In Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, a worker falls from a building and another stitches him back together. People are cultivated in petri dishes like plants, dissected at the airport. They don clown suits to earn some scratch, eat entire airplanes just to get out of town, and wage unsuccessful war against freedom-fighting, uniform-wearing roaches. Relationships are surreal dreams and life is suffused with impermanence, because home is somewhere else and departure is inevitable. No one is staying for long.
These are the people of Abu Dhabi, the guest workers who account for most of the people in town. Their status centers on a single point: work. Work defines them, sets their worth, and determines how long they’ll live in the area. Sometimes it determines how long they’ll live at all. But that is an outsider’s narrow view, and Unnikrishnan’s series of linked stories shows what this view misses. “I want to look at what you think about the city and turn everything topsy-turvy,” Unnikrishnan said during a telephone interview from his home in Abu Dhabi, where he grew up as the child of temporary workers from India. “I’m always amused by what outsiders think they know and their certainty.”
Temporary People is Unnikrishnan’s debut novel and the winner of Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. The first chapter was published in Guernica as the short story Gulf Return.
—Whitney Curry Wimbish for Guernica
Guernica: What conditions make someone a temporary person?
Deepak Unnikrishnan: You don’t think about temporariness too much when you’re younger, because you normalize it. You live here in Abu Dhabi, you go to school here, and you shop for your groceries here. But eventually you have to return home, and home for me was always India. There was no drama about the scenario—it’s just what you did. We were afraid to love the city because everything seems precious: not because it was fantastic, but because we knew we were not there for long. We were hyper-aware of time, all the time. In the Gulf, temporariness is so normalized that people don’t think about it until they have to go. This state also acts upon relationships. A child is attached to a parent who is attached to work. You’re surrounded by temporariness almost everywhere.
When I say someone is “temporary,” I mean that someone is in a place for only a certain period of time. If you’re a philosopher, you could say, “Well, we’re all temporary. We all die.” But I’m talking about how temporariness works from an official perspective: What sort of citizen are you on paper? Privilege is being a little more permanent than others, being allowed to linger more in a place without people paying much attention to you. But when you’re not of privilege, you have to be more careful.
If you’re looking for the book’s main tenet, just go to the dedication page. The book is dedicated to my family, to kids I grew up with, to people who are afraid to claim the city, and to people who are more than their professions. Everybody is interested in labor and professions; I’m interested in what people are beyond that.
Guernica: You discussed that false certainty at the Edinburgh Book Festival when you pointed out your spelling of “chabter” for each chapter. What do foreigners miss about a city when they believe in the truth of their certainty?
Deepak Unnikrishnan: People feel glee when they find the misspelling of “chabter” and think, “Clearly this is an homage to Arabic because the letter ‘p’ doesn’t exist.” But there’s more to it. The writer is telling the reader, “You’re in a place that’s odd and strange, and you’ve probably never been there before.” If you’re not familiar with how Arabic works, and you just see “chabter” and wonder why the writer is misspelling a word, that’s a fine reaction, too.
If you’re a writer of color, especially if you’re from a place that people don’t really understand, there’s an expectation that you need to explain things very explicitly—which doesn’t happen to a writer from, say, Chicago. They have more opportunity to do different things with language.
Temporary People is primarily a book about language. It plays with language, because it’s very hard to talk about a city like Abu Dhabi without doing that. When I think about Abu Dhabi I think about all its related languages—Hindi, Malayalam, English, Arabic, and other languages too—and how people have to figure out a way to communicate with whoever is listening to them.
Language is also about power. The accent defines you. If you’re a brown man, you have the hard choice of picking between speaking like a New Yorker and like someone from Bombay. This choice can be hard—at least it was for me. I’ve always been aware of how people treat you based on how you speak. The same can be said about what’s written on the page. What is your expectation of a writer of color from Abu Dhabi?
I get asked on and off: is Temporary People a novel or a short story collection? And I tell people, I don’t know. What I’m concerned about is if someone reads this and they go, “Oh, we finally have a book that explains Abu Dhabi or the Gulf.” I hope that never happens. It’s not fair to the other writers writing their works.
If I said, “Define New York city,” people would laugh and laugh. I hope they do that for this place as well. My worry is that someone will write a book and go to a publisher, and they’ll say, “Oh no. We already have a book about the United Arab Emirates.” Hopefully that never happens.
Guernica: How does temporality affect the way people relate to each other?
Deepak Unnikrishnan: That’s a question I’ve been asking myself for a number of years. I don’t know, but at the same time I do know. Some people really hang on to other people, simply because they don’t know how long they’ll have them for. When you’re in Abu Dhabi, you know people will leave, but it’s debilitating to think about that all the time.
For me, telephone conversations with family consisted of asking, “When will you be home?” And you wait and hope that the individual who’s away will return for a week, or two weeks, or a month. But then they’ll go away again.
Every time my family went to India, we were treated like the pope out for a visit. We were showered with attention and regarded as royalty. I never thought about this as a kid because it was great. Grandmother would give me anything I wanted. Cousins would take me wherever I wanted. But it was a performance. There were things I missed out on: play-fighting with my friends, getting my own coffee.
When I left Abu Dhabi to go to the states, I wouldn’t call home that often because it was hard for me. I wouldn’t go online and chat with my parents because I didn’t know what to say. The opening was always “How are you,” and I’d lie and say, “I’m fine.”
We didn’t talk about pain, and we didn’t talk about suffering. We evaded topics we really wanted to talk about because that was the only way to survive. This forces you to compartmentalize. Detachment is the order of the day. When you’re in between places and suddenly have to leave, you realize you’re fond of certain things. You’ve developed a strange kind of love of place, and you don’t know how to talk about it.
Guernica: How can someone manage that disconnect?
Deepak Unnikrishnan: The disconnect was difficult to bear because it did things to my psyche that I didn’t think of until I left. As I was talking about the city, I realized I missed talking about the city with people to whom I didn’t have to explain anything. And in talking about it, I found I was doing something similar to my father. I was trained to leave. I was trained to detach. But because my parents were still there, I couldn’t fully detach.
When I started reading history and reportage, I realized that my experience of home wasn’t being documented. That made me mad because something was being erased. I started to write to sort and figure things out. And I realized there was a language, there was a beat, there was a pulse to Abu Dhabi.
I was looking for stuff to read and I couldn’t find much. I couldn’t find my mother and father. I felt it mattered that they be remembered somehow. That they adore the place and they don’t at the same time. It’s home.
Guernica: What does using surreal elements allow you to say about Abu Dhabi that you otherwise couldn’t?
Deepak Unnikrishnan: The book ends with someone’s head in the cookie jar looking at a cell phone that’s ringing. This articulates helplessness in a way that another scenario, something more real where someone’s waiting at a train station, doesn’t do as well.
Surrealism allows you to examine and express conditions in a way that reality doesn’t allow. The condition of being in a situation where as long as you have a job, you’re allowed to be here, and the minute you don’t have work you have to leave—that is a surreal condition, honestly. I wanted to draw that same spirit of surrealism into my fiction, enabling myself to explain things that didn’t seem real to me, even though they were. This strategy allowed me to see the book as a literary work rather than something I needed to do so I wouldn’t miss my parents.
Guernica: Your writing is sometimes compared to Franz Kafka’s work. What does that comparison miss?
Deepak Unnikrishnan: I’m really flattered. At the same time, I think people ought to expand their consciousness of writers working in surrealism. If I had to pick a book to compare my work to, I’d say the Panchatantra. What I remember about the Panchatantra as a kid is that animals could talk, they could tell you cool stuff. People liken it to the Metamorphosis—but the Panchatantra was written way before that.
I think it would be useful and helpful for all writers to have more authors as points of reference and comparison. When I finished Temporary People, someone mentioned Daniil Kharms. I didn’t know who that was, and I looked him up and read him and I was absolutely grateful. Someone else compared the book to Cane by Jean Toomer. To my embarrassment I’d never heard of the writer, so I looked him up and read him, too. Everybody drops the name Kafka. But I think we can do better, because there are others and there have always been others and they deserve to have their names said aloud.