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: “Operator. Earth Digger. Stone Breaker. Foundation Putter. Infrastructure Planner. Rule Follower. House Builder. Camp Builder. Tube-Light Installer. Helmet Wearer. Jumpsuit Sporter. Globetrotter. Daydreamer. City Maker. Country Maker. Place Builder. Laborer. Cog. Cog? Cog.”
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. At one point, he interviews a 12-year-old girl who believes that the elevator itself (a Mitsubishi model) is hurting children.
Some of the stories are clearer allegories for the plight of the United Arab Emirates’ migrant workers. In “Birds,” a woman bicycles around a neighborhood at night and fixes the men who have fallen from buildings in construction sites. In “In Mussafah Grew People,” workers are scientifically developed and grown from pods, their futures predetermined by their 12-year shelf life. In two separate Kafkaesque chapters both named “Blattella Germanica,” Unnikrishnan writes about cockroaches that learn human languages, make clothes for themselves and survive insecticide attacks by pretending to be dead.
There is nothing comfortable about Unnikrishnan’s “Temporary People,” but it is challenging, thought-provoking and timely.
Ilana Masad is a writer and editor in New York.
By Deepak Unnikrishnan
Restless. 272 pp. Paperback, $17.99