Deji Olukotun’s debut novel Nigerians in Space, is forthcoming from Ricochet Books on 1 November 2013, with launches at the Neustadt Festival in Norman, Oklahoma (30 October), where he’ll be deciding on the next prizewinner as a Neustadt Juror, and at Skylight Books in Los Angeles (2 November), with Bangladeshi author K. Anis Ahmed. Corresponding by email, we discussed his first-hand research into the illegal abalone trade, his recent trip to Haiti, and his work as Freedom to Write Fellow at PEN American Center. —Vlad Osso
A lot of Nigerians in Space is based on first-hand research. I’m thinking specifically of the insider information you have on the abalone smuggling trade. What were you researching, exactly, and why?
I traveled to South Africa on a fellowship and stayed to work as a refugee attorney and study creative writing. As I was researching some of the violent attacks on refugees in the country, I came across a fascinating study about the illegal abalone trade. I decided to travel to Hermanus—one of the epicenters of poaching—to learn more about the trade, which honestly seemed too strange to be true. I spoke to local law enforcement and prosecutors and buried myself in the library. The mollusks themselves are fascinating, but far more fascinating to me is how the community interacts with abalone. The government is trying all kinds of innovative strategies to stop the smuggling, some of which I put in the book, while locals have been cooking abalone in their kitchens for generations. Abalone is part of the fishing culture in South Africa, and only recently did it become intertwined with the drug trade, which reaches all the way into China.
Mike Nicol says you’ve got Cape Town’s number. How did you get it? What do you think is key to bringing Cape Town to life?
I lived and worked in Cape Town for several years. South Africans were incredibly welcoming and generous to me. I lived with a South African family and, like many expats, I’d explore the city whenever or however I could. My favorite community is a regular stop on the backpacking tour—the suburb of Observatory. At first I thought it was just a place for tourists and study-abroad students, but the community is incredibly complex and continues to renew itself through amazing local creativity. Artists, musicians, and writers naturally gravitate there, yet there is a gritty underbelly as well. Studying creative writing in Cape Town really helped me bring the city alive. It meant a lot to be trying to learn the craft of fiction while living in such a cosmopolitan city and seeing sights that were both familiar and uniquely South African.
You’ve published stories set in Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, France, Haiti and the United States. Most of your fiction is set outside of the U.S. Why?
I’ve been lucky enough to visit all of these places. Growing up Nigerian-American, I was naturally interested in other cultures and countries. I like to explore themes of identity and displacement in my stories, but I try hard to link them to an identifiable, action-oriented plot. My family is full of great storytellers. If you can’t keep the attention of your audience at the dinner table, the conversation quickly moves on to the next person. The best thing you can do is make the story funny—something I try to do in my writing (though not always successfully). That’s why I tend to shy away from writing purely literary stories, although I love to read them because the best prose often comes from literary writers.
You were recently in Haiti for a PEN event. What was your time there like? What Haitian writers did you meet?
PEN Haiti’s former director Georges Anglade was tragically killed in the 2010 earthquake along with his wife. PEN Haiti has since rebuilt and is now run by Jean-Euphele Milcé, an extraordinarily talented filmmaker and writer. Working closely with PEN International, we supported PEN Haiti’s Liberez la parole festival, which staged free expression debates beween many of Haiti’s best writers in towns throughout the country. I met such literary greats as Lyonel Trouillot and his sister Evelyne Trouillot, Josaphat Robert-Large, the poets Georges Castera and Gary Klang, and the writer and philosopher Louis-Philippe Dalembert.
What do you do for PEN in New York?
I am the inaugural Freedom to Write Fellow at the PEN American Center. My team’s role is to defend free expression—everything from trying to get writers out of prison in countries such as Turkey or Cameroon, to supporting friend-of-the-court briefs on strategic lawsuits here in the U.S. I personally work on PEN American Center’s advocacy at the United Nations in New York and Geneva. So much of our caseload now comprises bloggers and journalists, so I’ve been hard at work on a new policy for PEN’s membership to fight threats to freedom in the digital sphere. It’s been a truly inspiring experience. My coworkers are amazing.
That sounds like an opportunity to undertake some truly important work. Thanks for your time, Deji.