A Child of the Place: An Interview with Deepak Unnikrishnan




DEEPAK UNNIKRISHNAN was the inaugural recipient of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing in 2016 for his debut novel, Temporary People. Composed of 28 linked stories, the novel provides a kaleidoscopic portrait of the United Arab Emirates’s heterogeneous society of guest workers, who make up slightly under 85 percent of the country’s entire population. Set in the United Arab Emirates’s capital Abu Dhabi, Unnikrishnan’s novel further distinguishes itself by casting some much-needed light on an often under-discussed side to life in that city, which is now home to generations of “expatriates” whose families have been there for two — or even three or four — generations, despite having to renew their visas every single year. I spoke with him when he read from his novel at Skylight Books in Los Angeles on March 19, 2017.

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ANDRÉ NAFFIS-SAHELY: In your introduction to Temporary People, you describe the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as “a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave.” As some readers of your book may not know, the male children of the UAE’s guest workers are legally obliged to leave the country on reaching maturity, at which point their parents can no longer sponsor their visas. Do you see that act of forced ejection as having impacted your decision to write? I’m interested in how your family came to the United Arab Emirates.

DEEPAK UNNIKRISHNAN: I was born in 1980 into a Malayali family and brought to Abu Dhabi as a 30-day-old infant. My maternal grandparents were based in Kenya for a few decades or so, and sometime around 1970 or 1971, my grandfather decided to go the Persian Gulf on a whim, out of boredom. Around the same time, my father answered an ad in The Times of India for an engineering job with the government of the Trucial States, because the United Arab Emirates hadn’t yet come into being. My parents’ marriage was arranged in Kerala, India, and my mother arrived in either 1975 or 1976. We also have uncles and aunts there. So my family history has been embedded in that part of the world since at least 1972. Everyone in my extended family has dipped their toes in the Gulf at one point or another, or you know someone who has done that.

In Kerala, the expectation is that you’ll always return, because you’re always going to be Malayali — not Indian, Malayali. The Indianness is a fairly recent development. So there are certain expectations of what you ought to be. When you grow up in Abu Dhabi, you’re trained by your folks to detach yourself from the place, but then you return to it periodically — not physically but mentally — and then sometimes you do so physically as well, and everything evolves, the city evolves, people evolve, your parents evolve, you evolve, and you can’t get a handle on it simply because you don’t know what to talk about. Or you try to talk about it with friends. I went to an Indian school — it’s actually called the Abu Dhabi Indian School — and we were trained to be Indians. They played the Indian national anthem alongside the Emirati one; we even had school assemblies, because the British are good that way, they leave behind certain vestiges that you have to take and pocket. So, I would tell my friends that I missed Abu Dhabi and they would tell me, “Are you nuts? Go to India, it’s our land, we can break rules there, cheat, do whatever we like, or go to the United States or Canada,” and I never completely understood that. It really bothered me that I was one of a handful of people who — maybe “cared” is not the right word — but who was used to the place, and who missed it.

In The Promised Land [Naffis-Sahely’s forthcoming collection of poems], you talk about your father aging, your mother aging, you have dedications to every member of your family. Your dedication page and my dedication page are not very different, and there’s a reason why Temporary People is dedicated to my family, because I wanted a kind of document to acknowledge that my people were there, but I didn’t know who my people were. I wanted to write a book that questioned almost everything, simply because we’re talking about a city that evolves so quickly. Fifteen or 20 years from now, your people and my people might not be there anymore.

For the past few months, I have been immersed in the literature of exile, and it occurred to me that whenever we talk about exile, the return — while usually longed for or fantasized about — is hardly ever described. The Western mindset, in particular, conceives of exile as expulsion and nostalgia, an attitude perhaps best summed up by Victor Hugo, when he called exile “the long dream of home.” Our image of the exile is that of a consumptive dreamer hallucinating of home in a foreign land. This is rather strange, given that one of Western literature’s founding texts is the Odyssey, which, of course, deals with Odysseus’s return to Ithaca. Yet, Odysseus himself is wary of that return — he doesn’t see it through rose-tinted glasses at all; in fact, he famously returns home in disguise to test his wife’s loyalty. I feel that we have this in common with Odysseus: in our case, “the return” is never a pleasant dream or memory, it is a very physical reality, and one that is most certainly going to happen.

Exactly. The Odyssey is also about the return. It’s not always about the expedition. It’s the presentation behind the ritual of the return that I’ve always been interested in. When I was a child, whenever we went to visit our family in Kerala, we would always say, “We’ll be back.” If my sister or I ever said goodbye to anyone, my mother would tell us, “You don’t say ‘bye,’ you say ‘we will come back.’” That was always the refrain, because people were still waiting for us. However, what if those people died — what would you be returning to, exactly? So you’re also returning to a mythology. There is a certain kind of mythology that you’re expected to return to. You’re supposed to be somebody, always …

… Because you have to fulfill a function, because you are not a person — you are, in fact, merely a utensil waiting to be used and then discarded. It recalls a two-page list of job titles featured in “Pravasis,” one of the shorter chapters of Temporary People: “Tailor. Solderer. Chauffeur. Maid. Oil Man. Nurse. Typist. Historian. Shopkeeper. Truck driver. Watchman. Gardener. Secretary. Pilot. Smuggler. Hooker.” Et cetera.

Absolutely. Acronyms come into play here, I’m an NRI — a Non-Resident Indian — or at least that’s what I’m supposed to be. You have to put on this face to show that you’ve returned from battle with booty or prizes. In Abu Dhabi — and the UAE in general — you must be categorized, you have no choice. Look — our parents knew what the mandate was: you come to the UAE and you work. If you don’t work, you leave, right? Yet, based on that logic, if you’re speaking to a mathematician who’s also a little bit of an asshole, he’ll ask you, “So why the attachment?” That part they don’t get. They don’t understand that attachment is involuntary. When I moved to the United States, I was very envious of people who could claim places or spaces. I was reading your poetry collection last night, and the first part reads like Italo Calvino; you’re talking about a city, about what the city did to you, that you’re a product of a particular kind of city/space/place. In Malayalam, which is what my parents speak, there’s a little bit of literature, and there were films, which always referenced the Gulf, but always as “the other,” a place that you went to and then returned from. There’s very little about children, very little about people like you and me, people who are of the place — or thought of themselves as being from the place — and who wrote about it. That bothered me.

One of my favorite stories (or chapters) in Temporary People is entitled “Moonseepalty.” Anand and his friends are the children of Indian migrants and they are devoted fans of soccer. After Anand’s bicycle is stolen, and his complaints to a passing policeman fall on deaf ears, Anand witnesses an Arab boy sweet-talk the policeman into letting him and his friends play soccer where they technically shouldn’t, thus exerting their Arab privilege via language. When Anand decides to take matters into his own hands, his friends leave him behind, frightened of the possible repercussions. I felt that this story perfectly encapsulates the neuroses of the children of migrant workers in the UAE — children who grow up painfully aware that they should always be on their best behavior in order not to jeopardize their parents’ ability to remain in the country and thus provide for the family. How did you deal with that neurosis?

My parents — especially my father — taught me to be so paranoid that everything was internalized. That said, the reason I think the way I do is because of the place itself, and that needs to be acknowledged; and I’m not finding that in the narratives that are coming out of the West, because it’s as though the place has been already judged and branded. My hope with the book, at least when I was writing it, was that it would be a kind of document where I could test the narratives I was hearing from the West, test the stories my parents weren’t talking about, test the stories that my generation actually wanted to investigate or examine, and actually look at it and open up a conversation. Whatever impermanence is there, it grows within you, it’s a part of you. There are certain things that I do because of Abu Dhabi — attachments/detachments, the way I am with people. Relationships frighten me. There is still a suitcase somewhere that hasn’t been unpacked.

Temporary People has won much praise for its inventive mingling of languages — English, Malayalam, and Arabic — and in “Moonseepalty,” language becomes the weapon of choice in the turf war between Anand’s friends and their Arab rivals. The Arab boys are able to get what they want because they speak the country’s only official language, whereas the Indian boys — who constitute the true demographic majority in that country — are instead harassed and asked for their identity papers. Your playfulness with language and your use of surrealism have earned the book comparisons with Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. What do your various languages mean to you — or rather, how do you relate to them?

We learned Arabic in school, but our teachers taught us the language in English, so we knew how to read and write in it, but we didn’t learn how to truly use it. I tell people that English is the only language I can read, speak, and write in. The other languages are there, but they’re broken. That said, they’re operational, and if I’m making any political statements in this novel, they are all about language. English is a broken language, and that has to be acknowledged. Ridiculous and wonderful things can happen to words, especially in Abu Dhabi. Part of the reason is that Abu Dhabi is a genuinely surreal place. That’s what the book is also about. I do not want it to be just another narrative about the place, because I think any reader approaching this book deserves to be surprised. What I’m saying is that things have happened here; they’ve affected me, they’ve affected my family, and they’ve affected people in general. Some of these people are grateful, while others are not. I often get asked why I dabble in surrealism, but the truth is that Abu Dhabi is a very surreal city. We deal with surrealism quite a lot in our day-to-day lives, especially when you’re thinking about what the future might look like in the UAE — we just don’t know. Of course, right now we have a kind of presidency in the United States that would have been unimaginable even just a few months ago. That’s surreal for some people too, isn’t it? The surrealism is a consequence of circumstance.

You left Abu Dhabi in 2001 and moved to the United States to attend college. You lived here until 2015, when you moved back to Abu Dhabi and began teaching at New York University Abu Dhabi. Do you feel equally at home in both countries? What changes have you seen unfold in the UAE since your return? Do you have an idea of how Temporary People is likely to be received in the UAE?

The United States also feels like home. I met my mentor Ted Chesler here. I wouldn’t be writing if it hadn’t been for him. I met my partner here; I became an adult here. I’m not saying the entire country as a whole feels like home; there are certain cities in the United States that I gravitate toward because they helped me understand what I have become. I used to live in Chicago, the one city where I’ve been absolutely aware of what I was: a brown man. You take the train, and it’s almost color-coded — you have a certain demographic getting off, others staying on, simply because they’re privileged enough to own homes in a certain location. I felt less exposed when I lived in New York City, because the Big Apple’s down with anonymity. The United States taught me to observe reality really well, and the United Arab Emirates taught me to be quiet; and they both help each other out, because you learn to be invisible, you almost enhance this quality of observation. So I’m grateful to both nations, because I’m a product of both. Specifically, I’m a product of cities, because I understand cities. Now that I’m back in the UAE, it’s also tested my understanding of what I had assumed the country to be. At New York University Abu Dhabi, I work with students who are incredibly motivated, gifted, and ambitious, but who have also drunk a little bit of the Kool-Aid of what the institution professes them to be, whether it is global or world citizens. I don’t buy that completely, because I think that’s a bit much. Nevertheless, I have students from all demographics who grew up in the UAE and who are not from the UAE, but who are testing waters. They’re helping me relearn what Abu Dhabi has become, and how it has evolved, because I use and think about the city in the classes I teach. But the best thing about teaching is when your students challenge you, because not only do they want to learn, they also want to learn how to disagree. And I’m all about that. How is the book going to be received by readers in the UAE? I have no idea, but that is also partly because I have the good fortune that my book is the first work in English published by a creature of the place, a child of the place.

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André Naffis-Sahely is a poet, critic, and translator who was born in Venice, Italy; raised in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates; and lives in Los Angeles. His debut collection of poems is The Promised Land: Poems from Itinerant Life (Penguin, August 2017).


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