Deepak Unnikrishan on writing

We interviewed Deepak Unnikrishan on his book, “Temporary People”. The interview has been reworked in three parts, centred around themes: space, writing, and cultural mercenariness.

I identify as a short story writer. Primarily. But when I started writing the work, I realized, a couple of years in, that it was not a short story collection. And then I began to read. As I began to read I realized that either you wrote in the hyper real, or you were slotted into the surreal category, or for lack of a better term, because people are lazy, magical realism category. So I figured, why not do whatever I wanted – why not dip into the surreal, the unreal, the hyper real, and the real and see what happens.

When we dream, or if we dream, is that the hyper real, the unreal or the surreal? If we have faith, is that the real, the unreal, the surreal or the hyper real? When we interact with individuals on a daily basis, when we have conversation, when I say, “Hey, how’s life?” we are having a conversation that’s fairly real. But we are also dipping into mythology from time to time. I mean, think of Venice. Everywhere I look there is a little bit of history, or so I was told; history that’s relevant enough for people to make stories about stuff. That’s mythology. So technically, in my head, as I was writing the book, I didn’t have to separate any of these elements to tell a story about a city, people or lives in general. On top of that, my family is South Indian. Everything is mythology. You know I’m joking, but my mother has this way of just bringing up the Gods every now and again, so that’s part and parcel of everyday life in a normal conversation. And it seeps into your rhetoric when you talk as well. Now, all of this is interesting to hear when I spew it like that but you also have to understand that I am writing about a city that is coming to grips with what it means to be critiqued, and so fiction (to me) offers an alternative option, a sort of release, especially fiction that’s set in the surreal.

And here’s what I mean by that: I’m writing about people who are transient (at least that’s what the book is trying to get at), people who are temporary, who do not belong forever and who have to leave. That sort of narrative (about the Gulf) has been attempted very few times in English, as far as I know. It has certainly not been attempted many times by those who were raised in the Gulf. When I was writing the book, I had few reference points.  I didn’t know how to label my emotions. I needed the right language to document my state. At times, I didn’t know what to do, or whom to read. As such moments are processed, the surreal starts to makes sense, because it forces you to rethink how to think through stuff, and what it is that you would like to do.

When I was in Barcelona, I went to the Fundacio Joan Miró. If someone asked me what he painted, I’d say I have no fucking clue. But I can tell you how I feel when I stand in front of his work, I can tell you what it makes me think of, I can tell you how I respond. If I look at the work of the dancer Pina Bausch, her choreography, there are things that don’t make sense, but it feels right. And surrealism’s presence in my book felt right. Surrealism has rhythm and beat. That was comforting. But I also needed the real and hyper real. In other words, think of them as… let’s just say, essential organs to make the body of the work. If you take an organ away, then the organism or the creature that you are trying to construct falls apart. So basically, you try to be a Doctor Frankenstein, and you want your creature to live, but you do not know how the creature will behave. And that’s important to understand because when you read someone like me I do not know how you are responding to the work. You’re allowed to hate it, you are allowed to love it, you are allowed to be ambiguous towards it, but that’s the point. So it’s really about figuring out your comfort zone. And I realized early on I didn’t want to be slotted into a category even though there are a bunch of book critics who looked at the work, who have applauded it, which I am grateful for, but have also called it as something that belongs in the canopy of the surreal, which I get, but I also partially disagree with that.

The revelation, that sudden realisation that I kind of knew what I was doing… the revelation didn’t come all at once. The book took over ten years to write, probably longer. Take the elevator story, for instance. The first draft of it was written in 2003 and it was probably three and a half pages long and it was shit. I returned to it in the fall of 2012 and I finished it in two months. But it took eight or nine years for me to really figure out what I wanted to do with the story. So when I say everything happened in a series of stages, it’s simply because I didn’t know enough when I started off.

I assumed that if you wanted to write a book, you just sat down, wrote it and it got published. I was incredibly naïve, but being naïve has uses, it means that you are willing to just write what you want. But I hadn’t read enough, I hadn’t seen enough, I hadn’t been to enough museums, I didn’t know how to respond to work. So as I was writing the book, five or six years in, seven years in, I realized what I was working on was a book and then I began to think of architecture, but I’m also very impulsive. In other words, you know, there are writers who map everything out and they know exactly where things are supposed to be and how they are supposed to go? And there are others who are a little more reckless. I think I am a little bit more reckless and I’m okay with that. Simply because the only thing I knew for sure in 2012, when I started at SAIC, was that I knew I had two years to finish the book, because we had two years of savings. No, we had a year of savings, after that we had to figure out how to pay rent, but the program was two years, and I knew by the time I was done with the program I needed to be done with the book and if I didn’t I wouldn’t finish it. And that’s why I resigned from the work that I was doing, because I had to go to arts school, because everything had formulated by then but it had taken a long, long time and then as I was writing the book in Chicago, the interpretation such as you speak of, became clearer. Coz’ I knew I wanted to do A, but I did not want to do B. Because what happens in Arts School is very similar to what happens to you guys here [the Ca’ Foscari International College students, editor’s note] as you get critiqued on your work. So you present your work to faculty and you have to do it twice a year, once every semester. During the spring, you are basically showing your work to faculty and students across disciplines, so you can have someone who’s teaching photography looking at your work, or someone who is teaching printmaking looking at writing, or someone studying ceramics looking at your work of writing. And then you sit in front of them and you don’t say a word while they tell you what they think of your work. And that is an interesting (albeit terrifying) way of being critiqued because you are not technically allowed to respond until the very end.

And in the fall it is the same system except you’ll have writing faculty doing this to you. Because I was older, when someone said something I disagreed with, I decided not to accept his/her advice. Because I was older, when someone said something that praised me to the skies, I basked in glory for two minutes and then I stopped thinking about it. And both these experiences are necessary, at least they were vital for me to finish the work. So by then I knew exactly what I wanted to do, by then I was very confident, even though a number of people (professors, peers, myself) knew the book wasn’t an easy sell, because I was trying too many things, and not explaining much to the Western gaze. And when I say “the Western gaze”, I’m talking about places like the US. The biggest publishing houses (in English) are in the US and the UK. So when you are someone with my name, who looks like me, with my background, “How exactly are you going to be marketed?” is a question that always gets asked. Your work is important, absolutely, I mean people care about what you write about, and editors are not going publish drivel. Let me clarify that: editors will publish drivel but most of the time you have people who are really engaged with good literature itself and want to publish something worthy. If they don’t understand you or understand what it is that you are trying to do, it’s really hard to break into the market. I reckon if you are trying to pitch the publishers with what looks like a short story collection, they may ask you to finish the novel first. And when you finish the novel, they’ll buy your collection and the novel, although what they’re really paying for is the novel. So it’s difficult. You have to learn to be tenacious and you also have to learn to understand that your primary objective is to finish the work. Everything else, getting published, accolades, prizes, reviews, sales, is a bonus. But you learn as you go.

This process is still going on, absolutely, on the fly. There are things I learn everywhere I’m in. And I don’t process everything immediately. It takes time. Sometimes I know for sure, like when I was in Barcelona and I saw the Sagrada Familia by Gaudi and I’m going, “Fuck!” But that was instantaneous. Then I’m somewhere else and I witness something that I don’t completely understand or I can’t process, so I take notes. And sometimes random things just pop up like, for example, lizards here are of a very interesting color, I have never seen them anywhere. The lizards in Kerala are quite boring, the color of dust and sand. I have no idea what I want to do with this but I can guarantee that one day if I… there will be another book for sure. After that I don’t know. There will be a line in there about the lizard. Why, I don’t know, but that’s the point. Sometimes it’s just right, it feels right, or you know when something is useful to you, or if it’s here, sometimes I take it, sometimes I don’t. So I have a notebook, I don’t usually carry a notebook, but I jot stuff down in there every now and again. And then I forget about it. And I don’t take it with me everywhere but occasionally I’ve written something down that’s pretty cool, even for my limited brain. I’ve actually noticed something that’s useful, but I realized it ages later. That’s okay. But I teach like that as well, which is why the presentation [to CFIC students, editor’s note] was difficult, simply because you never know when I need time with spaces and students to understand where things are going, but sometimes you benefit. For example, when you get invited to festivals and they give you a topic, and this is what everyone is going to be talking about, then you feel like you are a stand-up comedian, because you have to learn how to read the room. Some of my biggest influences are also stand-up comics, and that presents itself in the classroom when I teach. I am not saying I make a joke a minute, but what I say is that I have to accept the fact that sometimes my lessons are not working and my students are not there and I have to figure out a way to engage with them because otherwise I am just preaching, which is boring. But that’s how I am, that’s how I have always been.

 

When I was young, I knew I’d leave Abu Dhabi, but I just ignored the fact that I eventually had to. You are in denial, constant denial. When you are a boy the denial becomes a little bit more profound, simply because, according to the law, when you turn 18, your residence visa, if you are sponsored by your parents, or your father, or your mother, gets cancelled. As a boy you are trying not to think about that. I also grew up in a family that did not have a lot of money, so the possibility of going elsewhere, to the States or to the UK or whatever, was a possibility I never entertained, because that was a possibility of privilege and that was a possibility that I assumed I wasn’t going to experience. The reason I went to the States, as I told you earlier, was mainly to follow my girlfriend. But I also emotionally blackmailed my father into letting me go, because I told him that I wouldn’t be able to study anywhere else. So he borrowed money, so that I could go. It’s probably one of the meanest things I have ever done as a human being, as a child and as a son, and I regret having done it. Then why mention all this? Because when I left, there was no need or intent to write about my leaving. Writing, again, was a profession of privilege. My intention (after I began to get more responsible) was basically to find a job if I could, and then to send money back to my family, if I could. Period.

When you leave a place, like Abu Dhabi, or when you leave any place, and you go elsewhere, the distance helps, because you process everything that you experienced, as a boy, as a teenager and as a young adult, and you try and wonder about stuff that matters to you. When I landed in the States, people started asking me about the UAE, and I felt no one really understood what I was talking about when I was responding.

So, as I said in the lecture, I started looking for stuff that made sense to me, and I had trouble finding what I wanted. But even then, I was not thinking, “OK, let me write something to fill in the gaps”. Then comes the period where I can’t go home, because my parents cannot afford to bring me back, I cannot afford the ticket. That’s five and a half years, which occurred twice over. When I found work, I went home, and then I resigned, went to art school, and couldn’t go home for another five years. So we are talking about ten and a half years where I am not available to see my parents, where I am not there in the city to understand what has happened to it, I am not part of any of the evolution of the city itself. And how does that affect me? I am not really sure. But the book lingers or hovers over the 80s and the 90s on purpose, because of the question you’ve just asked, because I was there. I remember the rhythms, the sounds, the spaces, and I can craft literature out of those memories, because I was there.

The surrealism that you mentioned earlier is probably also there to acknowledge the fact that there are certain things that I do not know anymore. The surrealism helps me fix that, because it helps me tap into moods, moments and emotions differently, or provides an alternative perspective. This returns to the question you asked me earlier as well. All of this is part of me tinkering with the architecture of what the book, or a book, is supposed to be. When I write, when there is something I don’t understand, I have to figure out a way to fix it. How do I fix it from the point of view of narration, or architecture?

Returning to what it feels like to write about a city when you are not there: when you have distance, you have release, you have a certain kind of honesty that is allowed to you and a certain kind of honesty that you did not believe was allowed to you when you were there. There is a hierarchy in the UAE, based on what you look like, the country that you are allegedly from, the profession that you are probably in, who your parents are, and none of these things are really explained to you when you are born. They don’t take you out of the hospital and say, “Hey, these are the rules, here are the codes, here are how you must behave, here is what you must do, here is how you must respect, here is how you must obey”. You get none of that, it’s something that you feel and you take in and you respond to as you age, quietly, slowly, gradually.

When you remove someone from that environment, someone like myself, when you remove someone from something that is familiar, and then you allow them to stare back at what it is that they left, the truth becomes a bit colder, so to speak. In other words, you process anger, almost for the first time. You process confusion, hurt, maybe even love for the place you left. But to experience any of this you need to embrace a certain kind of assurance (or reassurance) that distance provides. It might be the same for any of you: there are truths in our respective environments that we are protective of, whether it is in our families or in our cities, truths that we are afraid to confront, or we are afraid to tackle. And it’s not always fear. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do with the truth, or how to confront things, stuff that we’ve seen, felt, believed.

And I needed time, because I am as slow as they come, I needed to process what happened to me, or what happens to a person like me when you are in an environment where you happen to live, where you are not supposed to belong, where you’ve encountered disrespect, as a child, from other children. What do you do with that? I honestly didn’t know.

Someone you may want to read up on is Aleksandar Hemon, a writer in Chicago, Bosnian by birth, who ended up in the States during the Yugoslavia war, and ended up having to teach himself English, by borrowing a book from the library in Bosnian, borrowing the same book in English. That’s basically how he taught himself to read and write in English. He talks about distance in his work, he talks about perspective in his work, and distance has plusses and distance has lots of minuses as well. And I’ll end with this, because now I am back in Abu Dhabi and I am trying to write something else and I don’t know how I am going to do it. Because even though I am telling you that distance offers you courage, distance also offers you emptiness, because there are things that you do not know anymore. When you are back and you are allowed to gaze and observe, what do you do? Are you still as courageous as you believed you were when you left, or do you become something else? In my opinion, you may have to become something else, you have to evolve into something else, in order to write fiction as I do. So I don’t have a good answer to your question. It’s messed up, but I am also speaking from a point of privilege at this stage in my life, where I have a permanent residency to the US, I have residency in Abu Dhabi, my partner is a EU citizen, life is a little bit more malleable and flexible, which is an advantage I did not have when I was younger, when I was writing the book. And because you are disadvantaged when you write something like the book I wrote, you rage and because you rage, you end up being more honest with yourself and your work. Right now, with the free breakfast and the Aperol Spritz and everything else that I enjoy here (in Venice), I am little bit more coddled and I am not sure that’s always useful (for me and my practice).

Names being erased from the book is part of the Abu Dhabi scene as well; a scene where streets have been renamed; where people who used to live in certain places don’t live there anymore. I don’t think that’s only an Abu Dhabi thing changing stuff it’s a Venetian thing, a New York City thing, a Chicago thing…

Also, in the book some of the names are redacted, and redaction becomes language too, where you take something away and tell people something has been moved (or needs to be hidden). In the book, erasure is highlighted. It is not erasure in the sense of invisibility, where you don’t know something existed; it’s erasure in the sense of someone telling you, “You’re not supposed to see this”. For me redaction is a punctuation mark, the kind of imagery/symbolism I’m familiar with. For instance, my uncle used to work in Saudi. When he moved to Abu Dhabi, I spied a stash of his cassette tapes. I don’t remember the singer, but I do remember she was wearing a dress and her neck had been blackened because it was visible. I remember being fascinated, because Abu Dhabi was different; more was permissible.

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