Writing Matters: In conversation with Deepak Unnikrishnan
By Michelle D’costa
Deepak Unnikrishnan’s book Temporary People won the 2017 Hindu Prize and was the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, 2016. He teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi.
(Photo credit: Philip Cheung)
Michelle D’Costa: Do you feel labelled as an ‘immigrant’ writer? Do you want to break free from it or do you wear it with pride?
Deepak Unnikrishnan: I don’t have any control over what people call me. Depending on where I go, people call me different things. In Abu Dhabi, I am Indian because I look Indian. In Kerala, I am an NRI, because NRIs have a way about them, so I’ve been told. In the States, I am brown enough to be brown, but certainly not American enough, whatever that means. To the best of my knowledge, no one has labelled me as an immigrant writer yet. So at the moment, I’d say there’s little to break free from.
However, if we’re talking about life, and someone is simply labelling me an immigrant or a migrant, and I sense fire and condescension in the labelling, then you bet, brother, immigrant I am, migrant I stay. Deal with it, and me.
Michelle: How do you think your fiction stands out from other American immigrant fiction like that of Akhil Sharma, Celeste Ng, Jhumpa Lahiri, etc. (apart from the magical realism)?
Deepak: I don’t identify as American, but calling me Indian doesn’t hold true either. My parents are Indian and I was fortunate enough to land in the States. Your question has got more to do with how I see myself if I were to compare myself to writers who come from families that have moved from one nation to another for a myriad of reasons. You’re also asking me to compare myself to writers who have already made their bones. That’s probably not fair to them or your readership.
But let me say I am perfectly comfortable and confident in the knowledge I don’t write like any of the names you’ve listed. This does not mean I’m better than them, or feel I’m not worthy enough to compare my craft to theirs. Frankly, my stuff does not sound or read like their material. Deepak Unnikrishnan writes like Deepak Unnikrishnan. And sure, Ng, Lahiri and Sharma confront the immigrant experience, but their writings are also layered. They deserve to be seen as writers, period; American writers, period; good writers, period.
Michelle: Gulf immigrant fiction is scarce. You have attempted to address it with your latest collection ‘Temporary People’. Do you see yourself writing on the same theme even 10 years later?
Deepak: I hope not, I’d be bored if I did that. And fiction from the Khaleej (or Gulf) won’t be scarce for long. There are other writers coming and they’ve got stories to tell, other subjects to mine. There are also manuscripts that haven’t found the right publishers yet, stuff I’m aware of, written before Temporary People was even conceived as a project. But it’s fascinating how you see Temporary People as Gulf immigrant fiction. For me, the book’s primarily a work about language and ephemerality.
Michelle: How do you think the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing is relevant in Trump’s America? Especially for your book which focuses on lives in the Gulf.
Deepak: Prizes are relevant to writers. They offer exposure, hope and succour. But your question is Trump and Restless-specific. Look, even before Trump’s rule of rage, Restless knew they wanted to publish writers who straddled multiple worlds and languages, on top of the books they translated into English from various languages. Frankly, if it hadn’t been for Restless and the prize, much of what’s happened to me post-prize couldn’t have happened. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit Trump’s election made (some) people more curious about my book. But you know, when I won the prize, my status in the States was still under consideration. In U.S. immigration parlance, I was an Adjustment of Status applicant. If Restless had wanted, they could have made my status an issue when they chose the winner of the contest, yet they chose not to. Perhaps the conversation didn’t even come up during the judging. And that’s why I’d go to bat for them any day of the week, because they (from early readers to the judges) went to bat for me. What mattered to them was the work, not paperwork. It’s called the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, yet I was waiting on and fighting for my status when I won the bloody thing.
Michelle: A couple of your stories from the collection is published in Guernica. What according to you is the role of literary magazines today?
Deepak: Back in the day, like yesterday, I’d send stuff out to anyone who’d publish my work. I’d send pieces out to the most reputed and the less known. Print, online, it didn’t matter. I simply wanted to be read. I also wanted to know if I was any good. When a handful of editors took the time to write me sentences of comfort, quietly weaved into their rejection letters, such encouragement fuelled more writing. Magazines – cyber/print – offer much-needed validation. And sometimes, hope. And you need hope when you write. You also need a little bit of envy, to recognize what’s possible with the craft in the mind of another, then to envision writing something better or on par. Also, when/if someone paid for your work, then man, life got cool, like Nina-Simone-cool.
Michelle: You were once a runner-up in the DNA-Out of Print short fiction contest. What is your view on such writing contests from India?
Deepak: I’d say see above. The principles are the same. I write for myself, to process and navigate the world, but I also write to be read. Contests can also be incentives, whether you’re submitting work to an Indian newspaper or to a makeshift outfit in someone’s backyard in the middle of no man’s land.
Michelle D’costa edits fiction at Jaggery Literary Magazine. Her poetry and fiction has been published in, among others, The Madras Mag, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Open Road Review, The Bombay Review and Antiserious.