Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan is a collection of hauntingly beautiful, violent, raw short stories interwoven into a masterpiece of fiction exploring themes of human value, immigration, culture, love, hate, hardship, evil, family, citizenship, and more. This collection of stories is so complex and nuanced that it deserves more than one read to fully grasp all the complexities. At its heart, Temporary People is about that: temporary people. Those who are used, abused, and then thrown out when not needed anymore. The harsh realities for guest workers in the UAE is blended with magical realism in each story and packs a powerful punch to the reader about how these workers navigate and suffer through their experiences and living conditions.
One story stood out to me and continues to occupy my thoughts as I reflect on my reading experience: Le Musée
We start off at the end of a violent conflict where the commander of the victorious forces orders the construction of two homes. The he orders his men to identify men, women, and children from the enemy captive to live in these houses. The “families” can be observed at any time of day for any reasons so that the dominant people can learn about the culture of the people they defeated. This story was so powerful because it reminded me how the dominant culture literally, well… dominates marginalized cultures. This story may seem like it’s an extreme example of this but in reality, the amount of power that a dominant culture has over the others is astounding. Le Musée was established to assert this domination and then to remind the dominant culture about why their culture is superior. To be quite honest, I am not sure what the author’s intention was in writing this piece in particular, but regardless, it moved me.
The other story that stood out to me was the second story in the collection: Birds
For me, this is when the themes of Temporary People started to come through as we follow a medical worker as she roams the streets looking for workers who have fallen off buildings. She looks for the fallen and then tapes them back up so they can continue on working. And sometimes these workers pass from their injuries and there is nothing to be done except comfort them and listen to their stories. This short story was heartbreaking to me because of the larger theme that so few people care about this population of worker – the majority will allow them to work in dangerous conditions but few support and care for them. They are, as the title describes, Temporary People, never fully accepted as a person in the environment they live in. I often think about what justice and inclusion looks like on a structural and cultural scale. In this story, justice could take many forms yet the story explores the interpersonal relationship between the person giving medical care and the fallen workers. One person can care about these fallen workers, but the impact of the systemic problem of falling workers is still there regardless of how many she helps.
The collection overall explores the vast intersections of immigrant identity and provides dialogues about race, culture, gender, sexual orientation, and more. While this cannot be held up as the definitive voice of immigrants (no one should have to bear that burden nor should we expect them to), this is one of the first novels I have read with such a unique style and approach to these topics. Using magical realism, Unnikrishnan does not abstract the challenges, violence, and oppressions but actually elevates the descriptions giving me, the reader, a visceral, raw feeling at the end.
I know some folks would say this book is not for everyone, but I have to disagree. This may not be the style you read and the some of the stories may not resonate with you AND I really would encourage you to pick this up. The stories are powerful and challenging and will stick with you long after you finish. Deepak Unnikrishnan rightfully won the first New Immigrant Writing prize and his voice amplifying the experiences of immigrants, is a powerful and unique narrative that is much needed in the landscape of literature. Keep an eye on Restless Books and the winners of the New Immigrant Writing prize moving forward – they are publishing really great voices.
Final Rating: 4.8/5