There is much to admire in Unnikrishnan’s fanciful and fervent debut, a collection of stories about the lives of guest workers in the United Arab Emirates. In one of the early pieces, the U.A.E.’s capital city, Abu Dhabi, is described as a “board game, labor its players, there to make buildings bigger, streets longer, the economy richer. Then to leave.” Unnikrishnan explores the depredations, sorrows, and longings of these foreign laborers, who are often treated as disposable, with a dark whimsy. The style varies widely; one tale consists simply of a list of professions and adjectives. Some of the longer allegorical stories—including one about a nurse who reassembles the bodies of injured construction workers “with duct tape or some good glue,” or another about a “master scavenger of the spoken word,” a cockroach who picks up the languages spoken by the diverse residents of an infested building—achieve the proper mix of absurdity and pathos. Others, however, force a flimsy conceit to bear too much weight. Interspersed throughout are briefer pieces, from one paragraph to several pages in length, concise meditations that offer up the book’s best expressions of what it means to be an outsider in a land far from home. (Mar.)
Deepak Unnikrishnan’s novel-in-stories narrates a series of metamorphoses…. a mosaic of the frenetic, fantastical and fragmented lives of the South Asian diaspora in the United Arab Emirates, one that recalls the cry of its closest forebear, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children: ‘Please believe that I am falling apart.’ What separates Unnikrishnan from Rushdie, and the vast literature of exile that precedes them, are his subjects. Temporary People explores the lives of arguably the least privileged class of nomads in the twenty-first century: guest workers. Joining the South Indian writer Benyamin’s Goat Days, a novel of modern-day enslavement in Saudi Arabia, and the British-Emirati director Ali Mostafa’s City of Life, a film that weaves together a cross-section of lives in Dubai, Temporary People is a robust… entry into the nascent portrayal of migrant labor in the Gulf.… Mingling English, Malayalam and Arabic in a series of Kafkaesque parables, Unnikrishnan’s book features a lot of action and even some humor.… Temporary People pairs well with an older cousin in nonfiction, John Berger’s A Seventh Man. In that stirring cri de coeur about migrant labor in Europe, Berger reminds us of a point that is embedded within Unnikrishnan’s stories: Countries that send migrant laborers to global metropolitan centers are often forced to do so…. Unnikrishnan’s collection poses its questions obliquely, but demands explicit answers. What causes a society to look like this?”
—Shaj Mathew, The New York Times Book Review
“Temporary People has won the inaugural Restless Books prize for writing by a first-generation immigrant to America. Its patchwork of chapters elicits the vertigo of Joseph Heller and the disoriented human hopelessness of Milan Kundera.… Mr. Unnikrishnan’s world could be written off as dystopian, were it not rooted so firmly in current reality.… Taken together this discordant polyphony of stories is the full-throated roar of an entire people.… His language is now solid, alive and dangerous.… This is not an easy book; in fact it is eviscerating. But in Temporary People the Restless Books prize has rewarded an urgent voice worth attending to, even if it is hard to hear.”
— The Economist
“Combining surreal symbolism and linear narrative, wordplay and lists, family history and mythic retellings, Unnikrishnan uses fiction to ‘[illuminate] how temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, fables, and language(s)…. With this unsettling, dazzling, astute collection, Unnikrishnan won the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, which awards $10,000 and publication to a first-time, first-generation American author. ‘In giving substance and identity to the voiceless and faceless masses of guest workers in the United Arab Emirates, he not only calls attention to this very particular injustice, but also highlights the disturbing ways in which “progress” on a global scale is bound up with dehumanization,’ reads the Judges’ Citation. ‘Temporary People is a brave, stylistically inventive book that presents a frightening, surreal world that’s all too true to life.’ Its publication couldn’t be more timely given the current outcries for and against immigrants, bans, raids, and mass deportations. As an antidote to border politics, Unnikrishnan’s stories serve as both testimony and oracle to be read with grave urgency.”
—Terry Hong, The Christian Science Monitor
"Inventive, vigorously empathetic, and brimming with a sparkling, mordant humor, Deepak Unnikrishnan has written a book of Ovidian metamorphoses for our precarious time. These absurdist fables, fluent in the language of exile, immigration, and bureaucracy, will remind you of the raw pleasure of storytelling and the unsettling nearness of the future."
—Alexandra Kleeman, author of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine
“Deepak Unnikrishnan’s new novel is made even more moving by the author’s statement about writing it: ‘Temporary People is a work of fiction set in the UAE, where I was raised and where foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. It is a nation built by people who are eventually required to leave.’ It is hard to grapple with the idea of a country where so few people hold citizenship while so many others toil to make it work, which is partially what Unnikrishnan’s book deals with. The elements of this novel, which won the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, range in form from short-short stories to poems to one particularly memorable piece that is simply a list of dozens of occupations that become slowly more political, until the painful end… Pieces such as this are all about the language play, while others focus more on voice, like the incredibly disturbing ‘Mushtibushi,’ in which an apartment-dweller is responsible for collecting the reports of child molestation and kidnapping in his building…. There is nothing comfortable about Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People, but it is challenging, thought-provoking and timely.”
—Ilana Masa, The Washington Post
“Western chatter about the U.A.E. was somehow reproducing, however unconsciously, the same dehumanization that it appeared to criticize. There was money-drunk decadence at the top, raw immiseration at the bottom, and little else….. No real life…. Temporary People [is] a kaleidoscopic collection of loosely linked short stories set mostly in Abu Dhabi and focussed on residents of the city who are, like Unnikrishnan, citizens of India. It’s exactly the book I was looking for. For its characters, the U.A.E. is not a backdrop or a metaphor; it’s where they live… Unnikrishnan refuses to occupy a single style or register, as if to inoculate the reader against settling on any one idea of what the U.A.E. is, or of what it means. A few stories are in a familiar mode of straightforward realism. Others are surreal fables brimming with bizarre imagery…. [It] works wonders, jolting the readerly brain away from abstraction and directing it toward the fine grain of life. Unnikrishnan isn’t papering over the frequent harshness of noncitizen life, or denying how degrading it can be. But he is insisting that there is more to the story—that the people in the place have rich interior lives shot through with memories, desires, and confusions.”
—Peter C. Baker, The New Yorker
"Guest workers of the United Arab Emirates embody multiple worlds and identities and long for home in a fantastical debut work of fiction, winner of the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing . . . The author's crisp, imaginative prose packs a punch, and his whimsical depiction of characters who oscillate between two lands on either side of the Arabian Sea unspools the kind of immigrant narratives that are rarely told. An enchanting, unparalleled anthem of displacement and repatriation."
—Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review
"Inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, this debut novel employs its own brand of magical realism to propel readers into an understanding and appreciation of foreign workers in the Arab Gulf States (and beyond). Through a series of almost 30 loosely linked sections, grouped into three parts, we are thrust into a narrative alternatinting between visceral realism and fantastic satire . . . The alternation between satirical fantasy, depicting such things as intelligent cockroaches and evil elevators, and poignant realism, with regards to necessarily illicit sexuality, forms a contrast that gives rise to a broad critique of the plight of those known euphemistically as "guest workers." VERDICT: This first novel challenges readers with a singular inventiveness expressed through a lyrical use of language and a laserlike focus that is at once charming and terrifying. Highly recommended."
—Henry Bankhead, Library Journal, Starred Review
“Unnikrishnan’s debut novel shines a light on a little known world with compassion and keen insight. The Temporary People are invisible people—but Unnikrishnan brings them to us with compassion, intelligence, and heart. This is why novels matter.”
—Susan Hans O’Connor, Penguin Bookshop (Sewickley, PA)
"Deepak Unnikrishnan uses linguistic pyrotechnics to tell the story of forced transience in the Arabian Peninsula, where citizenship can never be earned no matter the commitment of blood, sweat, years of life, or brains. The accoutrements of migration—languages, body parts, passports, losses, wounds, communities of strangers—are packed and carried along with ordinary luggage, blurring the real and the unreal with exquisite skill. Unnikrishnan sets before us a feast of absurdity that captures the cruel realities around the borders we cross either by choice or by force. In doing so he has found what most writers miss: the sweet spot between simmering rage at a set of circumstances, and the circumstances themselves."
—Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane
Guest workers of the United Arab Emirates embody multiple worlds and identities and long for home in a fantastical debut work of fiction, winner of the inaugural Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.In 28 engrossing linked stories, Unnikrishnan blends Malayalam, Arabic, and English slang as well as South Asian and Persian Gulf cultures to capture the disjunction and dissociation of temporary foreign workers who live in the Arabian Peninsula but will never receive citizenship. In "Gulf Return," a laborer swallows his passport and turns into a passport, and his roommate swallows a suitcase and turns into a suitcase so that their third friend can dash away with them both to the airport. In "Birds," Anna Varghese tapes construction workers who fall from tall buildings back together. "Anna had a superb track record for finding fallen men….She found everything, including teeth, bits of skin." The tongue of an English-speaking teen escapes from his mouth, shedding words with every step in the agile "Glossary." "Verbs, adjectives, and adverbs died at the scene but the surviving nouns, tadpole-sized, see-through, fell like hail." A lonely renegade cockroach called The General mimics humanlike qualities in the ingenious "Blatella Germanica." "It was when he started picking up the language of the building's tenants, bits of Arabic from the Palestinians and the Sudanese, Tagalog from the Filipinos, modern variations of Dravidian languages, that he began crafting a custom-made patois from the many tongues he heard, then practicing it at night in the kitchen, as he foraged walking on two legs and in costume, that he startled the other Germanicas in his community, and they ostracized him." The author's crisp, imaginative prose packs a punch, and his whimsical depiction of characters who oscillate between two lands on either side of the Arabian Sea unspools the kind of immigrant narratives that are rarely told. An enchanting, unparalleled anthem of displacement and repatriation.