Deepak Unnikrishnan on deconstructing space

As a preview of the interview with writer Deepak Unnikrishan, we present an excerpt about his approach to deconstructing space in his book, Temporary People.

Space for me is a box, it is part of memory, thus I have to figure out how to operate in space. When you use the expression “deconstructing space”, the implication is that I  change the rules a little bit, which is intentional. In particular, the book is a response to memory, but it is better if I give an example. I left the UAE when I was 20 and went to the US to study, although initially the intention was to chase my girlfriend. I told everyone else I was going there for intellectual stimulation, but then when it did not work out after a month, I realized there was nothing better to do than study. I was away from home for a long time: for the first year I could go see my parents once; after that for five and a half years I did not go home. And that is a long time. Five and a half years. In five and a half years you lose things, you lose experiences you could not take part in, you lose sounds, and so you end up trying to recall everything that mattered to you. You start thinking of spaces that mattered to you – in the US I started thinking of the UAE. So, this notion of deconstructing space is an interesting way of looking at work that is attempting at trying something. Honestly, what I actually wanted to do was writing because I was lonely. It is very simple.

As far as the critique aspect of the UAE goes, that is both complicated and complex. Because as a writer I am critiquing all the time, especially my environment, which is what I think my job is. However, this does not necessarily mean the book is a political manifesto, saying “Here is a book”, or, “Here is language that critiques everything that you thought was wrong about the UAE”. That is nonsense and also a faulty way of considering this kind of critique. In my case, it all started with a period of loneliness when I wanted to resurrect the place that I grew up in. This meant deepening both into something important to me and into history, even providing anecdotes, bringing things back to life as if they were dead. They are not dead yet, but they could be at some point. This is what I am doing, especially with people, with the streets, with the city. The major point of difference is the people I am writing or wrote about are not going to be around for much longer. In particular, I am talking about institutional memory – that is, I am talking about going to a place and noticing that certain people existed here 15-20 years ago. In my experience, in the UAE at this point people who look like me or my parents are not allowed to exist institutionally yet. I do not think this is malicious, however, but that it is an oversight because the country is young. At the same time, I do not claim I am trying to rectify any of this. I wanted to document what made sense to me because I was tired and lonely and I thought I was a writer because I was arrogant, and this is basically the truth.

I can talk about myself as someone who writes. When you finish writing a book, you feel that when the book is read, then whatever the reader gets out of it is enough. I should not explain every single detail in the language so that people completely understand. My work is not about understanding everything it contains, because there are things in there that I do not understand myself. This book was my thesis project at the Art Institute of Chicago; when I finished it, I showed it to one of my advisors, Janet Desaulniers, and I was sitting in front of her and told her, “I think I’m done. I have no idea what the fuck I just did.” So she looked at me and said it was not my job, but the critics’ job to determine what I thought I might have done. This freed me from any preconceived notions I had about what I was supposed to do after the work was finished.

Returning to deconstruction, before the book was published I was asked what it was – whether it was a story collection, a novel, a novella – and I replied it was… a book. My publisher told me that if we marketed my book as a “book”, it would have been marketing suicide. I did not respond that way to sound profound or artistic, it was the truth, because for me the book plays with everything. The book plays with the rhythm, and music is rhythm as far as I am concerned. The book plays around with architecture: I had access to the museum of the Art Institute of Chicago, thus there is a reason why my work plays with architecture. The book plays around with form, with what a short story collection is supposed to be and what a novel is supposed to be. In other words, the book is interested in disrupting every single rule people can think of.

This is intentional: it is not only deconstruction of space, but also deconstruction of objects, documents, of what a book is supposed to do to people once they have read it. The book also deconstructs rules, for instance how it is supposed to be read: it could actually be read from the first page to the end, but also in any order. It is entirely up to the reader. It could be read in one city, it could take years and months and people could never finish it. Again, entirely up to the reader. The readers’ response to their reading matters to me as a writer, even though I may never get to hear what they thought of the book.

This is important also because if there is a consensus on what this book is, then I have failed, I really have. However, since people cannot agree – critics, readers, friends of mine I went to school with, people I met who grew up in Abu Dhabi – about what the book is trying to do, it means it is done something right. It may not be perfect, as there is imperfection in the architecture of the book itself, but for me deconstructing space is essentially about engagement, about conversation, about responding to a work of art that is attempting to do something.

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