Novelist and digital rights advocate says Yale inspired ‘sense of wonder’
Novelist Deji Bryce Olukotun ’00 B.A. began writing fiction as a school kid. He would submit short stories to his teachers that they had not assigned him.
“They’d say, ‘Sure, fine, but you’re not going to get extra credit for it,’” Olukotun said. “I didn’t mind as long as they promised to read them.”
Olukotun nurtured his love of writing and literature as an undergraduate at Yale. After graduating from Stanford Law School, he studied creative writing at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. While in Africa he explored his roots in Nigeria, his father’s native country.
That trip helped inspire Olukotun’s first novel, “Nigerians in Space,” which was published in 2014. A thriller with a sci-fi bent, it wrestles with the phenomenon of brain drain — the emigration of talented people seeking educational and career opportunities abroad. The sequel, “After the Flare,” another thriller, hits shelves in September.
In addition to writing fiction, Olukotun directs global advocacy campaigns for Access Now, a nonprofit that defends the rights of digital technology users throughout the world. He visited New Haven in June to participate in the African Literature Association’s annual conference, hosted by Yale, where he shared the stage with Michael Kelleher, director of the Windham-Campbell Prize.
While on campus, he spoke to YaleNews about his work. An edited version of the conversation follows:
What inspired you to write “Nigerians in Space”?
I was studying fiction at the University of Cape Town, and I became steeped in South African literary culture and made my first trip to Nigeria. It was very interesting because at the time Nigeria was trying to recruit scientists to come and work there. That was the genesis of this story. One of the scientists there made a joke about “brain gain,” which was funny and stuck with me. I considered what a novel about brain gain and the issues surrounding it would look like. It just became a thriller because I really like stories that force you to turn the page.
How does “brain gain” figure into the novel’s themes?
People from all over the African continent are pulled into other countries and contexts because that is where the opportunities exist. I would count my father, who is from Nigeria, amongst them, as well as other family and friends. They would like to make a contribution to the countries they came from, but for various reasons the opportunities aren’t there. This novel wrestles with that situation and flips it around to see how things might go if someone ambitious tried to recruit all the talent spread across the world to return to Nigeria and contribute. I was interested in space and science because those are areas where you can say that African minds aren’t celebrated. Launching people into space is considered the high achievement of human ambition, but it’s been a Western thing, not an African thing. The notion of brain gain gave me a platform from which to look at these issues.
I also explored the idea of being caught between two worlds. In the opening chapter, Wale, one of the main characters and a NASA scientist from Nigeria, is playing basketball, which is as American as it gets. He is aware of baseball and American culture, but he hits what he calls a glass ceiling. He can’t advance as far as he’d like. He has a good job at NASA, but he has not fully realized his ambitions. He gets pulled into this effort — he’s not sure if it’s a scam — to start the Nigerian space program. Things go poorly for him from there.
The sequel, “After the Flare,” comes out in September. What’s the story about?
It’s a post-apocalyptic tale. A solar flare strikes the Earth and cuts off electricity in Europe and North America but West Africa is okay. Meanwhile, there is an astronaut from Ukraine stranded on a space station. The only country with a functioning space program is Nigeria. It’s a little bit of a rescue mission but there is some archaeology involved. It’s written as an adventure story and a thriller from the perspective of an African American man, who — like Wale in my first book — works at NASA. He’s supposed to go to Nigeria to create a neutral buoyancy laboratory, a facility where astronauts simulate their space walks while submerged in a pool. As in “Nigerians in Space,” all havoc breaks loose.
“Nigerians in Space” includes vivid details about NASA labs and abalone poaching in South Africa. How do you research your novels?
Since I wrote the book and in preparation for the sequel, I visited both the Johnson Space Laboratory and NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Lab, where the sequel’s main character works, so I was able to do more hands-on research on the science side. While writing “Nigerians in Space,” I was really working off of textbooks about lunar geology. South Africa has a strong tradition of geology because mining was historically an important industry there, so the libraries were filled with geology textbooks.
The character named Thursday Malaysius in “Nigerians in Space” gets involved in abalone farming and poaching in order to survive. Since I was living in Cape Town, I could visit the town, Hermanus, that is depicted in the book and where a lot of abalone pouching occurs. Everyone in Hermanus knew that poaching was a big industry, but not a lot of people talked about it openly. It was just understood that it was big money that came from East Asia. I visited an abalone farm there, and I spoke with prosecutors and police officers to find out about the nuances of the trade. There is a sustainable abalone farm, but people are still going into the water for abalone. South Africans are brave to begin with because they scuba dive and surf in waters infested with great white sharks. The money makes it worth it for poachers to go into the water at night with simple equipment, when there is a genuine risk that they could be eaten alive.
After you finished your first novel, you learned that Nigeria actually has a space program. How did that affect your work?
It seems absurd that I wouldn’t have known about the Nigerian program, but when I started writing the novel in 2006, though the internet was alive and well, it wasn’t as comprehensive as it is today. It was a different period and now so much more information is more easily available.
When I discovered that the Nigerian program existed, I happened to be in Nigeria for a work event and I arranged to meet a scientist who worked on the county’s space program. A lot of what I learned from that conversation — their struggles and opportunities — appears in “After the Flare.”
I think the amount of knowledge available about space programs and space travel has expanded exponentially since I write the first book. There is an incredible amount of information available on NASA’s website. There are space agencies in Ghana, Ethiopia, Malaysia, Japan, and India. It’s a fascinating time for space exploration.
In writing the sequel, I had to up my game considerably. There are authors like Neil de Grasse Tyson and Mary Roach. It was a ton of work.
Aside from writing, you advocate for the rights of people to freely use digital technology and access the internet. Can you talk a little about that work?
Access Now (accessnow.org) is focused on fighting censorship and maintaining an open internet. My primary area of expertise is internet shutdowns — when governments close down the internet so people cannot go online. Unfortunately, it happens in Africa, particularly around elections, but it happens in other countries on other continents. We campaign against bad laws and try to build support for better laws. We meet with decision makers and try to work with them to keep the internet open. We have a free 24-hour digital security help-line for journalists, marginalized persons, or anyone at risk. You can contact us, and within two hours our technologists will respond to help you with any number of issues, such as if your device has been infiltrated by malware, or if you’re locked out of your account, or if you are trying to overcome some form of censorship.
It is an exciting area of work. Every day there are cyber security breaches and new reports about government surveillance. I enjoy these challenges a lot, but as the internet gets infused into all of our technologies, the volume of work keeps expanding. Now we have refrigerators, pacemakers, and cars that are connected to the internet. We’re all carrying devices in our pockets connected to the internet. It’s a challenging area but we have great people working on it.
What has Yale meant to you?
I was just sending pictures to my roommates from Yale as I was walking around campus. We’ve stayed close friends over the years even though we’re spread out all over the country.
I had an inspiring and challenging four years here. I found the coursework to be rigorous, and I learned a ton, especially with foreign languages and history. I also played sports while I was here. I captained the squash team, which was practically a full time job. I was always busy.
In hindsight, I often think to myself, “If only I explored this or tried that while I was at Yale.” There was so much happening on campus. Beyond that, there was so much talent. The student body was truly exceptional. One of my favorite things was just to meet someone at dinner, strike up a conversation, and find out what they were working on. It was usually something completely different from my own studies and very, very interesting. Many of those people have gone on to accomplish amazing things.