In the United Arab Emirates, foreign nationals constitute over 80 percent of the population. Brought in to construct and serve the towering monuments to wealth that punctuate the skylines of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, this labor force is not given the option of citizenship. Some ride their luck to good fortune. Others suffer different fates. Until now, the humanitarian crisis of the so-called “guest workers” of the Gulf has barely been addressed in fiction.
With his stunning, mind-altering debut novel Temporary People, Deepak Unnikrishnan delves into their histories, myths, struggles, and triumphs. Combining the linguistic invention of Salman Rushdie and the satirical vision of George Saunders, 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. With this polyphony of voices, Unnikrishnan maps a new, unruly global English and gives personhood back to the anonymous workers of the Gulf.
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Combining surreal symbolism and linear narrative, wordplay and lists, family history and mythic retellings, Unnikrishnan uses fiction to illuminate how temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, fables, and languages. In giving substance and identity to the voiceless and faceless masses of guest workers in the United Arab Emirates, he not only call attention to this very particular injustice, but also highlights the disturbing ways in which ‘progress’ on a global scale is bound up in dehumanization. Temporary People is a brave, stylistically inventive book that presents a frightening, surreal world that’s all too true to life. Its publication couldn’t be more timely given the current outcries for and against immigrants, bans, raids, and mass deportations, as an antidote to border politics.