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The People Who Write Questionnaire: Deji Olukotun

Nigerians in Space by Deji Olukotun_peoplewhowrite

Deji Olukotun is the Ford Foundation Freedom to Write Fellow at PEN American Center.

If your life (so far) were a book, what would the title be?
The Astro Trampoline and Its Wondrous Series of Random Bounces

What is the greatest story ever told?
For 19,000 years, we told stories around fires. The math suggests that the greatest story ever told was heard around a fire and we will never know its author. However, when we eat s’mores we can get closer to that peak experience.

Who is the greatest literary character ever created?
I thought the character of Sky Hausmann from Alastair Reynold’s space opera novel Chasm City was fascinating and original. I also loved the narrator in South African author Kgebetli Moele’s Room 207. If you combined the two, with an algorithm, then that would be interesting. But I probably wouldn’t read it.

Which living or dead writer would you most like to share a meal with?
I’ve met a number of writers I really admire through my work at PEN American Center: Francine Prose, Ron Chernow, Toni Morrison, Teju Cole, Zadie Smith, Ma Thida, Sherman Alexie, Jean-Euphele Milcé, Salman Rushdie, Eugene Luen Yang. I’ve been disappointed by all of them. They couldn’t fly faster than the speed of sound, or swing from buildings. I grew up thinking that all writers are superheroes.

In truth I tend not to enjoy meeting public figures, because I expect too much and I’m usually disappointed. My favorite thing is to meet someone impressive and only learn about their reputation afterwards. That way we can relate as individuals and not as fanboy and master. And if you told me afterwards that that person’s name was Haruki Murakami, I would be very happy.

What is your favorite word right now?
Cynical. It takes on a life of its own on the soccer field. British football commentators use it completely improperly, but they do it so often that it has established a new meaning: what we would call a professional foul in American sports, although the word has a more malicious connotation in their use of it.

What word has always looked or sounded strange to you?
Adumbrate, inchoate, and jejune. I think an alien from another planet inserted these words. She probably first landed in ancient Rome.

How many words have you written today?
A few thousand for my work at PEN. As for fiction, does this count?

Where have you had your most exhilarating writing experience?
I had my own office in the house where I rented a room in South Africa. I had a balcony with a view of Table Mountain, no internet, and great housemates to discuss books with every night. It was amazing.

What is the thing about writing that you most deplore?
The lingering feeling that I should be finding an audience, and that I should convince that audience to pay me money.

What is the thing about writing that you most love?
When the story and the typing fly along at the same pace, the conflict is humming, and I know I’m onto something good.

What stereotype about writers have you found to be true?
Most writers tend to have a deeply reflective side to them. They need that moment to be alone. It may be just one aspect of their personality, though, because they may feel equally at home at a karaoke bar singing Destiny’s Child. The stereotype that most writers sing Destiny’s Child poorly is unfortunately one hundred percent true.

What’s the biggest misconception about writers/writing?
That there is a certain type of writer. There are many types of writers who like to do many kinds of things.

What’s the one thing no one would ever guess about you from reading your writing?
You should ask the NSA. Please keep the answer to yourself. (They’re watching us.)

Purchase Deji Olukotun’s Nigerians in Space today.


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