Temporary People opens with a haunting story wherein one character eats a passport to become a passport, another eats a piece of luggage to become a piece of luggage, and a third takes that passport and that luggage and tries to flee their labor camp. Things are going well until they arrive at the departure lounge.
It was then the little suitcase sprouted legs and ears, and the passport developed palms and long fingers as well as a nose and a mustache, and soon after boarding call, at the very moment the stewardess checked his documents, the third laborer was asked to wait.
The simplicity of the language gives Deepak Unnikrishnan an excellent amount of control. The reader is never forced to believe something in the world of the story is possible. Disbelief is not permitted. What matters is whether or not they are going to be able to get on the plane.
In Temporary People’s best moments, Unnikrishnan is able to juggle the supernatural elements of his worlds with the terrible truth. His oddity is always geared towards exposing, and his imagination is finely tuned to see the right devices. The primary challenge the book faces is achieving balance.
Unnikrishnan is the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize For New Immigrant Writing Prize, which is awarded to a debut first-generation American author. The judges’ citation says “he is an important new voice from a part of the world we desperately need to understand better” and that he gives “substance and identity to the voiceless and faceless masses of guest workers in the United Arab Emirates.” Unnikrishnan’s own note on writing Temporary People expresses a similar sentiment. “Fiction has barely addressed the so-called guest workers of the Gulf, their histories, myths, their struggles and triumphs.”
The book, over its 28 stories, unequivocally succeeds in this sense. It is a book with explicit social and political aims. Reading through Temporary People, any unaware reader will begin the journey towards greater awareness. It is also absolutely relevant; it’s an important lens, but a narrow one. Relevance is temporary, and this book is much more than that.
Some stories are otherworldly and others are not. Some are less than a page, others a more conventional length. His flexibility is impressive in itself, and Temporary People’s ideological center allows for it without sacrificing cohesion.
Stories like “Birds” are an excellent marriage of his twin styles. The main character, Anna Varghese, tapes up workers who have fallen from buildings. They are, in the vocabulary of the story, “immune to death by free fall,” but are not impervious to injury. Anna finds an injured man, Iqbal, who tells her he fell from the roof because a pigeon landed on his “pecker” while he was masturbating and he lost his balance. His openness about what landed him there is, masterfully, endearing instead of perverted.
“Try it, there’s nothing like it. It’s like impregnating the sky,” he said. “In your case, welcoming it.”
His characters have the right amount of earnestness and self-awareness. Each are vulnerable both with their peers and in a larger social sense. Their venerability is always visible to the reader. In Unnikrishnan’s hand, it is humanizing and strengthening.
Perhaps the best story in the collection is “Moonsepalty.” A kid the narrator calls Tits is angry after being profiled and treated unfairly by the police, and he lashes out by getting into a fight. He is overmatched, and gets beaten up as his friends abandon him. Unnikrishnan captures the guilt and fear viscerally.
I didn’t stop running until I got home. The trembling wouldn’t subside, my ears still ringing with the sound of flip-flopped feet stomping pudgy flesh. And that scream, the noise a piglet makes when its testicles are cut.
There is no way the narrator can ever forget this experience, or his guilt. And what happens when they meet later in life is equally unforgettable. The pacing in “Moonsepalty” is precise. It’s tense and gripping without rushing or slowing down too much.
A heavy brake-foot is, however, this collection’s biggest issue. Perhaps it is a matter of prizing the political over the narrative—not, by any means, inherently bad—but some of the longer stories feel like they take too long. As a book, the inclusion of stories of many different lengths creates a nice flow, but the stories are stronger when they are rapid and efficient. Pieces like “Pravasis,” which is essentially a list of adjectives and nouns, and “Nalinakshi,” which is a fictional narrator’s meditation on what it means to be “foreign,” clock in under two pages and punch of their weight class. In contrast, a story like “Blatella Germanica,” which follows roaches in their fight against a family trying to eradicate them, feels bloated. It’s a wonderful idea that loses steam too early, and it is representative of what brings down some of the stories in Temporary People.
The book, which is called a novel on its cover, does not deliver on that promise and does not seem particularly interested in doing so. This is essentially quibbling about marketing (and calling something a novel is much better marketing), but what people will see is not what they will get. It does build a unique and unified world with much more depth than most novels, but it casts its character net wide and values glimpses over sustained observation.
In the end, though, Temporary People deserves to be read however it is categorized. Its focus on a community of people too often ignored in English-language narratives makes it timely and relevant, but Unnikrishnan’s skill and style as a writer make it truly vital.
Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan
Published March 14, 2017
Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi and a resident of the States, who has lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, Brooklyn, New York, and Chicago. He has studied and taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and presently teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Bradley Babendir is a fiction writer and critic. His work has been published by The Washington Post, NPR, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Boston.