On Saturday, July 22, Deepak Unnikrishnan, author of Temporary People, winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing, will be in conversation with Restless publisher Ilan Stavans at the newly opened American Writers Museum in Chicago on the topic of the literature of immigration. As a warm up to that event, Ilan and Deepak had an exchange over email on topics ranging from paranoia and being treated as a "circus beast" at airports, to how immigrants are "the glue of society," to Deepak's childhood in the United Arab Emirates, from which his parents, like other so-called "guest workers" from the Gulf, will eventually be forced to leave.
Ilan Stavans: These are dark times. Nationalism is showing its ugly head again. It feels, at least in the United States, as if the achievements of the Civil Rights era were an illusion. Racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia now sit comfortably in the White House. This is the nation where a mighty woman with a torch—the Mother of Exile—greets immigrants while crying with silent lips: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
America is more than a nation, though: it is an experiment. If it fails, the model it represents for “the homeless, tempest-tost” falls apart all over the world. Imagine, for a minute, this collapse. Now imagine its opposite: a nation made only of immigrants. One where no one is, was, or ever will be a native. After one generation, those born in the country are sent into exile.
Deepak Unnikrishnan: I grew up in the UAE. My parents trained me to leave the homeland, or what I thought was the homeland. I’ve always understood what I was supposed to do: pack up and go, when told to do so, because the rules were crystal clear. But there are different iterations of exile. There’s self-imposed exile, feeling exiled; and then there’s exile forced upon you, beginning with a rhetoric that feeds off resentment, where nabbing the undocumented feels like sport. And that’s just fucking sad, man.
In reaction to your image, if every place demanded this stipulation of its inhabitants, eliminating the word “citizen,” I wonder what nations would look like, what kind of citizens our planet would end up becoming. It’s possible the world could become kinder, or sadder.
Let’s focus on the United States, a country appropriated by wanderers, made up of the decent, the cruel, and the damned, a place of sobering histories, the decimation of indigenous populations, the horrors of slavery, and somehow, over time, a place of hope, where immigrants dreamed of possibilities. Fast forward to the age of Trump. There’s so much combative rhetoric, with the current administration requesting—nope, demanding—certain people be removed and others be barred.
I’m not afraid of the States yet, but I’d be lying if I claimed I haven’t turned vigilant. I was speaking to my dad the other night. He’s never been to the U.S. but he cautioned me against speaking Malayalam on the plane. “Just speak to us in English before you board,” he said, “and we’ll respond in English.”
My father’s the same man who told me not to go out during Hurricane Sandy when I was living in Chicago. Both incidents document the paranoid parent, but my dad’s latest paranoia about language hits a nerve. In late January, days after Trump’s government announced the travel ban, I found myself at an airport in Minneapolis. Fifteen minutes to boarding call, I phoned Amma (mum) and Acchan (dad). As we spoke, I infused my Malayalam with enough English to convince anyone within earshot that “I w-a-s l-o-o-k-i-n-g f-o-r-w-a-r-d t-o l-a-n-d-i-n-g i-n C-h-i-c-a-g-o.” I spoke with such poise and diction that fellow passengers must have thought I was having a phone interview with Google.
Now look, Ilan, I’m used to being a circus beast at airports. The minute my partner hands me my carry on, I’m channeling Laurence Olivier, meaning my accent’s all ramped up. I’m like the model passenger. Try listening in when my credentials are being verified and you’d think I was auditioning for Macbeth. I shave, though. I mean I leave enough facial hair to imply I don’t give a damn when in reality I do. But my name, Deepak, helps, because it’s not Jamal or Majid, and that’s fucked up. But you know what, in Minneapolis, I took deference to the next level. I mean I did whatever I could to sound obedient. Of course, after a while, I’m telling myself: Dude, what the fuck are you doing?
You have to understand, anger isn’t the emotion that dominates this state of fear; it’s sadness.
IS: Yes, immigrants, the very glue of democracy, are perceived today as undercutting its foundations. The future, I’m afraid, is even more dystopian. In the next few decades, climate change, famine, political upheaval, and overpopulation will result in dramatic movements of people from one side of the globe to another, tilting it out of balance.
Yet I must confess: it’s cool to be an outsider. Natives are stuck with a kind of undivided loyalty that makes them square, don’t you think? I, for one, like what Julio Cortázar called “the feeling of not being quite there.” Of course, coolness is relative. It is a chimera when you have no visa, are cold and starving.
DU: We exist in a climate where people and countries pigeonhole particular strains of immigrants, whether they are refugees or former inhabitants of failed states. In America, those sounding such alarms of paranoia would have us believe they’re only interested in the illegals, those who broke rules by overstaying their visas or crossing borders. I accept an administration’s need to be vigilant. I accept the citizens’ right to be wary. At what cost, though? Categorizing people, especially if they are mixed, is a dangerous, misguided game.
This country is drowning in paranoia. First my passport’s vetted. Then maybe my beliefs are vetted. Perhaps my allegiances are vetted. Depending on where I’m coming from, my name, my uncles and aunts, and their uncles and aunts, might also be vetted. If I’m in the States, my phone could get vetted, laptop(s) too, and so on. Might as well volunteer for a CAT scan after that. What next, a psychological exam and a pop quiz! How many times should people claim and somehow prove they are harmless?
IS: Some of the best writers are immigrants. Think of Nabokov, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Josef Brodsky, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anita Desai…. I imagine Homer was an immigrant too, or at least a wanderer.
DU: I don’t know if the best writers are immigrants. I read writers who never had the opportunity to leave their hometown, as I have. I would say the most useful writers for me have been those who have paid attention to their people, plus other people who are not their people, and wondered—and pondered—long and hard about everyone’s place in the world, including their own. I’m thinking of Primo Levi, Nadine Gordimer, A. Sivanandan, Wilfred Thesiger, Eula Biss, Óscar Martínez, and Kamala Das. By the way, I have special affection for Singer. He helped me understand how language could be preserved on the page, why translations of other tongues mattered.
By the way, I like the word “wanderer.” That’s what most writers are. That’s what the craft’s truly about: exploration and examinations, of us and other selves.
IS: The paranoia drowning us isn’t new, Deepak. It returns with cyclical patience in order to wake us up, to make us more attuned. Churchill used to say that “this is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, this is just perhaps the end of the beginning.” Comfort is dangerous. It leads to complacency, which in turn fosters ignorance. Ours, no doubt, is a dangerous moment. The forces of chaos are plunging at the door. We will be judged by how we respond. On the surface, globalism is at peril. Yet its critics have been around since the Tower of Babel. Looking for a scapegoat is a sport. Immigrants are vulnerable creatures, which makes them an easy target. But immigrants are also the glue that brings things together. And the bridge that connects those things to other things, creating an enormous wave. Immigrants, willingly or not, are agents of globalism.
When I hear that globalism is being pushed back, I tell myself: yes, that’s good. That’s the only way to appreciate it in full: to have to fight for it, and, while doing so, to explain what its tenants are.
DU: Globalism—I would define the term first. Where I teach, at NYU Abu Dhabi, students get told they are world or global citizens. This supposedly helps them contemplate their future responsibilities to the world. But then I think of my parents, who haven’t traveled much. They could be labeled conservative, yet they instilled in us, my sibling and I, reasonable manners and abilities to confront disagreement.
I don’t think you need to know the world to be kind. I believe what’s dying is conversation, actual conversation, where people at opposite ends of the spectrum spar respectfully over thoughts and ideas. I’m seeing and hearing less of that, Ilan. Everything’s about winning, not about knowing.
IS: Winning is about having your face on TV. Look at our glorious president: at night, between segments of Fox News about him and only him, he walks alone the empty hallways of the White House. The cancer isn’t winning but the accolades that come with it: fame, that ugly and needy lover. And you’re right: knowledge is the casualty. People confuse information with knowledge. Information comes easy but knowledge is hard to get. It requires insight and it often comes to you through frustration and dismay. Truth is, nobody ever waits for you with a lamp beside the golden door. You have to find the light on your own.
Deepak and Ilan's conversation on literature, immigration, and tolerance will continue at the American Writers Museum this upcoming Saturday, July 22. More details here.
Deepak Unnikrishnan is a writer from Abu Dhabi and a resident of the States, who has lived in Teaneck, New Jersey, Brooklyn, New York and Chicago, Illinois. He has studied and taught at the Art Institute of Chicago and presently teaches at New York University Abu Dhabi. Temporary People, his first book, was the inaugural winner of the Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing.
Ilan Stavans is the Publisher of Restless Books and the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His books include On Borrowed Words, Spanglish, Dictionary Days, The Disappearance, and A Critic’s Journey. He has edited The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, the three-volume set Isaac Bashevis Singer: Collected Stories, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, among dozens of other volumes. He is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Chile’s Presidential Medal, and the Jewish Book Award. Stavans’s work, translated into a dozen languages, has been adapted to the stage and screen. He hosted the syndicated PBS television show Conversations with Ilan Stavans. He is a cofounder of the Great Books Summer Program at Amherst, Stanford, and Oxford.