Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan is a book (variously described as a novel, short stories, and something in between) based around the lives of people who come to the United Arab Emirates and, in the author’s words “are eventually required to leave.” Indeed, the UAE has become infamous for importing foreign-born people in order to build the massive infrastructure of a booming nation, only then to be told to go when their work is complete.
For this book, Unnikrishnan won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, as Unnikrishnan himself is a immigrant to the United States. This is his first novel, and it has been getting rave reviews, in venues like The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Unnikrishnan has also recently been on a book tour throughout the United States for Temporary People, and of course this is a strange time for a book that so deeply deals with the immigrant experience, particularly when it occurs Middle Eastern context. Below, we talk about the book, what it’s like to be releasing a book like this at this political moment, and about home, migration, and related subjects.
Scott Esposito: Temporary People is based around transitional workers who come to the United Arab Emirates to do the work necessary to build up the country and are then forced to leave. As you mention at the beginning of the book, “Temporary People is a work of fiction set in the UAE, where I was raised and where foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave.” Do you have any particular sources or experiences that underlie the lives depicted in these pages?
Deepak Unnikrishnan: I am the child of Indian parents who have lived in the UAE for over four decades. I am the nephew of uncles who have lived, or continue to live in the Khaleej (Arabic for Gulf). My family has a warm and complex relationship with the Emirates, so in that sense, yes I understand what it’s like to live in a city that hosts you for a while, not forever. I also have friends from high school who have either left or stayed. And some of those who stayed are raising their own children in the place my mates and I were raised. So you could also say, yes, I’m aware of certain states bodies occupy when their documents buy them a fixed amount of time. I’m also hyper aware of the privileges my sibling and I have enjoyed, proximity to parents sitting pretty on top of that list. None of my first cousins grew up with both parents by their side. Their fathers sent money from the Khaleej. Their mothers looked after them. And if you’re from here, if you’ve paid attention, you see men and women who have come from elsewhere; people who’ve left much behind and you can read such sorrow on their faces. But then if you wait a little bit longer, you can also spot the drive and the joy and the craziness of what being a temporary resident means to these people. The hopes they carry in their heads, the stories they’re itching to tell. When I tell people Abu Dhabi raised me, I’m not just talking about the city. I’m also talking about its people, those who’ve been here a while, those from here, and especially those who may not last long, but help the city run. And it’s interesting you call these people who populate my book transnational. I am not sure that’s what they are. I’m not sure what they are, but transnational feels like a stretch, or some form of happy lie. What I’d say instead is that these men and women who reside within the pages of Temporary People are people who are conscious of time, all the time. And that state, where they are always thinking of their futures, does something to them, something visceral. Because you see, they are not forced to leave. They just have to leave. There’s a difference between those two scenarios. I suppose when you know you have to leave, often you’re just wondering about how to leave. And that can break some people. Others thrive.
SE: Temporary People is publishing in the United States at an interesting time, when we are having our own debates over the degree to which this country welcomes outsiders, and how we see their contributions to this country. You yourself were raised in the UAE and immigrated to the U.S., and this book won the first Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. So two questions: what do you feel that these stories of the UAE bring to an American context, and will this book be published in the UAE?
DU: I am the son, nephew, and grandson of migrants. My parents raised my sister and I in a city they didn’t fully understand at first. Yet they expected us to prove ourselves worthy to live in a place they were afraid to claim, but went to anyway. We were always expected to behave and be respectful, not embarrass them or ourselves. And with my folks having aged in the Khaleej, the place represents something else now to my family, part history and memory, something sacred, joyful, and sad. They care about the Khaleej, my parents. It’s home, you understand. But they care about India too. Americans may understand this basic need to acknowledge/accommodate two nations, one that raised you, and the other that adopted you. But what they may not get is what it means to return to a nation after you’ve left it for a while, what it means to return to the place where you were born, so that you may die. And it’s perfectly fine to not understand the significance of this voluntary act, without veering towards pity, or professing rage. But in an age where attachments are questioned, people corralled, questioned and bullied over nationality and paperwork, certainly in the States, there’s something instructive in contemplating why/how people cherish a place even when they aren’t required/expected to do so. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to romanticize any of this, the leaving part especially. It’s hard to leave a place, man. It sucks to be a creature perpetually wedded to paperwork, but my hope is when people read my work, they are not only ingesting the language of temporary people, they are also thinking about vulnerability, why living elsewhere is often an act of sacrifice (especially if you are a parent), with the expectation of hope; and if you’re lucky, good fortune. I hope some people in the States (and elsewhere too), the ones who rage against foreigners – especially the most vulnerable, children, refugees, and the undocumented – come across the book, maybe skim through it, then contemplate over what it must be like to explain yourself all the time to people who assume they know what you are, people who wonder whether you’re harmless, that you’ve hopefully got something to give. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are migrants or temporary residents the world over just fed up with explaining themselves. I’d wager some of them don’t know what to say anymore and that they are tired. And you bet I hope readers in the UAE will get to read the book.
SE: You’ve been on a book tour, doing events for this book in New York City and San Francisco, and elsewhere throughout the country. What have been the responses to this book? Have these events veered toward the political context here in the U.S.?
DU: Let me be frank. I didn’t think many people were going to come to the readings. Don’t know why, but I didn’t buy that folks wanted to hear some stranger they’ve barely heard about talk about the Khaleej, or hear me recite myths and tales mined from the place, but I’ve been surprised and humbled by the response. I’ve bumped into people I’ve gone to high school with. I’ve had people come up to me saying, Man, that happened to me too! I’ve seen brown and black and white people in the audience. I’ve had questions that covered multiple topics: home, language, and yeah, cities. And sure: politics, too. That comes up a lot, and I find myself wanting to talk about the state of the States. It’s home too, you know. I mean some of us are frightened. I have friends who are angry, who’ve turned soothsayers. And we don’t know why we’re all behaving this way, and then we know why. I ‘d like to think people want to talk about the current state of affairs, but a part of me believes most folks have also made up their minds. It’s as though we’ve got to pick this camp or that camp, and that scenario frightens me. I’ve also had little old ladies come up to me in the Midwest to apologize, to state that the current administration doesn’t speak for them. And I remember being moved by that. They didn’t have to do that, walk over to the brown man and try to calm him down, but they did. So there’s hope. At the same time, there are people who voted for Trump. And a part of me wants to know why. And a part of me is afraid to know why. But it’s important to know what’s going on with the country. It’s important to talk. I’m not saying we should all hold hands and pretend everything’s okay. Everything’s not okay, more reason to have difficult conversations. Something broke. What?
SE: I’ve seen this book variously described as 28 stories and as a novel. How do you see it, and why? Are genre conventions like these something that may hold more weight here in the States than in the literary culture of the Middle East?
DU: I identify as a short story writer. Writing a collection, that’s what I thought I was doing when I began the work. But gradually I realized I was also toying with things, language most certainly, and to an extent, form. So the work began to morph. I started calling it “the book,” because that made more sense. As more time passed, it became clear the chapters, as I call the tales, needed each other to speak to one another, as well as to speak over one another, to create something almost animal-like and city-like. Because I wanted my book to sound a certain way, you see. I wanted readers to hear these people, temporary inhabitants with accents and myths, and I wanted them to appear and disappear, maybe reappear. That meant I had to break certain conventions, explore what a book was supposed to do, then burn certain rules. But some of these breakthroughs were unintentional. I’d like to claim that everything was thought out. But no, I hadn’t really given architecture of the book much thought until I started studying at the Art Institute. And all of a sudden, I was like, wait a minute, I want the languages in the book to mimic streetlights and road signs, take the reader somewhere familiar yet unexpected, wild. And I suppose it helped that I didn’t have much of a literature background. I was a bit of a novice, and slightly stupid, plus arrogant, useful qualities if you’re trying something new, and you don’t know you’re trying something new. But yeah, genre holds a lot of weight in the States. I’m in fact super pleased the book has not only been described as a collection or a novel, but also been reviewed as either a fragmented collection or a novel held up by some-short-some-long stories. There’s been no universal consensus on what the work is or what it’s become and that’s pretty wonderful! But to be fair, I think genre matters in other nations too. And I’ve been guilty of wandering over to certain sections at bookstores, seduced by genre. And that’s a shame, because at the end of the day I identify as a user of words, someone who deploys language to express his thoughts about imaginary and realist realms. Shouldn’t that be enough? At the risk of sounding pompous, it might be helpful to ditch categories from time to time and relearn how to read, especially if the work stems from someone’s imagination, especially if we want our minds blown.