From the heart of the scattered subcontinental diaspora, an uncannily prescient and funny UK-born Punjabi Sikh Canadian-Californian animator has burst from Instagram to the cusp of earning her place amongst the greatest graphic novelists in the history of the genre.
All through recent weeks, 31-year-old Aminder Dhaliwal’s newly released Cyclopedia Exotica has been racking up unprecedented raves in unexpected places. One part of the reason is revealed in the way the New York Times bannered its review, “How One Graphic Novel Looks at Anti-Asian Hate”. It declared, “Dhaliwal’s book seems particularly of the moment.”
The LA Times made its agenda even more explicit by including its interview with Dhaliwal, which was actually about her creative process, in its list of “Times coverage of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic”.
But when my own copy of this gorgeously produced book arrived at home in Goa, it quickly became obvious those clickbait headlines represent only one unnecessarily reductionist way to read and understand Cyclopedia Exotica. It’s actually an exceptionally well-conceived and entertaining collection of meditations about the nuances, complications, pathos and absurdities of being minoritised and othered, with an entire range of implications that extend far beyond the tediously simplistic American obsessions about race.
In form and content – and also the way she wrote, previewed, and “audience-tested” her work via the internet – Dhaliwal has purposefully engineered nothing less than an important advancement for the way comics can be made and read in the 21st century. She has deliberately broken all the rules, and nonetheless made it work.
What exactly is Cyclopedia Exotica? There are – per the title – some distinctly reference-styled elements. For example, the first few pages are an actual textbook presentation that depicts how “an exotic sub-species of archaic humans” with one eye co-evolved with mankind (there are other anatomical differences, but the two can procreate). We are told mutual suspicion reigned until the divides “faded away” after one comely Cyclops – think Jessica Rabbit with one eye – “appeared on the cover of a popular nude magazine”.
Later on, in the Appendix at the end of Cyclopedia Exotica, Dhaliwal reverts to encyclopaedia mode with beautifully detailed panels that etch out each character’s motivations: “Etna was the first Cyclops cover model [and] the cover would resurface every decade. Depending on the time, she was a pioneer or a traitor.” Alongside are the relevant classical references: “Mount Aetna is an active volcano on the coast of Sicily, Italy. In Greek mythology, it is where the Cyclopes made their home.”
That’s not all, because here – in one of many inspired touches that seriously elevate Cyclopedia Exotica – Dhaliwal rather stunningly “breaks the fourth wall” of storytelling conventions to lay out her own authorial preoccupations: “The original idea with Etna was she would be a beloved sex symbol. And that was it. But the idea morphed into using Etna as anchoring point for Cyclopean history.”
Viscerally relatable world
In between these primers and through the rest of the book, we experience the present day of Cyclopes and humans cohabiting in urban ennui. Dhaliwal expertly paces set pieces – most of which were shared in development on her Instagram page – that explore the inner lives of characters who are trying to make sense of an often well-meaning, but generally uncomprehending, society that wasn’t built with them in mind.
It’s viscerally relatable to any outsider: self-hatred, anxieties of assimilation, fetishisation, outright bigotry, and yet – always underlying – the liberating power that comes from recognising we are all the same.
These are unusually potent themes to address in an essentially jokey, comic-strip framework, but Dhaliwal manages to pull it off. By itself, that would have been enough to make her book perfectly satisfying: think compilations of Calvin & Hobbes, Bloom County or even the classic Peanuts. But what propels Cyclopedia Exotica to the top shelf of the global genre of graphic novels is all the other details Dhaliwal has added to cohere the short takes into an exceptional work of art.
“I really didn’t expect the way this book was going to be received,” said Dhaliwal, on a video call from her home in Los Angeles, close to her “day job” in the vast animation industry of California. She explained that Cyclopedia had been in the works for three years, and just happened to be released soon after President Joe Biden acknowledged from the White House that “too many Asian Americans have been walking up and down the streets and worrying…That’s been true throughout our history, but that has to change – because our silence is complicity. We cannot be complicit. We have to speak out. We have to act.”
Dhaliwal pointed out that her previous book – the minimalist, hilarious Woman World was similarly published as though deliberately calibrated to the zeitgeist. That compilation, also carefully previewed on Instagram, is about an imagined world where men have gone extinct (it isn’t an entirely fanciful scenario).
It hit the bookstores precisely as the #MeToo movement erupted all over the world, and garnered instantaneous approval as “a sly and devastating critique of patriarchy”.
In this case, even as the North American media busily frames Cyclopedia Exotica as crusading against anti-Asian hate, Dhaliwal is more ambivalent. She told me her early childhood was spent in Wembley, the famously South Asian north-west suburb of London. Then, along with her older sister (now a physicist) and brother (programmer), she moved with their mother to Brampton, Ontario, which is more than 50% desi. “My schools were all majority brown people,” she says, “that was normal to me. It’s only now, in Los Angeles, that I have to actually seek out Indians.”
Being the adored youngest, Dhaliwal says she felt no familial pressure to set aside art and music (she played the clarinet and bassoon) for the usual diaspora aspirations. Her big break came while still a student in the excellent animation department of Sheridan College when she got an internship at the Nickelodeon television network, which led to working there after graduation. She stuck on in California and has worked with an impressive range of media giants.
Last year, Variety named her amongst its “10 Animators to Watch”.
Being embedded in the guts of the animation industrial complex is very high stakes (one hit can generate hundreds of millions of dollars in profit) but also inherently soul-killing for many artists. Dhaliwal told me she spent years stifled in non-disclosure agreements while creating a pilot for a show that didn’t get made, which marooned her in “deep exhaustion”.
“I felt like so much time and energy had been lost just waiting for the green light,” she said. “I missed just showing my work to other people.”
Enter Instagram, the social media network for sharing photos and videos. Still under a decade since acquisition by Facebook in 2012, it has become the dominant self-publishing platform for the millennial generation of digital natives all over the world. This is certainly true in South Asia, where entire sectors of economic and cultural activity are now best accessed via “Insta”, but perhaps not so much in Los Angeles. Nonetheless, that’s where Dhaliwal was when she started sharing panels to roughly 3,000 followers, which scaled up dramatically after Woman World began in 2017.
“You are not supposed to seek validation from social media” said Dhaliwal. “I do know that. But it’s only when I started posting systematically on Instagram that I realised how much I still needed confidence: in my voice, in my sense of what’s funny. The online audience very quickly gave that to me. It’s so meaningful to get that instant critical feedback, especially for joke-writing. It’s a lot like performing for a live studio audience. Ever since I started sharing my work online, the journey has been incredibly amazing.”
I am not on Instagram, via a negotiated ban by my teenaged sons, but when I assess Dhaliwal’s two books as an interconnected body of work, it’s evident her achievement has been considerably heightened by bypassing the editorial and marketing interventions of mainstream publishing. That online gambit has resulted in an auteur’s oeuvre, intimately manicured to her own tastes.
One of the famous gags in Woman World holds that men had to become extinct for women to speak their minds uninterrupted. In the same vein, it occurs to me that it was only because Dhaliwal created an exclusive space, where no one could derail her work, that her unique and amazing voice could finally be heard.
“The internet allows for enormous freedom of expression, but it also means that everyone has to work that much harder to stand out,” said Sanjay Patel, the Pixar Studios Indian-American animation legend who has been instrumental in tentpole blockbusters like Ratatouille, Cars and The Incredibles, and whose own Hindu-deity-flavoured Sanjay’s Super Team was nominated for an Academy Award in 2016.
Dhaliwal said that Patel had been an early inspiration, and when she first sought to meet him (while still a student) at one of his book-signings, he had been warm and approachable, and invited her to visit Pixar.
Asked about this, Patel said his memory is hazy on the details, but, “according to her, she said that I invited her to check out Pixar whenever she was in town, and she promptly booked a ticket and got in touch to take a tour of the studio. I mention this because over the years lots of people fan out about the studio, but next to none take the next step to make their wishes come true. Aminder is really a person that’s bold and not afraid to risk rejection. It’s among many of the qualities that I envy in her.”
Patel is Dhaliwal’s direct predecessor: a diasporic Indian who is highly successful in the animation industry, but also possesses an urge to express another voice from deep inside. In his case, this fortysomething veteran’s “personal work” brims with instantly distinguishable subcontinental identity markers. That difference with Dhaliwal is partly generational, but mostly situational. He grew up effectively isolated from other South Asians in a motel his parents owned in San Bernardino, while she was raised in the womb of Indian diaspora.
When I asked him about this, Patel said, “Those are subtle questions that are tough to speak on. What I will say is everyone is at different places on their journey with their own identities, especially minorities. I would have hated it if people put a racial or cultural expectation on me and my work. I think Aminder’s experience with the Asian diaspora was very normalised in Canada, and therefore may not be as rich for her to mine.”
However, he added, “what’s special about Aminder’s work is she’s always exploring the feelings of ‘otherness’. She’s in the skin of being Canadian [and Sikh, and South Asian] living in America, and all the feelings of dislocation that brings, as well as using her outsider’s lenses to comment on her surroundings. It’s the superpower of the outsider, and it is Aminder’s gifts that render her experience visible and relatable to her readers.”
Reflecting on how and why Dhaliwal has suddenly exploded to an uncommon degree of recognition, Patel said, “Aminder’s success all comes down to her punishing work ethic. She’s extraordinarily disciplined, both in her personal work and to her professional deadlines.” In addition, “the second you take in Aminder’s work you immediately get a sense of her as a person, and how she thinks. What makes her work stand out is she’s able to connect with her audience – be it through humour, intimacy, or anguish.”
Just as Dhaliwal has brilliantly angled herself into the mainstream publishing limelight via social media, can others – more specifically India’s host of brilliant young artists who tend to languish without support or guidance – essay something similar?
“Comics artists in India can definitely do what Aminder has done on Instagram,” said 29-year-old Nishant Saldanha, the Goa-based artist whose career was sparked in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the storied California School of Arts animation programme. In 2019, his work was showcased in the Best American Comics compilation.
Saldanha said, “Some of my favourite artists like Orijit Sen, Rohan Chakravarty, Siddhesh Gautam and Rachita Taneja already publish their art on Instagram for thousands of readers. Their work beautifully bends the conventional boundaries between social justice and activism, journalism, political satire and autobiography, by using the many expressions possible in comics.”
Very often, said Saldanha, “I find that my first encounter with the most interesting work from young and contemporary artists happens on Instagram, which then leads me to engage with their work outside the online avatar. Social media is just a tool, and not a set of aesthetic rules, and if an artist is consistent and has a particular viewpoint to express, they will find a loyal and engaged readership. When you trade print for digital, you give your work the chance to have a greater reach. Young comics artists and independent animators in America finding ways to crowdfund their personal work online, which makes it possible to keep doing it. I’m starting to see this happen very slowly in India too.”
Although distribution is intrinsically global on the world wide web, the predetermined silos of legacy media can be pervasive. This is why many people in India have never heard of Aminder Dhaliwal, even if they’re dedicated followers of animation and comics on Instagram.
According to Saldanha, “Invisible rules are often enforced by the companies who own these platforms, and dictate what travels where. It has more to do with how social media operates at a very fundamental level rather than any cultural difference. I’m highly sceptical of the idea that Aminder’s work might not have a larger readership here because of cultural differences that would stop us from loving a graphic novel about Cyclopes. I personally hope she convinces Drawn & Quarterly to make a large shipment of Cyclopedia Exotica available in India.”
That eventuality is imminent, as Dhaliwal is obviously destined for celebrity status in the subcontinent, which will be inevitably accompanied by the uncomfortable rigours of unsolicited appropriation. It has already happened in Canada, which insists on celebrating her as a “Brampton animator” and there can be no doubt that both Punjab and India will soon follow suit.
The prospect makes Dhaliwal distinctly jittery. Towards the end of our video conversation, she cracked me up hard about “all this push and pull about claiming me and my work. It feels very odd to wear the Indian badge, because while growing up I never felt the need to identify in that way. Of course, it’s exciting, but I have a fear of being tested and not being able to pass. Like being asked to name all the Indian states, and I’ll only get three. It makes me really nervous!”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.