Would you be friends with a Cyclops, and other revealing questions
Born in England to Punjabi parents, Aminder Dhaliwal spent her teens in Canada and then moved to Los Angeles to work in animation. She grew up in largely brown neighbourhoods, but the constant moving still left her feeling a little out of place, she says.
She draws on that feeling for her second graphic novel, Cyclopedia Exotica (Drawn and Quarterly, 2021). It captures the experiences and interior lives of a fictional Cyclops community, a largely immigrant population displaying physical differences from the majority, in that they have just one eye. They face micro-aggressions and overt xenophobia every day. Through their lived experience, Dhaliwal, 31, weaves an evocative, surprisingly and often-humorous narrative on race, otherness, beauty and belonging.
Dhaliwal’s first book, Woman World, started out as a series of comics on Instagram, about the development of an all-woman civilisation after men become extinct as a result of a birth defect. The book was published in 2018. It was Harry Potter who led her to this life, she says. Excerpts from an interview.
Why did you choose to be an animator?
I always had an interest in storytelling, and seeing pictures move felt really special to me. Growing up in the ’90s, all the Disney films released around the time were influential for my career path. DVDs were really big. What interested me were the extra-special bonus features. They had a lot of behind-the-scenes footage. It was fascinating for me to see how animation was done. I especially loved storyboarding and how animation is a group effort.
How did the illustrating and independent storytelling come about?
I’m not sure exactly what made me pursue writing. I remember I used to make little illustrated storybooks in school. We learnt bookbinding which helped to grow that interest.
But the most important reason for me being an author is fan culture. I was in England when the Harry Potter books came out. I was 10 at the time and I was at the perfect age. I would draw little moments from the book. It was the time for chat rooms online. I found a community, and I devoured fan fiction. It was another type of introduction to storytelling.
What inspired the Cyclops?
The reason I used a Cyclops in my storytelling stems from the idea of certain people being considered monsters, being pointed at, being stared at and being treated as the other.
When I started research for the book, I found out Cyclopes as monsters have technically very few differences from us. They just have one defining feature that’s different, the one eye. I found that interesting because it just takes one feature for someone to be considered the other. So I made the Cyclopes look just like us, but with one eye, and then I made that the point of difference, just like skin colour in the real world!
How has social media helped in your journey as a graphic novelist?
I wouldn’t have a career as an author if it weren’t for Instagram. I was a bit frustrated with the animation world where I’m constantly signing NDAs with studios and can’t disclose what I’m working on. Then those projects sometimes get cancelled and you can’t even show your work to anyone. I wanted to create something I could put online, show my friends and have some instant reaction to, because art is meant to be shared. The early comics on Instagram helped me find my voice as an individual artist.
I learnt clarification from my audience. If a whole bunch of people don’t understand what I meant in a comic and have to explain it to each other in the comments, I surely didn’t make the best comic then.
How much of your experience as a brown person is in the book?
There are so many of my stories and my friends’ stories in it. I have always struggled with identity issues. I grew up in large Indian communities in England and Canada, so it wasn’t always that my identity was different because I had brown skin. But I remember moving from England to Canada and realising that I had a different accent. I was 11 and at that age, all you want to do is fit in. That was my first realisation of being different.
In high school, every one of my friends was going into medicine or science and I was one of the very few interested in the arts. I had a crisis over that too. I felt really alone. But that also became a championing phase where I learnt to do things on my own.
When I moved to LA was the first time I lived in a predominantly white neighbourhood. There were people there who would see a man with a turban, point and say ‘Look!’ I had that feeling of being a little out of place.
It was the same when I visited Jalandhar in India as a kid. You feel like you are Indian when you’re in England, and you feel the opposite when in India. I looked the same as everyone else but felt so lost. I feel like I’m constantly balancing all these identities.
There are a lot of events taken almost verbatim from real life, in the book. There’s a comic that takes place on the bus. This woman is talking down about the Cyclops in front of her. I have experienced this. I was the only Indian person on the bus and the hateful words were directed at me. I had to take the same bus to work every day and I had this anxiety that the person would get on again. It took a really long time to get over that.
There are also little things, like the pronunciation of names. It all adds up. That’s why I wrote a book about micro-aggressions. When you take them one page at a time, it’s not that bad. But when you see all of them in a row, you start understanding the effect of it.