In the United Arab Emirates, foreign nationals constitute over 80% of the population. Brought in to construct the towering monuments to wealth that bristle the skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, this labor force works without the rights of citizenship, endures miserable living conditions, and is eventually required to leave the country. Until now, the humanitarian crisis of the so-called “guest workers” of the Gulf has barely been addressed in fiction. With his stunning, mind-altering book Temporary People, debut author Deepak Unnikrishnan delves into their histories, myths, struggles, and triumphs, and illuminates the ways in which temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, stories, and languages.
Deepak Unnikrishnan presents twenty-eight linked stories that careen from construction workers who shapeshift into luggage and escape a labor camp, to a woman who stitches back together the bodies of those who’ve fallen from buildings in progress, to a man who grows ideal workers designed to live twelve years and then perish—until they don’t, and found a rebel community in the desert. In this polyphony of voices, Unnikrishnan brilliantly maps a new, unruly global English, and in giving substance and identity to the anonymous workers of the Gulf, he highlights the disturbing ways in which “progress” on a global scale is bound up with dehumanization.
Until recently I thought I wasn’t a short story person. I guess I was just reading the wrong ones, as I loved The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers last year and I love Temporary People. So what are the ingredients to a perfect-for-me collection?
- A window onto an experience I’m not familiar with
The city flirted with these people, making all give and give up. The air was spiked; everyone wanted a taste.
Temporary People is about foreign laborers in Gulf states, working in places like Dubai. Often they come for economic reasons, sending the money they make back home, but others start families and stay… until they’re forced to leave.
Unnikrishnan uses fantastic elements to get at the reality underpinning the guest worker experience. The story Birds follows Anna Varghese, who tapes construction workers together after they fall from the buildings they’re working on. When they hit the ground an arm skitters off in one direction, their spleen and eye in another, but they don’t die. They simply wait for someone to come by at night and patch them together with glue, a needle, and some horsehair.
Anna had a superb track record for finding fallen men. The woman must have been part-bloodhound. She found everything, including teeth, bits of skin… the men were grateful to be fussed over like this.
…The fallen shared that when Anna reattached body parts, she spoke to them in her tongue, sometimes stroking their hair or chin… If she didn’t speak his language, she sang, poorly, but from the heart. But even Anna lost people.
Metaphors of men being seen as things comes up again and again. In one story they’re literally grown in soil to fill the need for more labor. It would be clumsy and blunt in the wrong hands but Unnikreishnan breathes life into each story, which brings me to my next ingredient.
- A solid plot held together with inventive writing
Temporary People is written in English, but it’s not the sort you may have grown up with. It’s a Global English – largely the same but bending in places to fit the needs of its speakers.
In the back [of the shop]… was what some customers sought him out for, a fone. The device resembled a rotary phone, but it wasn’t a phone; it was a fone… the fone’s main purpose was teleportation. A man could use the fone to talk to his wife, and as his wife cried softly into the neighbor’s phone, her husband would hover over her, like a giant bee, seeing his wife cry like that, feeling satisfied that his wife could cry like that, content that he could see her cry like that, even though she wouldn’t be able to see him, or even know that he was there, so close he could see the dirt on the back of her neck.
Unnikrishnan molds words to do his bidding and they sucked me in. Once there the plot keeps things moving – I made sure I had time to finish each story as I knew I wouldn’t be able to put it down halfway.
- A touch of something… different
Here, as you can tell from the above examples, it’s a touch of magical realism. It bends reality like Global English molds the language, allowing us to get past the facts and come closer to truth. Cockroaches wear clothes and walk on two legs. A tongue jumps out of a mouth one day, crossing the road and leaving stray nouns in its wake. An elevator is implicated in a crime. It sounds fantastic when boiled down to one sentence like that, but it’s spun out in such a way that’s not jarring, just… well, magical. Some stories share common links, making it easy to imagine the different settings as part of a cohesive whole.
The result is wonderful, and Unnikrishnan has earned a fan. I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.
…and if you know short story collections that have two or more of these ingredients tell me in the comments! I’m always on the hunt for more :)
Thanks to Restless Books and Edelweiss for providing a review copy.