‘I wanted to trace and exhume people who are expected to quietly disappear’

Author Deepak Unnikrishnan talks about Temporary People, in which he writes about the angst, aspirations and ambitions of foreign workers in the United Arab Emirates  

Temporary People distills the experiences of South Asians in the Gulf in 28 stories on 272 pages. Some of the experiences are lived (fear of and abuse by the Shurtha or the police), others are palpable (the possibility of a partner's illicit affair) and many are surreal (the scientific production of worker clones) and imaginary (the falling out of a tongue from a boy's mouth). It is dystopia – compelling and immersive.

Author Deepak Unnikrishnan says his parents and people like them, who migrated from Kerala to the Gulf, inspired this work of fiction – a culmination of over 10 years of effort. The notion of departure is something that the 37-year-old professor at New York University Abu Dhabi has internalised. Home, he tells Marisha Karwa in an email interview, is associated with impermanence and paperwork. Edited excerpts:

It's been over a year since Temporary People was published in March 2017. It's garnered rave reviews and honours. Did you see this coming? What do you make of the attention?
You try and take things one goal at a time when you’re writing something; especially after you’ve finished the work. For me, when I thought I was done (circa December 2013), I queried agents. And when Anna Ghosh decided to take me on, there was more waiting to come, as editors from various houses pored over the manuscript. I expected rejections but thought someone would take their chance on me. When that didn’t happen soon enough, I was bummed and mad and got pretty dramatic about my place in the world. At that point, I was a bit of an embarrassment and way too narcissistic for my own good. Forward a year or two later, and the manuscript wins a prize sponsored by an independent house in the [United] States. That was weird. And cool. But when the reviews began to appear in important publications, I was like, 'Huh!' But I was also relieved, and proud. Although I knew I got lucky. However, it was when the book won The Hindu Prize this year that I knew my life had shifted somewhat.

What’s been useful about the attention is I’m getting opportunities to talk about the kind of work being made in the Gulf by other artists/writers. That’s been fun and important to do. And every now and then, I’d run into someone at a reading who grew up in the Gulf and wants to talk or share stories. Or I get these e-mails, where strangers have shit to say, and I’m touched they took their time to write me. There’s also the other side where people (reporters, activists, academics, residents, locals) want to know your opinion about a bunch of things and you’ve got minutes to answer and then you sort of stall because you don’t want to mess up, because you want to sound cultured and profound and complex. I’m also aware that much of this attention is ephemeral. Soon, there will be someone else to read and write about. That’s fine; that’s how it ought to be. I am down with keeping the seat warm for someone else but my hope is my work will outlive me.

Temporary People has been described as “surreal”, “thought-provoking”, “robust”, “explosive”, “searing”. The work is equally difficult. What spurred you to write about the Gulf immigrant experience, or the experience of 'absence'? Was it an emotional vacuum that needed articulation?
When I left home (Abu Dhabi) for the [United] States, I was twenty. I left believing I wouldn’t return. My residence visa had been cancelled. My future was going to be elsewhere. But like I said, I was twenty. I didn’t talk about feelings when I hugged my parents at the airport. I was too proud to tell my mother and father I was scared of walking away from everything I knew. Like others before me, I cried on the plane when the cabin lights were switched off.

...feeling permanent has always felt strange and unreal, compared to needing to think about departure, which I’ve pretty much normalised. But this does not mean I am beyond sadness or disappointment when I leave a space.
Deepak Unnikrishnan

In [New] Jersey, where I went, I sort of looked for my community. I ended up frequenting an Indian grocery store owned by a Malayalee guy. I went there to speak my parents’ tongue and smell vegetables my amma used to cook at home. I also missed other things, like Arabic. And I couldn’t find a single person with whom I could talk about Abu Dhabi without explaining s**t. But that made me look for reading material that sort of captured everything I missed about Abu Dhabi. There wasn’t much to be had. I suppose that’s when I started thinking about what it meant to remember things. And why memories mattered. I don’t believe there was an emotional vacuum in my life at the time, but it was important to me I archived my family whenever I spoke about them. Because I couldn’t find them in literature, I used my parents as a springboard to write and document what I wanted to read/communicate/understand. And I started writing about people like them, or me, because I felt our presence mattered to the history of the place (Abu Dhabi), especially after we were long gone. In hindsight, I can now sort of claim that through my writing, I wanted to trace and exhume people who were and are expected to quietly disappear, eventually.

You were born in India, grew up in Abu Dabhi, studied and worked in the United States. Which place do you call (or feel comes closest to being) home and why? How have each of the cities you've lived in – Abu Dhabi, New York, Hackensack (New Jersey), Chicago – influenced you?
India isn’t home. It’s a transit point, where grandparents lived, and where my parents are required to return to. As long as my parents are alive, Kerala will matter. After, I don’t know. Abu Dhabi is home in the sense that I’ll never be able to get the city out of my mind because I was raised there. In Abu Dhabi, my parents were young, and it is where they grew old, so Abu Dhabi matters in ways India cannot. And I’m partial to New York City and Chicago because both cities freed me up to introspect and screw up on my own terms. But don’t get me wrong. I’ve had moments when America well and truly sucked for me. But through people (friends/teachers/partners) I met, experiences I've had, the country has also been kind and gracious and beneficial. I suppose America is home (officially) as long as I’ve got my green card, but on a personal level, it’s home because I figured myself out in the States. And as far as Jersey’s influence on my life goes, that’s where I met my mentor, Prof. Ted Chesler.

Attachment and impermanence are opposing ideas that “guest workers”, who must, someday, return to the place where they come from, must reconcile with. Have you too had to struggle with this?
As a kid, I hadn’t left anything (in contrast to my parents), because Abu Dhabi was all I knew. In the States, I got a taste of what it meant to leave home. But in Abu Dhabi, I was also taught (by my mother and father) to think of departure as an essential final act. So for me, feeling permanent has always felt strange and unreal, compared to needing to think about departure, which I’ve pretty much normalised. But this does not mean I am beyond sadness or disappointment when I leave a space. It’s just that I am on autopilot when I’m fully aware that I’ve got to pack up and go.

The book is an assemblage of difficult experiences – discrimination, loss, the otherisation, child sexual abuse, distance, trauma. Was the writing then a cathartic process?
For me, writing has always been a way to understand my place in the world. It’s how I process everything I’ve been thinking about. It’s where I put all my junk. But sure, writing also helps me think through rage and pain and pleasure. I’m not sure if the process felt cathartic at the time of writing. I suppose I was just firmly interested in archiving people like my parents and/or my friends. I was aware of time, I guess. I wanted to finish something before people like them returned to their homelands. Now I know I was probably telling myself that to finish the manuscript.

One of the many illustrations that fill the pages of Temporary People

Each of the 28 stories in Temporary People has a distinct narrative prose. Did this improvisation with each 'chabter' come naturally? What compelled you to evolve it in this manner?
When I started writing what became the book, I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t really thought through form, architecture or choreography. I was just writing whatever came to mind. Later, when readers/teachers/peers started asking me about form, I told them I didn’t know what they were getting at. What do you mean, form? It was only after reading more, experimenting, making mistakes, and learning from visual artists, that I felt more comfortable trying stuff out, especially when the book’s intent became clearer – so yeah, gradually, albeit quietly, the work/book evolved.

Your book is remarkable for the production attributes – the censored blacked-out words, the layout (Akbaar: Exodus), the illustrations. Were you convinced about the necessity of styling it thus?
Once the architecture was in place, yeah. It needed to be a document that upended preconceived notions on what a work of literature from a place like the Gulf, written by a writer from the Gulf, could be. I wanted the book to sound and feel and look a certain way. I wanted to do more but that would’ve increased production costs.

Would you call Temporary People your true debut given that Coffee Stains in a Camel's Teacup was published over a decade ago, and you didn't think it might get published?
I wrote Coffee..., too slim to be called a book, for myself. In a way, I took more risks with Coffee... because those stories were supposed to capture everything I felt at the ripe old age of twenty-two. I wrote Temporary People with other people in mind, my parents who raised me, my mates, strangers who left homes to live elsewhere. I remember gifting a copy of Coffee... to Prof. Chesler, my mentor in college. I was hesitant and proud. After reading it, he continued giving me books to read, schooling me in learning/reading more. And then there was the writer Carl Muller who gave me such a gracious and generous review, probably one of two reviews the book received in total. Those gestures sustained the want to write and made me feel I could write. When you’re that young, lost and hopeless, as I was too, such encouragement matters because then you’re hopeful about your foolhardy aspirations. Temporary People couldn’t have happened without Coffee...

What can we expect next from Deepak Unnikrishnan?
There will be another book. It feels bloody scary saying that out loud.

(Lead photo: Silvia Razgova)

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