How Novelist Deepak Unnikrishnan Post-Modernized the United Arab Emirates

Deepak Unnikrishnan | © Restless Books
Deepak Unnikrishnan | © Restless Books
Photo of Michael Barron
Books And Digest Editor27 October 2017

The Abu Dhabi-based writer uses feats of imagination to bring voices to country’s many inhabitants.

There is a long-running gag in Garfield, in the longer-running comic strip, in which the titular cat boxes up a kitten named Nermal and ships him off to Abu Dhabi. The joke made its debut in January of 1984, a time when the capital city of the United Arab Emirates was still largely unknown to the West. The UAE as a formalized country would turn only fourteen the following month and Dubai, the country’s cultural center, had barely taken its first steps from fishing town to global metropolis. But photos of Abu Dhabi from that period show the seaside city’s blithe atmosphere, with sun-bleached buildings, spruce green parks, and colorful cars traveling down its avenues. Nermal should’ve been so lucky. Fast forward to 2017, when global ambitions, and the wealth to make it happen, have made the skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai among the world’s most gilded, the playground of architecture firms to show off their prowess for decadence. While they are meant to lure a wealthy clientele, they owe their existence to the workers who come from all over the Middle East, India, Africa, and Asia to build them, people who have, until recently, worked with little to know rights or legal protection.

Cover courtesy of Restless Books

In Temporary People, the Abu-Dhabi-based writer Deepak Unnikrishnan’s remarkable debut novel, the voices of the UAE blue-collar class come alive with a variety of narratives, subjects, and vernacular that can be as socially far-reaching as they can be literarily fantastical. Born in India and raised in Abu Dhabi, Unnikrishnan headed to the United States for his education, where he received his MFA at the the Art Institute of Chicago. His itinerant background has given Unnikrishnan a masterful knack for capturing colloquial English on the page. In contemporary literature, his closest kin might be Mauro Javier Cardenas, another immigrant schooled in America who has crafted a singular command of English.

The manuscript for Temporary People was awarded the inaugural Restless Books New Immigrant Writing Prize in 2016, and since its publication earlier this year, has gone on to receive several high-profile reviews. Prior to the novel’s success, Unnikrishnan had been appointed as a lecturer in the Writing Program at NYU’s Abu Dhabi campus, which opened in 2010. A story by Unnikrishnan was also the UAE selection for our Global Anthology published earlier this year.

We spoke to Unnikrishnan about the writing of Temporary People, the plight of workers in the UAE, and the young generation of artists and writers beginning to emerge within the country.

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Temporary People is a novel of ideas where each chapter is approached with a different style of telling its story—through monologues, parables, graphic reportage, transcripts, close third-person narratives, etc.—can you talk about how you came to develop this approach?
When I left Abu Dhabi for the States, I often struggled to explain Abu Dhabi to my peers at university. I would overthink the question. It was as though I wanted to compare the city to something people could comprehend. So I’d say the city demographic sort of resembled New York City’s, just more brown people, but not too many people. Or I’d say that Abu Dhabi was near Riyadh and Tehran, but was unlike Riyadh or Tehran, whatever that meant. Abu Dhabi had its own beat, that’s what I was trying to say. In hindsight, I wish I’d just said that. Now I say Abu Dhabi is Abu Dhabi.

Once I realized I was writing a novel about the city that raised me, I knew I needed it to sound a certain way that brought the city to life, but didn’t spoon feed explanations to its readers. As far as I am concerned, I am a writer honed by the Gulf but also informed by writers and cities from the States, if not elsewhere. Whether I liked it or not, the book was going to reflect all of those influences, but I also knew that I wanted to play with form and architecture and toy with language. I normally gravitate towards the shorter form, yet I wanted to write something that fell in-between genres, because that’s what felt right.

I needed voices, characters, and storytellers, individuals who would tell their tales in any way they pleased, which is how the novel ends up blending the real, the surreal, and the unreal. For the creatures of the Gulf, used to its temporariness, the “chabters” might resemble an individual instrument in an eclectic orchestra, all needing to be heard, all wanting to play, but coming together for a score that will sound familiar to their ears. If you are unfamiliar with the Gulf, especially a country like the UAE, and a city like Abu Dhabi, the book may make you do a double take. That’s because you may have picked it up with pre-established certainties about what the Gulf is, or what the UAE or Abu Dhabi or Dubai ought to be. So the book’s asking you, I am asking you – where does your certainty come from?

Left image © George W. Bell | Right image © Cheap Flight Labs

You have a flair of imagination that appears again and again throughout the book—construction workers are grown like plants and can survive high-rise falls, brutal murders are reenacted like plays, people turn into passports or have suitcases for faces. It’s tempting to call this magical realism, or to call you a contemporary fabulist. Do you feel you identify with either?
I write to figure stuff out and to negotiate the world. At the sake of sounding flippant, I’d say what I write is literature, the work of a writer schooled by the myths, fables, and language(s) of his forebears. I am not sure how I would categorize myself, whether I ought to side with the contemporary fabulists or the magical realists. Couldn’t they both be relevant to my craft? Let’s throw in a bunch of realists while we’re at it. I’m not trying to be diplomatic here. Like most writers, I am hyper aware that I want my work to count. And tinkering with the behavior of the English language to make it do unconventional things on the page is not all that uncommon. So how am I different to anyone else who wants to be read? I wish I knew. Maybe the truth is I really don’t stick out from the crowd, but that I would be lying if I said I am completely okay with that.

Imagination aside, your book gets at the plight of the UAE working-class. There have been several articles published with headlines such as “The Slaves of Dubai” (Vice) and “Beaten, trapped, abused and underpaid – migrant domestic workers in the UAE” (Guardian). Why, if it’s been widely reported on, do the conditions they face continue to be so bad? Have their been recent initiatives to improve them?
The Gulf can be hard for blue or pink collared workers. Many of them come from other regions, leaving behind family and missing out on events back home. It can be especially difficult if your sole purpose in life is relegated to sending money back home, or saving up to afford a proper house when you get back. And that’s if you get back the way you were hoping to get back, healthy, financially sound. Some workers end up in dire straights after being swindled by crooked agents/companies/bosses. It’s not the sweetest of deals. You are wedded to your job, and your job’s wedded to your work visa, and that’s how the game is played, and you’re expected to figure out how to make that work for you. Some people last a few months or years. Others, like members of my family, don’t know how to leave. They deserve better, these individuals, but I have always felt the right to dignity should go hand in hand with the right to fair wages. And dignity is often about visibility: understanding that people have names, that they have lives beyond their profession(s), and that they can contribute towards the ethos of a place after their shifts have ended.

But your questions are also based on the assumption that Dubai (a word that’s become the stand-in for anything Gulf-related) can only be perilous and that’s not true. There are success stories, people who’ve made it. I am not talking about millionaires. Stories exist of men and women who came to the region with nothing, only to reap in tremendous fortune later in their lives, but I’d pay more attention to the people who’ve sent money home, schooled their children, and built their houses. Little things that helped them and their families climb another rung on the economic ladder. Some of these people—the people traditionally seen as migrant workers—have grown attached to the cities or emirates they adopted, and not just for financial reasons. They may not be sure why, but they’ve certainly contributed to the ethos of the place, or the ethos of places.

But your concerns are also valid. In late September, Sheikh Khalifa approved new regulations to protect domestic workers from a draft law passed by the Federal National Council (FNC) in June. The law guarantees domestic workers a weekly day off, at least 12 hours off-duty a day, including eight consecutive hours and 30 days of paid annual leave. This is important. I have also seen students and faculty at New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) ask about the treatment of employees of service providers and contractors on campus in official and unofficial settings. NYUAD’s Supplier Code of Conduct, a document that’s accessible online, is a worthwhile read regarding this. Not long ago, investigative reporting highlighted and alerted NYUAD to labor concerns voiced by migrant workers who built NYUAD’s Saadiyat Island campus. Since then, in my opinion, the institution has been trying to make amends for mistakes that were made. So you could say the optimist in me would like to think the conversation about and around labor is changing, but there is much more to be done. I was raised in a city by parents who barely got by. I am now in a position where I occupy a place in the economic ladder not enjoyed by my family when I was a boy. I am aware of how much privilege I possess now. I’ve been lucky.

I would also like to add that it is crucial to approach the subject of guest/migrant/service workers with a bit more nuance. My father was a guest worker recruited from India to work in the UAE, when it was still the Trucial States, where he was able to make mid-level salary in a white collar position. Most of my mates from high school are guest workers. I am a guest worker. Members of my father’s extended family, however, worked more labor minded blue-collared jobs in the Gulf, which are more vulnerable to the unscrupulous. I am not going to make the case that these folks were happy with what they did, but I believe most of my family members and friends needed to figure out how to negotiate the rubric of being a person from elsewhere, in a city that became home, because they had to, and that always complicates the narrative.

Workers on an unnamed skyrise in Dubai © Piotr Zarobkiewicz | Wikimedia Commons

Could you give your thoughts on the literary culture of the UAE? I know, for instance, that the Sharjah International Book Fair has become one of the largest in the world, but otherwise do you see the country as a hub for writers? Are there any interesting movements or fellow Emirati writers that are helping it to thrive?
I am not a historian or an anthropologist but among the Bedu, oral memory was/is important. There are scholars and poets who can talk for hours about Nabati poetry. More contemporarily, there are the writers who write in Arabic, a language I don’t read. The Emirati generation coming of age now is much more at ease with English than their forebears, and many of them attend the multilingual book festivals that have been popping up in the UAE, including the Sharjah International Book Fair. Some of my students are aspiring writers, and I hope they have a chance to publish their work. Writing wasn’t even on my mind when I was growing up in the 80s and the 90s, bookshops and libraries were scarce. My family didn’t have much money, so I thought more about jobs than about literature.

I believe the literary movement is fairly young, but I am seeing evidence of bilingualism picking up among the younger generation of Emiratis. Some of them switch between languages as smooth and cool as driving stick. There’s literature to be mined from that. And there are also a bunch of writers working on, or coming out with work that’s going to be relevant, writers such as Tanaz Bathena, André Naffis-Sahely, and Ahmad Makia, who were raised in the region but who are not Khaleeji (Arabic for anyone from the Gulf region). Spoken word is surprisingly popular here—think HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, throw in a couple of teenagers ridden with angst and passion, and you’ve got Abu Dhabi’s Rooftop Rhythms. But I can’t tell whether any of these “movements” are going to thrive.

So there is activity. Not just in the literary arts; but the visual arts as well. And I am not saying all of this art is good, but once in a while you’ll come across an artist who excites you. The Dubai-based and perhaps Dubai-native artist Raja’a Khalid is one individual who comes to mind, as does Reem Falkahna, the Emirati photographer. And I’ve always admired the artist Lantian Xie, who is also a friend. But we didn’t have much of this when I was a boy. Are things changing? Sure. Are they perfect? Of course not! We will have to wait and see what develops, but yeah, Sharjah’s doing cool things.

Unnikrishnan in conversation with writer Alex Kleeman and editor Katie Raissian at New York's Asian American Writers Workshop, courtesy of the institution

You are of Indian heritage, grew up in the Emirates and studied in the U.S.? How much do you see yourself as an “international writer” vs one tied to a place of origin such as identifying as Emirati? How has your peripatetic upbringing impacted upon your writing?
I am not Emirati. I am someone who grew up in Abu Dhabi. I’ve got an Indian passport, but I’ve never lived in India. So when I say I am from Abu Dhabi that makes sense to me, because I am not lying at all when I say that. When I say I am from the States, especially New York City and Chicago, I am not lying when I say that either. I suppose I am claiming spaces. I am a perpetual transient. I am certainly not an “international writer” or a “global citizen” either. I detest those monikers and I am not going to pretend to be one or the other. True, I am not tied to any place that does not have to do with the circumstances behind my upbringing. I grew up in a city that trained me to leave it behind. Detachment was expected, and accepted. In that sense, I am always waiting to see when I will be asked or required to leave. This thought is on standby in my brain all the time because I have had a visa, or at least a temporary contract, in every place I’ve called home. I am aware of time, always. As a writer, this might be why I gravitated towards the short story. It’s as though the form understands the preciousness/ephemerality of time and space.

What are you currently working on?
I am trying to write again. When I finished Temporary People, I felt I wouldn’t have anything left to give, as though my mind had emptied out. I am starting to doubt that assessment. I have begun to read, and have started taking long walks which are a sign that I am thinking about tales. So yes, there’s another book gestating. What it’s going to be, I am not yet sure, but I will see this new work through to the end. So I tell myself. Just don’t come looking for me if I open a sandwich shop instead.

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