He currently works at the digital rights organization Access, where he drives campaigns on net neutrality and surveillance. Before that, he fought for free expression and the defense of writers around the world at PEN American Center with support from the Ford Foundation.

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