We interviewed Deepak Unnikrishan on his book, “Temporary People”. The interview has been divided in three parts, centred around themes: space, writing, and cultural mercenariness.
Space for me is a box, it is part of memory, and so when space is part of memory, for me I have to figure out how to operate in that space. So when you say “deconstruct space”, the implication or the indication is that I sort of change the rules a little bit. And that part is intentional.
Space, to me, is part of memory and my work is related to memory, it’s a response to memory – but I’m speaking in the abstract now, so it’s better if I speak through example. I left the UAE when I was 20, went to the US to study. The intention was not to study; the intention was to chase my girlfriend, which is why I went there. I told everyone else I was going there for intellectual stimulation, but then when it didn’t work out after a month, I realized there is nothing better to do than study… maybe.
I was away from home for a long time. After the first year I went to see my parents once. After that, for five and a half years I didn’t 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 that you cannot have participated in, you lose sounds, and so what you end up doing – you are trying to recall everything that mattered to you. You start thinking of spaces that mattered to you. And in the US I started thinking of the UAE. So this notion of deconstructing space is an interesting way of looking at work that’s attempting to try something. But at the end of the day, what I wanted to do honestly was just write, because I was lonely. It was that simple. As far as critique (present in the book) is concerned, the answer is complicated and complex, because, as a writer, I like to think I’m critiquing all the time. I’m critiquing my environment; that’s basically what I think my job is. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the book’s a political manifesto, saying, “Here is a book or here is language that critiques everything that you thought was wrong about the UAE”. That’s nonsense. It’s also fucked up if you think of it that way. At the end of the day, like I said, it started with a period of loneliness when I wanted to resurrect the place that I grew up in.
When you delve into something that’s important to you, as I did when I was lonely, you delve into history, you even provide anecdotes. As you do these things, you are bringing stories to life. These stories are not dead yet, but they could be at some point, if people stop telling these tales. In the book, I’m doing the same with people, with the streets, with the city. The major point of difference is the people I am writing about (from communities I’m most familiar with) aren’t going to be around for much longer, partly because of the transient nature of the place. And I mean you could make the case that this is how it is everywhere, everyone dies at some point. Sure, but I am talking about institutional memory; I’m talking about going to a place and noticing, knowing, that certain people existed here 15-20 years ago. The way I see it, people who look like me are part of certain narratives about the Gulf, but then, they also, at some point, disappear. Perhaps I was trying to rectify this. I just wanted to produce a document that made sense to me, because I was tired and lonely (in the US), and I thought I was a writer.
Here is the thing about deconstructing space, and I can talk about myself as someone who writes. When you write a book, when you’re done, you feel that when the book is read or when the work is read, then whatever the reader gets out of it is enough. I shouldn’t be required to explain every single detail so everything is understood. There are things in the work that I don’t understand myself.
When I finished the book at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), I showed it to Janet Desaulniers, one of my thesis advisors. The book was my thesis. And I was sitting in front of her as you guys are sitting in front of me right now, and I told her “I think I’m done. I have no idea what the fuck I just did.” So she looked at me and basically said “That’s not your job. The critics, they will tell you what they think you may have done.” And that’s important simply because it freed me from any preconceived notions I had about what I was supposed to do after the work was finished. But returning to your question …
Before the book was published I was asked what it was. I was asked whether it was a story collection or a novel. I was asked whether it was a novella. And I told them all it’s a book. And my publisher told me that if they just called it a book, then that would be marketing suicide. But to me, that’s what Temporary People is, a book. I don’t say that to sound artsy. I guess a part of me hesitates to label it, because in my opinion, the work tries stuff. You’ve mentioned music. In my opinion and people should feel free to disagree, the book plays with rhythm. The book plays with architecture. I went to SAIC. I had access to the Art Institute, the museum. The book plays with form, and plays around 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 burning rules. And that’s intentional, it’s not just deconstructing space, it’s deconstructing objects, deconstructing documents, deconstructing what you believe a book is supposed to do to you after you’ve read it, or how something ought to be read. You could read the book from the first page to the end. You can also read the book in any order you want to read it (nothing revolutionary about this, by the way). It’s entirely up to you. You could read it in one sitting; you could take years, months, and yes, even leave it unfinished (again, normal responses) – your call.
And finally, your response (as a reader) matters to me as a writer even though I may never get to hear what you thought of the book. Among readers, critics, if there is a consensus on what this book is, then I’ve really fucked up. I really have. But because people can’t agree – the critics, readers, friends of mine from high school, people I’ve met who grew up in Abu Dhabi – on what the book is trying to do, it means it’s done something right. The work is far from perfect. There is imperfection in the architecture of the book itself, returning to the question about deconstructing space. But for me deconstructing space, to put it very succinctly, is about engagement. It’s about conversation. It’s about responding to a work of art that it attempting to do something.