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Temporary People (Restless Books)
In the United Arab Emirates, foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. Brought in to construct and serve the towering monuments to wealth that punctuate the skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, this labor force is not given the option of citizenship. Some ride their luck to good fortune. Others suffer different fates. 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 debut novel Temporary People, Deepak Unnikrishnan delves into their histories, myths, struggles, and triumphs.
Combining the linguistic invention of Salman Rushdie and the satirical vision of George Saunders, 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. With this polyphony of voices, Unnikrishnan maps a new, unruly global English and gives personhood back to the anonymous workers of the Gulf.
Praise for Temporary People
"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 the experience 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 alternating 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
“Deepak writes brilliant stories with a fresh, passionate energy. Every page feels as if it must have been written, as if the author had no choice. He writes about exile, immigration, deportation, security checks, rage, patience, about the homelessness of living in a foreign land, about historical events so strange that, under his hand, the events become tales, and he writes tales so precisely that they read like history. Important work. Work of the future. This man will not be stopped.”—Deb Olin Unferth, author of Revolution
“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
“From the strange Kafka-esque scenarios to the wholly original language, this book is amazing on so many different levels. Unlike anything I've ever read, Temporary People is a powerful work of short stories about foreign nationals who populate the new economy in the United Arab Emirates. With inventive language and darkly satirical plot lines, Unnikrishnan provides an important view of relentless nature of a global economy and its brutal consequences for human lives. Prepare to be wowed by the immensely talented new voice.” —Hilary Gustafson, Literati Bookstore
“Absolutely preposterous! As a debut, author Unnikrishnan shares stories of laborers, brought to the United Arab Emirates to do menial and everyday jobs. These people have no rights, no fallback if they have problems or health issues in that land. The laborers in Temporary People are sewn back together when they fall, are abandoned in the desert if they become inconvenient, and are even grown from seeds. As a collection of short stories, this is fantastical, imaginative, funny, and even more so, scary, powerful, and ferocious.”—Becky Milner, Vintage Books
Deepak Unnikrishnan was raised in the United Arab Emirates. He is a resident of Chicago and a lecturer at the Chicago Art Institute, and he has taught at New York University Abu Dhabi. Temporary People, his first book, was the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
Photo by Philip Cheung