(Brooklyn, NY: Restless Books, 2017)
Living abroad in a country that is neither your home nor the home of your ancestors is no doubt interesting and educational, but it can also be challenging. Separated from family and friends, you spend time missing everyone, wondering how life is transpiring for those you left behind, how things would be different if you had never left. You try daily to immerse yourself in the new culture, the sometimes puzzling ways of life. Maybe you succeed; other times, you feel like a spectator, observing others through an opaque sheet of glass, because your skin color, country of origin, or simply the language barrier prevent you from being an equal member of society.
This I know because twenty years ago I lived in Korea and experienced the pleasure and displacement of living away from my home country. But I was only a kid, passing through, searching for adventure. I wasn’t fleeing an economically depressed country in search of work, nor did I have a family to support. And while American teachers in Korea didn’t always find themselves working in the most honest conditions, the conditions were never dangerous.
In contrast, however, conditions for immigrant workers in the United Arab Emirates are often ghastly and deplorable. Deepak Unnikrishnan’s debut work of fiction, Temporary People, weaves together twenty-eight linked short stories that explore the wretched experiences encountered by immigrant laborers hailing predominantly from the Asian subcontinent. According to Unnikrishnan, 80% of the population in the UAE are foreign nationals. Citing an absence of fictional work that discusses the plight of these workers, he goes on to state that his stories “examine temporary residents like them and the homes they have left behind, and illuminates how temporary status affects psyches, families, memories, fables and languages.”
The strength of Unnikrishnan’s writing is in his ability to transport readers to another place, insert them into a unique world, a world drastically different than the one in which they reside. Vivid images – a passport with arms and a mustache running through an airport, a tongue jumping out of a teen’s mouth and words spilling onto the street, and roaches dressed as humans – leap off the page, drawing the reader into the lives of each individual character. These stories are haunting, invoking empathy, rage, and despair. They linger in the mind long after having read them, making it impossible to turn away from the horror, the misery in the lives of people who live thousands of miles away.
In the chapter “Nalinakshi,” we learn that Pravasi means “foreigner, outsider. Immigrant, worker. Pravasi means you’ve left your native place. Pravasi means you’ll have regrets.” The theme of being separated from family is pervasive throughout the collection. In living in a place far from home, in a purgatory of sorts, one misses important events, like births and deaths. People forget, or more likely become forgotten by, those left behind. Pravasi, in time, comes to mean more than living abroad: “And by the time you’ve done the math in your head, everything you’ve missed, what’s been gained, you’ll come to realize what the word pravasi really means. Absence. That’s what it means, absence.” This concept is explored further in the chapter “Veed” when the narrator speaks about a conversation with his uncle:
“Veed? Veed, where? Where are you from?” The English equivalent for veed is home, or place. In Malayalam, my parents’ tongue, it even encompasses a family’s soul, where ancestors are cremated, where the soil remembers your footprint. But in translation, as veed becomes “home,” the word’s power has ebbed.
Laws regarding citizenship status aside, it’s hard, nearly impossible, to develop a sense of belonging when so much of your life it defined by what is missing.
Many of Unnikrishnan’s stories allegorically depict what life is like for the temporary workers within the UAE. In “Birds,” a woman wanders around construction sites at night, gluing limbs back onto injured workers, making them whole again so that they can continue their employment in the morning. In “Mussafah Grew People,” one of my favorites stories in the book, we see workers grown like plants, genetically wired to live only a short time, long enough to complete the tasks required of them.
Living abroad, working in a country that will never accept you as an equal and doing jobs that are dangerous is a lifestyle many would shun if they had other opportunities. But sadly, many do not, and so they agree to less than favorable terms of employment that so that they and their families do not go hungry. But its not happening here, so sadly, many people are unaware that it is happening at all, which is why this book is important. Temporary People is a must read for anyone with even a slight interest in international affairs. The raw emotion will keep you engaged, and asking for more.
| | |
Elizabeth Jaeger’s work has been published in Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It!