An Indies Introduce Q&A With Deepak Unnikrishnan

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Deepak Unnikrishnan is the author of Temporary People, a Winter/Spring 2017 Indies Introduce debut novel for adults. Indies Introduce panelist Hilary Gustafson, co-owner of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said Unnikrishnan is an “immensely talented new voice.”

“From the strange, Kafka-esque scenarios to the wholly original language, this book is amazing on so many different levels,” said Gustafson. “Unlike anything I’ve ever read, Temporary People is a powerful work of short stories about foreign nationals who populate the new economy in the United Arab Emirates. With inventive language and darkly satirical plot lines, Unnikrishnan provides an important view of the relentless nature of a global economy and its brutal consequences for human lives.”

Unnikrishnan, who hails from Abu Dhabi, studied and taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and presently teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi. Temporary People was the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.

Gustafson and Unnikrishnan recently discussed the author’s influences and the importance of language in creating the unique rhythm of Temporary People.

Hilary Gustafson: Temporary People is a set of stories wondrously bizarre fables, really that highlight the lives of foreign nationals in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They are workers, hustlers, writers. They are Sri Lankan, Indian, Filipino, Sudanese, Somali. They are mothers, sons, uncles, nieces. But you demonstrate how occupation, nationality, and family often do not matter. How are temporary workers defined in the UAE? How do you work within or try to break out of these definitions in Temporary People?

Deepak Unnikrishnan, author of Temporary People
Photo by Philip Cheung

Deepak Unnikrishnan: I’m guessing there are those who’d fight you on what to call temporary workers in the UAE: guest workers, migrant workers, foreign nationals, foreign workers, expats, labor. Barring expat, a privileged position (more on this later), these terminologies are confining. Why? Because when some people think about the imported plumber or security guard, if they’re using the term guest worker, they’re mainly thinking about plumbing or security. But Ravi the plumber could also have been a professor of economics, plus a chai connoisseur. And Flavia the guard could be a failed or burgeoning entrepreneur who is into country music. The word “expat,” on the other hand, has more juice. To 10-year-old me, expat was a privileged position. Expats had access to Land Rovers and horse races and restaurants with shiny cutlery. Brown people weren’t meant to be expats. They didn’t have access or influence, or so we assumed as kids. I am wiser now, aware that expats are also allowed to be brown, and can be as race-conscious and vicious as any other color. So when I began writing Temporary People, I wanted to write about people who were what they were, irrespective of nationality. And in some cases, they were what they were because they were always reminded of their nationality.

And thank you for listing some of the temporary people in the book. Indeed, they’re kids, parents, uncles, aunts, spinsters, widows. These people are not just labor, or the children of labor. They’ve got names, they’ve got stories. They rage and mourn, laugh and cry. And that was important to me, that these people who populate the book had some sort of agency, that they weren’t necessarily happy but alive. And the book accepts temporariness as an inevitability, not a curse, even though many of these characters would love to have the spell lifted, to be able to stay or leave on their own terms.

HG: Your own parents were temporary workers in the UAE. How has your own family’s experience informed your work?

Temporary People by Deepak UnnikrishnanDU: My family has lived in the UAE for over four decades. Abu Dhabi is my city because it is my family’s city. Our parents ensured we had a good childhood, even though there were periods of struggle. Money was a problem and the need for it debilitated all of us. But my parents persevered, partly because they didn’t want to return home (to India) defeated. And by then, they were part of the Gulf, inhabitants who in their own way cherished the place. But you see, you can’t stay forever, either. At some point, you’ve got to leave. I’d always wondered about the return, and the closer my parents were getting to that moment, the more anxious I (and possibly they) became. But choosing to stay had consequences. My acchan and amma ended up looking after their parents from a distance. Then they lost them. And I didn’t understand back then why those deaths were so relevant to my own life. Temporary People is populated with old people, men and women who are reservoirs of myth and memory, elders of a country I’ve never fully understood, India, but was asked to embrace. The book is also a response to the state of temporariness, what that does to people, especially children. Why they may be anal about documents, or dismissive or business-minded about attachments. And, see, writing is a privilege. I understood I was not the migrant/worker my father was upon the realization that I prioritized writing over finding work, or nabbing the fucking green card. In the beginning, that didn’t make sense, because my parents needed the money. But I guess I began to write in the States because I felt helpless, because I didn’t know how to help them. Also, when you’re separated from family by large bodies of water, it’s easier to pretend you can’t hear them so you can do your own thing.

You could say I became a short story writer because the form acknowledged my state as an anxiety-ridden, perpetual wanderer, a person of visas. I wasn’t in a place long enough to write a novel. At least that’s what I told myself. But I also wasn’t happy with categorizations. Yes, I proudly identify as a short story writer, but Temporary People is a work that this writer believes is something different. It is not a novel, nor a story collection. Over time, it became something else, a book that hung onto tales told by voices, work inspired by architecture and language, a book that examines and evaluates questions about what work about a certain kind of place is supposed to be or look like. I state this respectfully because I am still not sure what I have done.

HG: What prompted you to use satire and the fantastical in the telling of these stories? Are there any works of satirical fiction that directly influenced the creation of Temporary People?

DU: In my twenties I watched George Carlin’s stand-up on HBO. The man was doing things with language and humor that had me gobsmacked. I grew up on British comedies — shows like ’Allo ’Allo!, Fawlty Towers, Yes Minister, and Mind Your Language. But until I watched Carlin’s wordsmithery, and then Richard Pryor’s storytelling mastery, and finally Chris Rock’s delivery, I wouldn’t have believed comedy possessed that much sting. As I continued to mull this over, I discovered the works of Dave Chappelle and Mitch Hedberg. But I was also older when I came across these people. If I watched ’Allo ’Allo! now, I’m sure I’d see things I couldn’t have understood when I was younger. I guess what I’m saying is I wanted Temporary People to have humor because I wanted the characters to possess elements of joy, as well as highlight how they fought the world through jokes, like how I entertained my amma when she was feeling blue. First and foremost, I wanted the language to pop. Then I wanted the book to sound a certain way, with characters that surfed my sentences like gods and goddesses because they wanted to be visible. I wanted to put some of these people in absurd situations because I was often working with the unreal, realms of bleakness, but I didn’t want these people to be pitied, I wanted their stories to be celebrated, thought about over walks and drinks. I wanted people to talk about their myths and hubris. Someone suggested Vonnegut, I remember. Read Vonnegut to understand the consequence of anguish and violence. I think someone told me that. But I didn’t end up reading him. I came across his drawings instead and I adored them. I was reading Shel Silverstein at the time and I realized children’s literature was allowed to bombard its readership with a mixture of sharp teeth and smiles. I wanted Temporary People to do the same. I know it’s a hard book, but it’s also filled with personalities, creatures from dreams, myths, and life. And look, I grew up on a healthy dose of Malayalam cinema: Mohanlal, Jagathy, and Sreenivasan had me in splits as a kid. I wanted the book to be as funny and as ridiculous and as real as, say, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, plus as potent as anything Nadine Gordimer had ever written. I wanted the work to have agency and urgency. And I wanted to make people feel things — joy, especially — even though there will be those who may only see/feel the bleakness.

HG: Many of the characters and their families in the book come in search of economic freedom, but find themselves attempting, and often failing, to navigate the absurd nature of globalization. How has your understanding of globalization influenced your writing?

DU: The word bothers me. I’m still coming to terms with it. If globalization means Country A is eating the same thing as Country B, then maybe I know what the term means. Perhaps that’s the true extent of globalization, that certain things (books, cable, food, etc.) are expected to be available in certain places by certain people. But that’s the cynic talking. As an inhabitant of places, often circumstantial, I’m even less certain about the meaning of the term. I could be a global citizen, or a world citizen, given my background (born somewhere, raised elsewhere, all of that). But I don’t believe I am. I don’t believe I am because there is so much about the world I don’t know much about: politics, language, and geography. It’s as though I’m afraid to claim the world, but I’m unafraid to claim places or cities. Like the book, I’m a product of cities. This I understand. It means I happily gravitate towards marriages between cultures, languages, and food. It also means I need to hear multiple tongues to feel sane. Mind you, I’m not a master of languages. I’ve got plenty of tongues in my system, but English is the only one I read, write and speak in. Everything else I’ve got, whether it’s Malayalam, my parents’ tongue, or bits of Arabic, is broken, languages that aren’t whole, yet operational. Besides my upbringing as the child of Gulf inhabitants, my writing has been absolutely influenced by reading. English isn’t enough, but because I don’t read well in any other language, I look for translations. And if I happen to understand the language, like Hindi or Urdu or Malayalam, I just shut up and pay attention.  

HG: I love the way you use language with a striking inventiveness. The language in the book demonstrates the way words get infused with an endless variety of cultural influences. The result is an entirely new version of global English that is propulsive, wonderful, and unlike anything I have ever read. How does the language in Temporary People shape the narrative? 

DU: A case could be made that the languages in operation throughout the book are the book. If you haven’t been to the Khaleej (what the Gulf is called in Arabic), you’ve probably got this notion in your head of what the place could be. I say you as though I am accusing you. Apologies. When I say you, I mean those who haven’t been. Maybe you see an oil well, a bearded man, or a woman in an abaya. You think wealth, violence, maybe migrants: brown, black, and poor people. Now think of Abu Dhabi, the city that raised me, what you expect the city to be, and tell me what it sounds like. Amp up the volume; what do you hear? Most people, especially if they haven’t been, wouldn’t be able to tell you. Or they’d say, Arabic, duh! But they wouldn’t be able to fathom what it means for Arabic to collide with Malayalam, for both to ram against Urdu or Tagalog. I suppose what I’m saying is that the city sounds a certain way. Abu Dhabi’s got its own beat, like New York has its own beat. The word I’m looking for is rhythm. The book needed rhythm. And in the voices of people who range from being born and bred in the city, to those who came for work, to those whose forebears crossed the sands, the book you could say is a collector of tongues. And they all seem to speak at the same time. And thank you! For someone to say the language(s) stood out, that they waved and hugged you, that means a lot.

Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan (Restless Books, trade paperback, 9781632061423) Publication Date: March 14, 2017.

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