When Deji Olukotun combined his two careers of law and literature, he came up with a crime thriller that is out of this world.
The Park Slope resident, now a writing fellow at the PEN American Center, was working as a refugee attorney in Cape Town, South Africa, when inspiration for his new novel, “Nigerians in Space,” struck.
The book tells the story of Nigerian lunar geologist who wants to steal part of the moon, an abalone smuggler, and the daughter of a freedom fighter, unravelling the mystery of how their lives and stories intersect. We caught up with Olukotun to find out how he dreamed up such a fantastical scenario from his office in Brooklyn.
Samantha Lim: How did working as a refugee attorney in Cape Town inspire your novel?
Deji Olukotun: Two of the characters are refugees living in the country, because that’s what I was doing for work.
SL: The book features a very colorful set of characters including an abalone smuggler. Is this based off a real black market in South Africa?
DO: Yeah! It’s a huge black market. I was researching crimes against refugees and came across this paper about abalone smuggling near Cape Town. It was so detailed and so rich. If you’re living in a little fishing village, it’s really hard to make a living. But if you get your hands on abalone, you can sell it for a lot of money … People also raise abalone in farms like with salmon farming. What I wanted to explore is, “What if you were really good at your job in one of these farms and you got fired? And you knew that a hundred yards away, you could walk into the water and make a lot of money?”
SL: Explain the concept of “brain gain” that is addressed in the book?
DO: Someone mentioned it during a trip to Nigeria with my father and my brother. The idea is to take advantage of Nigeria’s diaspora community and have them bring back what they learn. “Brain drain” is basically the exodus of talent from Africa — people who are seeking better opportunities by going to Europe and the US. The person who brought up the idea of “brain gain” — clever word play, which I thought was very funny — said it kind of cynically, but also implied that we should take advantage of what our countrymen have picked up overseas. That informs a big chunk of my novel’s plot. This government minister in Nigeria invites a bunch of diaspora scientists to return to form a new space program.
SL: Is this where the mission to steal part of the moon comes in?
DO: Yes! It’s the most thriller part of the book. I don’t want to give too much away, but the idea is that he wants to see an act of commitment from everyone to show that they’re more than just happy to be there — that they’re actually invested in the program.
“Nigerians in Space” is available at Word Bookstore [126 Franklin St. at Milton Street in Greenpoint, (718) 383–0096, www.wordbookstores.com].