Interview: Deepak Unnikrishnan

Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People is a book of connected stories exploring lives of migrant workers from Asia working in the Middle-East.  His debut work intrigues readers and critics with his language experiments.  The writer has chronicled the hitherto undocumented and unhappy lives of those generations that contribute to that phenomenon called ‘development’, and then drop off the radar.

Suneetha Balakrishnan did this  interview with Deepak Unnikrishnan on behalf of ELJ. 

Tell us about your Kerala roots. What memories do you have of that place?

I was born in Kerala. That’s pretty much it because Amma took me to Abu Dhabi when I was little over a month old. But I don’t think I was ever allowed to forget I was Malayali. I speak to my parents and elders in Malayalam. When I was young, Kerala was the land of grandparents, cousins, and a bunch of random people I knew little about, people who liked to tell me I looked like my uncle and had my father’s feet.  Not all the memories are pleasant. We returned to Kerala to cremate my grandparents. Kerala, truth be told, is my parents’ land, their naadu/homeland. I’ve always been the visitor, rarely the inhabitant. And that’s all right.

Tell us about your reading over the years. How did it guide you towards being the writer of Temporary People?

I read whatever I could get my hands on, not because I wanted to be a writer. I just liked to read. I wasn’t picky. Amma bought me bestsellers from supermarket aisles. I bought racy comics from Isam Bookshop, not far from where I grew up. The library at the India Social Center in Abu Dhabi had lots of Barbara Cartland and Alistair MacLean and Sidney Sheldon. And the school I went to stocked tons of Enid Blyton and Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys. And my uncle would send me Tinkle and Amar Chitra Kathas. And friends would let me borrow their Tintins and Archies. And if my reading stock looked bleak, I’d wait for stuff newspapers put out for kids and teens. As I grew older, I dipped into writers I was told I needed to read, because it was important to know what writing could be. And these names, winners of prizes, praised by professors and friends, mattered too. But one of my favourite moments as a reader involved reading my best friend’s stories when we were kids. I’d try to copy them but my stories copied Blyton’s style. His were original. That brought me joy, as much joy as reading fables and myths. And it also brought me envy because I wanted to do that, but I couldn’t. My education in writing was informed by my reading. Everyone I read counted, because I’d read anything. And I still read anything. Maybe that’s not true. I suppose what I’m trying to say is I try not to dismiss work from the get go because it’s either marketed as high, low or middle brow. If I’m interested in the writer, I’ll read him/her/them.

Could you sketch the trajectory of your life as a writer for aspiring writers here? Do tell us about your first book, Coffee Stains in a Camel’s Teacup.

Again, I didn’t set out being a writer. I needed work, because my family needed the money, but I was having trouble finding employment after college, so I wrote a bit to stay sane, and ended up doing a lot of gigs in my spare time, while lazing around when there wasn’t work to be had. An absolutely stupid thing to do when you’re on a student visa in the States, but I was also afraid of putting myself out there after I didn’t get a call back for a concierge position at Garden State Plaza (Jersey). I assumed an undergraduate degree and a cool accent would have been enough to impress the man who interviewed me, but I guess I didn’t know any better. I have done all kinds of jobs ever since I was seventeen, from delivering sample detergent, to editing to gardening to dog walking to house-sitting to whatever else got thrown my way. Some of these jobs paid my way through college. Others helped me pay rent, get something to eat, pay off the monthly installments on the bank loan my parents took on my behalf. The work, whatever I did, counted, because I didn’t spend too much time thinking about writing. The thought crossed my mind a couple of times, so I wrote when I could. But it felt more important to have a job, any job. And if I wanted to write, then I’d eke out some time to do just that. I thought I had it all figured out, but life’s rarely that simple. But all of these occupations contributed towards my growth as a writer, besides giving me enough material to last a few years.

Coffee Stains was a product of loneliness and introspection. I had just graduated, jobless, scared.  I was also homesick because I hadn’t seen my parents and sister in a while, so I wrote a few things my roommate at the time thought was good enough to be published. Being the kind of person she was, she grabbed what I wrote and showed them to a publisher in Sri Lanka, who agreed to publish all of it. She put some of her own money into the first printing but that was the kind of person she was, but there was also an ease to Coffee Stain’s publication that I got a bit naïve about the publishing business.


Tell us about the cities in your life and writing them/in them/about them.

I grew up in Abu Dhabi and I am partial to New York City and Chicago. I got my first real job in New York, something with insurance and two weeks paid vacation. It was hard going at first, New York, but I figured out how to negotiate its bite, something I didn’t think I could do when I moved there. Then there’s Chicago, the city I finished Temporary People in, where I could walk and breathe at my own pace. I didn’t write anything of substance in Abu Dhabi, but I was barely twenty when I left. At the same time, I didn’t think of myself as a writer in my teens. New York and Chicago helped me understand it was okay to take my time with my work, even if there wasn’t much work to speak of. I didn’t move to New York because that was the writerly thing to do. I just ended up finding work there. Then the only fine arts program that accepted me happened to be in Chicago. I suppose the only condition I had when I thought about moving to either place was the existence of public transportation. I also needed to be able to walk around because even though I like looking at cars, I don’t like driving too much.

How about the people who mattered in your writing odyssey? Especially Ted Chesler.

I am afraid of listing names because I don’t want to forget anyone, so let me address your question by telling you a story about Prof. Chesler. Over a decade ago, maybe more, I was sitting in his office at Fairleigh Dickinson, bitching about the world and why being an artist sucked. Sure, he said, then convinced me to read W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence. The book rejuvenated whatever plan I had for myself as a writer/artist. But Prof. Chesler was like that. He was the counselor I needed, the friend/adult every anxious student hoped to find. He’d have a book or a film or a piece of opera to match my temperament, and he loved to disagree with me, as much as I loved to disagree with him, because he was fearless. And he was teaching me outside the classroom, something I try to do with my own students. He paid my tuition the semester the university was going to bar me from attending classes, fed me when I was broke, put money in my wallet, wrote the president of the institution to give me more scholarship money. And he never pitied me. He just had his way of doing things because he knew how proud I was. He passed away a few years before the book came out, but there would have been no writing without his influence/kindness/tutelage. I left New York City a little over a year after he died. He was the first person who actually believed me when I told him I was thinking of writing something. He was the first person in my life to call me ambitious. He was more than a teacher to me. It’s just that I never got to tell him how much he meant to me, that I loved him as much as my parents, but I didn’t know how to convey that without tearing up.But everybody knew. The university knew, his wife knew, as did he.

What does your current life (location, work, the family perhaps) look like?

I go back and forth between Chicago, sometimes New York, and Abu Dhabi, because I currently teach in the Writing program at New York University Abu Dhabi. My students keep me on my toes. And I like to think I do the same to them. My parents live nearby, my sister too. I am not sure how long all of us are going to enjoy this kind of proximity, so we’re cherishing every moment. And my partner’s family is closer to us – a few hours of air travel – than they’ve ever been. So these times are important in other ways. As far as the writing goes, I’m often caught up with teaching and reading. But if the urge to write is strong, I try and carve out some time.

Why short fiction and not long form?

I identify as a short story writer, even though the book is an amalgam of long and short-form narratives, because I see the book as a composition, not fragments. But if I were to intellectualize my response/position, I could tell you the short story makes sense to me because the form’s all about time. And I respond to that because I’ve always been aware of time, given my background. And there might be some truth to that, but I’m also fishing to defend my practice, which may not be healthy. Honestly, I write to understand and negotiate the world, to problem solve puzzles, as well as to entertain, because I want to be read. But I want to be heard the way I want to be heard, and write the way I want to write.

I felt a welcome lack of bleakness in your voice as you narrated the death of a person or his dream in the stories. Would you call Temporary People ‘a celebration of the immigrant experience’ or ‘an observation of an undocumented immigrant experience’?

I would call Temporary People a work of fiction that’s interested in the languages of people from elsewhere, individuals who give their lives and youth to a city/place they will eventually leave. And in the book at least, as they live, or leave, their narratives appear in the form of fables, myths, the fantastical and the real.

What is your experience of the narrative of the immigrant in your mother tongue? Are you familiar with Goat People by Benyamin or the 1970s publication of the four volume three-generation-saga of the Malaya-Malayali Diaspora by Vilasini, viz. ‘Avakashikal’? Have you seen Arabikkatha or Gaddama by any chance? What have your impressions been?

I’ve always been aware that my parents missed Kerala, but I’ve also been aware that the Gulf isn’t all about being an NRI, or an OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker). The languages of those who live away from home are often peppered with nostalgia, and concern for those left behind, but it’s also peppered with hope, ambition, and children. If you are on your own, like my father was for a few years in 70s, you miss people, the old, and the young. If you are middle aged, like my father became in the late 90s, you are still missing the same people, maybe some have passed away, moved on to other things/places, but you’re also missing what you missed out on. What I’m saying is I’ve always been hyper aware of what my parents did for me and my sibling, what my uncles did for their families. What other people, especially the women, did for their own loved ones.  But I’ve also been hyper aware of how different us children of the gulf were to our forebears/cousins in India, how connected some of us felt to the Arab city that raised us, compared to the towns and cities our parents came from. When I say I don’t feel like an immigrant in the gulf, what I’m saying is that I’m home. But when I say I figured out in my twenties what being an immigrant actually meant, what I’m saying is thatI lived through some of my parents’ experiences  -- the fear, doubt, and distance from the homeland – in the United States. But our experiences are distinct in that I missed a city while they missed a country. And my parents have always called themselves Indian. I stopped doing that in the States, where I began to tell people that I was from Abu Dhabi, because I couldn’t be from India, I felt, because I had never lived in India.

Yes, I’ve read Benyamin’s Goat Days. And I’ve seen Arabikkatha, Gaddama, Pathemari, Manjadikuru,or any other film that was either about the Gulf or shot in the region. I’ve also read The Dog by Joseph O’ Neil, Impossible Citizens by NehaVora, papers by Caroline Osella, work by Andrew Gardner. Then there’s Christopher Davidson, Wilfred Thesiger. And others. I also pay attention to the art scene in the UAE, work by artists I identify with, raised in the region, like LantianXie or Raja’a Khalid. Or essays by art critics like Sharjah-boy MurtazaVali.  I do this because most of the films I’ve seen concentrate on my parents’ generation, but that’s changing a little bit. The films you mentioned are relevant, but they also spend a lot of time talking about sacrifice and nostalgia, which is important. But the people from elsewhere, especially Malayalis – those who live in places like the Gulf – l would argue, are more complicated creatures/residents.  Some people assimilate better than others. And there are those who have made obscene amounts of money, those who have not, and those who fall somewhere in between. And even though some of these people may pine for the homeland every day, there are others who have not only contributed towards the makeup of the respective places they inhabit, they don’t feel as displaced anymore. Or they are not sure how to feel about home anymore, and that kind of experience needs to bescrutinized further in film and literature. Anjali Menon’s work comes close in looking at the impact Gulf parents have had on their children.But I would like to see more films where the tales aren’t all about sacrifice, where the lead characters have a bit of the good and the bad, like most of us. Also, I’d like to see films where Arabs/locals are portrayed with more nuance. I have a feeling these requests are going to be fulfilled soon enough.  

The style of using the non-italicized vernacular in your text (‘kada’ etc.) has been referred to in a review (in a positive way) as a denial: ‘deny the reader the right to complete understanding’. How do you see this observation? How do you think this play with form helped your Muse to achieve a style so suited to a dystopian narrative?

Languages are a big deal in the book, and how Malayalam and Hindi and English and Arabic operate in a city like Abu Dhabi, and why they operate the way they do. As a speaker of multiple languages, I go back and forth between tongues all the time. The book’s doing the same, especially with Malayalam. I suppose you could say my decision to not highlight foreign words is a statement, not only to English speakers/readers, but also to the expectations readers have of writers who speak more than one tongue. When I was young, I’d read books with words like croissant and schadenfreude, or phrases like carpe diem, or bona fide, and most of the time they weren’t italicized, and I had no idea what they meant, so I looked them up. The same principle ought to apply to readers of writers of color, or writers who come from a background like mine, nothing rare, just different. If the word doesn’t make sense, guess. If you need to know what the word means, look it up, or ask around. When I was learning English, I had no idea what most idioms meant. And believe me, the world gets so much more complicated when you discover American and British idioms are not the same, as I did. In Temporary People, I am not denying the right to complete understanding. I am simply exercising my right to write as I please, respecting the tongues that taught me to read and write and understand the world. And I didn’t know I was toying with form until a reader mentioned it. My response was to ask the writer Beth Nugent, one of my teachers at art school, what the word meant from a literary context. Beth being Beth had a succinct explanation.

The immigrant experience has been a catalyst of Writing in English in India. How do you see yourself in the list of Diaspora writers? Do you see this work as a fit into the Indian Writing in English lists where it performs the all-important task of documenting the lives of the immigrant Malayali? Especially since the politically charged migration issues in the contemporary literature of the world deal with a totally different scenario, where people are invisible rather than temporary?

I am not sure if I am a writer of the diaspora because I am a writer from Abu Dhabi with connections to India. I don’t miss India. I don’t think I’ve ever missed India, even though my parents tried to make me miss India. I am a product/writer of circumstance, raised by Malayali parents in Abu Dhabi. I am perfectly comfortable with my place in the city, which has always been home. There is no confusion, about my identity or place, just as there is no confusion in the States anymore about who or what I am, a brown man with a green card and a love for New York City and Chicago. But I latch onto things/cities/people with the understanding that I’ve got to detach my body and mind from the place/human at some point. That mentality is a consequence of feeling temporary ever since I could communicate with the world around me.  And I’d push you a little bit on the argument that the invisible aren’t temporary. There are very few circumstances where people are actually invisible. In most cases, citizens/inhabitants/residents are aware of the kind of people who occupy their cities/countries. Otherwise you wouldn’t have rhetoric about the places/streets that are safe to go to and those that ought to be avoided. But of course, there are different kinds and classes of migrants. In my experience, the most vulnerable – almost always the working class or the undocumented – are the ones who get picked on the most. I don’t know where I see my work in comparison to the pantheon of other writers who have come before me. My goal was to produce something worthy. Only time will tell if I succeeded.

Is your work being translated into other languages?

The book’s only been out since March. I have been asked about being translated a few times, but saying any more would be premature. But I’d be curious to see how translators would take on the book. I believe it’s not an easy book to translate because of all the puns and languages in play. But the best translators are also brilliant creative beasts, writers with minds and thoughts very much their own. And these people may have solutions far more interesting that anything I might come up with, cheat codes to make the work sing in multiple tongues.

You will be aware that translations are huge in Malayalam. Are you quite familiar with Malayalam Literature? Especially the translations? Would you like to be translated into Malayalam? What are your expectations about the reader in Malayalam?

I don’t read Malayalam, but I’ve read translations of Benyamin, M.T Vasudevan Nair, O.Vijayan and Kamala Das’s work(s).

I’ve also read and looked for translations from other languages whenever the opportunity presented itself. If you browse my bookshelf, you’ll find a bunch of other Malayalam writers peeking out too, writers I haven’t read, but need to at some point:K.R Meera and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai for instance.

It’s important to me that the book gets translated into Malayalam. I don’t have special expectations for the Malayalam readership. They are allowed to like or dislike the work, but hopefully there will also be some conversation around it. Basically, judge it as they please. But I’d be curious to see how the book sounds in Malayalam. If it gets translated into my family’s primary tongue, I’ll probably have someone read the book out loud to me.

I sense (in Temporary People) a lot of bottled up emotion I cannot fathom, frozen into a neutral mood, which borders on the bleak, in a distanced voice.  Is that anger? If so where does it come from?

Rage, or anger, is a complex response, often built over time. Sure, the book’s about people unhappy with their situations, but I would argue the book’s also about people trying to figureout their respective situations,and children trying to sort out their own problems. And the work is also about people trying to find their place in the city, or trying to hold on to the place(s) they came from, with the help of stories, and memories. Sometimes these recollections are painful, which may explain the bleakness. Sometimes talking about the present stirs up anger, which may explain the rage. And often, time away from the homeland produces a peculiar kind of distance from everything that used to be familiar. And when you come from a family like mine, when you’re writing a book like this on another continent, convinced you’ll never live in the same country as your immediate family because you’re not sure how to return, bits of you end up in the book too. 

When I read Anna’s story, what struck me was the gender aspect of the word ‘fallen men’. ‘Anna had a superb track record of finding fallen men’. There is a terrible pun on the phrase as I see it. Was that some form of symbolism used intentionally? Is there a real-life backstory to Anna?

There’s no real-life Anna, but there ought to be. I suppose I wanted to write about a woman/person who existed without fanfare, someone who genuinely cared about people, a person with hopes and dreams, someone who listened, lived for others so to speak, yet flawed. Someone like my amma, who never worked a nine to five gig in the Gulf, like my father, but raised two kids by herself, and looked after her husband. My mother is my family’s rock, but you wouldn’t know it. You asked me earlier about my influences. I think the way I do primarily because of my amma, who doesn’t share many of my beliefs, but allowed my mind to roam. I never understood that kind of acceptance as a kid. As an adult I’m none the wiser. What I’m saying is that I wanted to write a chapter about a woman who took care of men in a city of men, but someone who was also fiercely independent. I am not saying I wrote about my mother but I wrote about someone as strong-willed as my amma. Sometimes you don’t know why you write the things you write. I suppose you could also say I wanted to write a story about men who made buildings, looked after by a certain kind of woman, the kind that rarely nabs the headlines.

Your use of language has been referred to in a review as the ‘language of exile’. How did you go about polishing it? Was there a fear of rejection as you decided to use it?

When I wrote the book, I didn’t think I was writing in the language of exile. I mean, I write and speak a certain way because of my background. Malayalam’s important to me., butI think in English. And my brain switches back and forth between both tongues, and others too, but the multilingualism isn’t a front. My tongue needs to speak other tongues to feel comfortable. I also need to hear other tongues to feel complete.  But you also need to understand I was writing about a city that sounds a certain way. I wanted to capture that on the page. I wanted readers to respond to the noise. Or wonder about the possibilities of having multiple languages in operation on the page, and why the writer was doing that. But did I write in the language of exile? Truth is, I don’t know.

I don’t think I feared rejection. I was more frustrated by the assumption and adviceof well-meaning folks that English needed to be written a certain way, or the city of Abu Dhabi needed to be explained better to make the text more accessible to a foreign readership. But I refused to italicize any of the foreign words because those words weren’t foreign to me. And highlighting them meant I was writing a different kind of book. And I didn’t want a work about languages and people to compromise on how the languages were going to be presented, because that would have meant the book didn’t want to take a stance.  And I wasn’t ashamed or bothered by the Malayalam or the Hindi or the Arabic in the book, so why highlight them?  And I didn’t want to explain Abu Dhabi because I wasn’t writing a tourist brochure, or a travelogue. All I knew was that I was writing something readers needed to take their time with, because when I was writing the book, when I didn’t know it was a book,and when I was writing the book, when I knew it was going to be a book, everything – down to every word, punctuation, sequence, architecture, form– mattered.