31 March 2017
Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan
Guest workers of the United Arab Emirates embody multiple worlds and identities and long for home.
In the United Arab Emirates, foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. Brought in to construct the towering monuments to wealth that punctuate the skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, this labor force works without the rights of citizenship, endures miserable living conditions, and is ultimately forced to leave the country. Until now, the humanitarian crisis of the so-called “guest workers” of the Gulf has barely been addressed in fiction. Deepak Unnikrishnan delves into their histories, myths, struggles, and triumphs. 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.
I can't quite remember where I heard about Temporary People. Book Riot, I think. Liberty? Probably. What I do know is that I marked it down as a May release and had a panic when BookTwitter let me know the release date had been March 14. Drat. Luckily, Restless Books' very, very lovely PR person approved me for a digital galley after the fact so I could power read it during breaks and evenings at my conference last week. Temporary People did win the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing so I didn't want to pass it up.
Unnikrishnan has presented a very striking collection of linked short stories, telling fable-like stories about the exploited workers imported to build the glittering skylines of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The use of magical or fable-like elements is a click or two stranger than Salman Rushdie's usual (if you've read him). Workers turn into suitcases and passports to escape, a woman develops a talent for patching together the men who fall from skyscraper construction sites so that they don't die on company time or property, an elevator develops a shocking proclivity, and the roaches that invade the crumbling homes of workers start taking on human-like traits. The most devastating and creative stories involve the bioengineering of workers who grow on vines, from seeds, and "die" after a preset number of years creating - the "perfect" labor underclass that won't get ideas, uppity, or demand much compensation. Characters weave in and out of different stories. "Dreamers" are caught between a country that won't acknowledge them as equal citizens - i.e. the problematic term "guest workers" - and the families back home in India or beyond who depend upon their paychecks. I had a bit of trouble understanding a few stories, likely because I missed a cultural reference that would make a fable-like situation clear, but the overall collection is imaginative and devastating. It's a rough read.
Trigger warning for a few scenes of sexual violence.
Dear FTC: I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss. Thanks so much, Restless Books!