DEEPAK UNNIKRISHNANTemporary People, 2017, Paperback anthology, 240 pages. Published by Restless Books, New York. Courtesy Lantian Xie.

Lantian Xie on Deepak Unnikrishnan

Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi whose work has fundamentally shaped the contours of my thinking, and whose ethics have taught me how to practice and how to belong. He is one of maybe six or seven people I imagine when I think of the people for whom I make things, and to whom those things are dedicated. We met—as kids from the Emirates often do—elsewhere: in Chicago, where we were both studying some years ago. Our first conversation lasted damn-near half a day, and in that conversation Deepak articulated affectionately the timbre and fictions of this place we call home, in a way that I had then only begun to find words for.

In the years since, he and I and a cohort of other kids from the Emirates have been working, sometimes in concert and oftentimes in dissonance, to try to conjure up pidgin and patois which not only permits or describes, but celebrates a politics of belonging that is of this place. This is not the politics of diaspora, nor of the immigrant, nor of the expatriate, because none of those threadbare positions make sense enough for the everyday lives of so many people here. Instead, this is a politics of what Deepak might call “Temporary People,” which is also the namesake of his debut novel, released this month. The title’s conceit is that for many, temporary is a permanent condition. And if the book’s title gives people like this a name, then it is in its undulating hallways and highways and jet streams and rooms upon rooms and stories upon stories that the shape of a place begins to emerge, densely populated by the voices of strangers, lovers, outsiders, neighbors and Pravasis we all grew up with.

The book’s opening chapter, titled “Gulf Return,” describes people turned into passports and suitcases, trying to make their way in disguise through an airport as they start to sprout knees and elbows. In another chapter, a boy wages war against a cockroach eloquent in International School English, Arabic and Malayalam. In another, a brother and sister plot some unknown master plan, only to be foiled by an elevator which swallows them whole. In yet another, words jump out of a child’s mouth and run across a street, colliding with traffic and road and windows and passersby. Split into three parts—“limbs,” “tongue” and “veed” (home)—the novel constitutes and reconstitutes, limb by limb, the bodies of people who are routinely written out of the history of places to which they are not permitted to belong. It undoes their erasure, painstakingly, and with great care. It is sci-fi, abracadabra, folk, rebellion, quotidian, brutal, adoring, violent, shape-shifting and surreal, and glides from screenplay to interview to song to ground-beneath-feet. Most overwhelmingly, it is a book filled with children who know the places in which they were raised much more than they will ever know the homelands that live in the nostalgia of their parents. As someone who often claims belonging to Dubai, I’ve never read anything like Deepak’s book—never held anything in my hand before that feels like it knows so intimately the contours of my fingers. It is also an exhausting and excruciating work of art, for the tears and delight that it draws, but also because it feels like growing up all over again, one day at a time.

Folks who live in circumstances of precarious belonging, wherever they are, will recognize themselves in Deepak’s words, and most precisely in his remarkable ability to hold the page at the scale of intense, scalding intimacy, from which the particular explodes into the universal. Of the people doing great and important work both about and from this particular place—and there are not many—I consider Deepak’s to be the most generous and also the most rigorous. He has always been utterly uncompromising in his practice, and if work can ever be honest and audacious in its honesty, his is that kind of work. His efforts, time and again, challenge and demand that his colleagues, peers and neighbors should speak of this place with more consideration and more care than we think we can muster.

So many writers, anthropologists, artists, curators, consultants and mercenaries come here to study this place and others like it. They come and pretend to know its temporary people. They come to shout over temporary people and insist that temporary people have no voices when they themselves are hard of hearing. They now have this to contend with: temporary people and their itinerant places articulated across 60,000 words.

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