Temporary People, by Deepak Unnikrishnan, will be published in the US early 2017. This year, it won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, awarded to a “first-time, first generation American author or resident”. Temporary People is a novel comprising linked stories about immigrant workers in the United Arab Emirates. In their citation, the judges for the award called the book, “brave” and “stylistically inventive”.
Unnikrishnan spent his childhood and early years in Abu Dhabi, where his parents moved, soon after he was born, from India. He has also lived in New Jersey, New York City and Chicago. He studied and then taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and at present teaches at New York University, Abu Dhabi.
A decade or so ago, Deepak Unnikrishan worked on and published a collection of stories titled Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacup. The work that he intriguingly describes as a “first attempt at something that constitutes a book”, was published by a Sri Lankan publisher, Vijitha Yapa. Excerpts from an interview:
The blurb says you wrote Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacup when you were 23. I am amazed at the self-reflexive and self-awareness in some of these stories. How do you see these stories now?
I was 22 when I wrote them. Back then, those stories constituted my entire output. I had nothing left to give once I was done. I loved language but the writing was raw. There was no intent to publish any of it.
I was living with someone at the time, someone who was very kind to me. She volunteered to take the work with her to Sri Lanka. In Colombo, she found a publisher willing to put the work out as a book. I’m pretty sure they split the costs between them. It was such a tiny print run. There’s only ever been one edition and I don’t think it ever sold out. Nobody knew who I was, but that didn’t bother me. It was oddly comforting.
I wrote seven stories that ranged from okay to poor to so-so. A friend and a publisher helped put the material out into the world, graciously called it a book even though most children’s books run longer. Then the writer Carl Muller wrote a review in the Daily News (Sri Lanka). I’ve never met Muller but I owe him a debt I probably can never repay.
In his review, he broke my writing down, the craftsman tutoring the apprentice. And you know what, he got me. He was also kind, hopeful that I’d have more writing to come, something that mattered. To read such a thing when you’re unemployed, to sit with the knowledge that some dude you’d never heard of, a respected man of letters, saw potential in the work you could potentially produce some day…potentially, because the work, my work of the future, hadn’t been made yet – now that, that was paralysing, and wonderful.
When I return to the stories, I’m tempted to edit them down. Or leave out a bunch of them because I’m in them all in a way that makes me feel exposed. I also see what I was like when I was younger. And I think of where I am now, and I see I’ve been extremely lucky. But I also miss how fearless I used to be. I’d like to have some of that chutzpah back.
The narrator in one of these stories, Travelogue, says he has always looked at the minute details of things, and it’s so evident in his description of the pigeon. Or your description of the moth in yet another story. Is this how you approach your writing material too?
I pay attention, if that’s what you’re asking. I’ve always been shy. I don’t like crowds. So I watch. The act is reflexive. You watch because you don’t like being watched. It’s like I’m a character in a Western. Always watching the room because I always need to know what’s going on. And then I need to find my spot in the room, which often ends up being some corner.
But your question is about process. If there’s anything I truly worry over, it’s whether I’ve got the tone right. I like my sentences to set the page on fire. Pop. Dance. Howl. But there’s no system. I respect and admire people with precise systems. Or discipline. This much I can tell you: I want to write only something I could write. My mother would call that arrogance. And she’s right.
There is a difference, if I may use this word, in the two stories set in Abu Dhabi, and those in New York. The narrator in the latter stories is also older. Do they chronologically follow your own life?
Yes, two of the stories are set in Abu Dhabi, and then there are those set in New York and Jersey, the ones you speak of. Do the stories chart my own life? Up to a point. And then the narrator stops being the Deepak whose body I occupy, and possibly turns into someone I would’ve liked to have been, or am afraid to be.
I was surprised when you mentioned chronology. In fact, I returned to the work to see if you were onto something. It’s possible I used my life to chart my thoughts about the world. And as I did it, I borrowed chapters from my own life and tweaked them for impact.
Before, I’d walk alongside the narrator throughout the piece. Now, I’d like to think, I’m more willing to let go.
So it’s nearly a decade between your first collection and the new one from Restless Books. Was that intentional? And did that worry you for writers, if I may be too general and bold, worry about this too.
I tried to write a proper book, an actual one, after Coffee Stains, which I say again isn’t a book, but an attempt at something. I took a year off from life, pretended to be a thinking artist, and wrote a bunch of crap. I tried too hard. Then I found a job. For the first time I was financially independent, so I decided to write again. But I was writing to be published. I was writing to be known.
That manuscript ended up being rejected by everybody, including my Sri Lankan publisher. So I gave up a little on the writing. And started living. I read again, I watched films. I walked a lot. And I began to realise that I’d been collecting things/ideas for a good long while. Gradually I began to write for myself again. And one day I realised that I wanted to write a book about the city that raised me. And I got to work.
I don’t think many writers are going to tell you that they intend to wait thirteen years before putting out their next book. Or their first book, because Temporary People is a book like Coffee Stains wasn’t meant to be a book, but it became one. But at forty pages, what I produced was a booklet partly funded by a friend. Then once every two to three years I’d run into somebody who’d say something kind about my work. And honestly, there wasn’t much work/writing to speak of. I basically wrote when I could.
Before Restless Books happened, I’d assumed the worst: Here sits Deepak, I’d tell myself, another writer with a book to bury. I was inconsolable, irritatingly dramatic because I thought I’d written something half- decent, at least the most honest thing I’d ever done. I gave Temporary People my all. But then nothing happened, suitable conditions to engage in self-pity. There were a few close shaves with the publishing world, but everyone passed. Then, because I’m rarely subtle about my worries, I thought, Right, what now?
Temporary People is, I understand, about the guest workers in the UAE, and I read your story, Gulf Return, in Guernica, which is part of this book. That story brings to mind phrases like magical realism, speculative fiction, etc. Your stories in Coffee Stains... offer an interesting range. Will the reader look forward to a similar range in Temporary People?
Yes, Gulf Return and Water will be in the book. About range, I’m not sure how to answer that because I’m hesitant to define the work, but I also accept I’m going to be asked this question often enough. What I can say is that Temporary People operates the way it does in book form because I couldn’t see any other way the work could be written. I don’t say that to sound artsy-fartsy.
Personally, I’d be very curious to know how readers are going to define/describe the book. In Temporary People workers play a part, yes, but so do their children. And families. And languages. And myths. Everything matters. The Gulf is complex, nuanced. Hopefully, all that’s there in the work.
How has living in these three cities been for you as a writer?
I owe my mind to Abu Dhabi. It’s home. But New York used to be home too. And Chicago retains its home-like qualities for me. I don’t feel the same way about Jersey oddly enough. I think it’s because I only started feeling comfortable in the States after I landed my first job, which happened to be in New York. But even the word “home” is complicated. Look, Abu Dhabi’s where family is.
Where I smell my parents, where I can find my sibling. But in New York other needs kick in: the need to walk, think. New York, if you’re lucky, grants you anonymity. When you’re young, away from the city that raised you, in another city that’s machine-gun rapid, anonymity’s precious. But I was only made to last in New York for five useful / heady / wonderful / difficult years. I left because I started to get overwhelmed. I didn’t write much in New York.
Then Chicago entered my life, the city that helped me finish the book. To the person I’ve become, I guess it’s accurate to state that I owe a couple of cities a ton of gratitude. I’m from Abu Dhabi, and am also, as my parents feared, a creature of the States. So I’m also from New York and Chicago because I’ve taken things from there: lingo, writers, people.
But I’m still an Indian passport holder. That complicates matters further. I’ve rarely been allowed to absolutely belong to a place, you see, so I’ve tried to keep a safe distance, from loving anything / anyone too much. But you fail. I’ve failed. Abu Dhabi raised me. New York made me. Chicago freed me.
And what is like to be a writer in the US? Has it changed you as a writer – in terms of themes explored, and writing style?
I am not sure. But life in the States has forced me to think long and hard about plenty of things, sure: why people leave homelands, the colour of my skin, why hip-hop’s poetry, firearms, baby-faced soldiers, privilege. And more. Depends on the day, depends on the news. Depends on the city.
There are other things too, little stuff. The Abu Dhabi I was a little boy in didn’t have many bookshops. Or libraries so cavernous you gawked. I went to my first museum when I was twenty-two. Ted Chesler, my mentor in college, took me. Temporary People is dedicated to him. And if I were to talk to you about the films and the books I had access to, it’ll be a long list because I watched and read everything I could get my hands on. I was hungry, and young.
I’m not sure how my writing style has evolved. My sense is I’m quicker to the point, less precious about language, or polite. Like I said, the problem with questions like the ones you’ve posed is that you feel you ought to say something fancy. Something quotable. Frankly, as a writer, I’m better. I know this. I know I’m better because I never stopped reading. But I’ve also been lucky. Very.