The Daily Heller: Aminder Dhaliwal’s ‘Cyclopedia’ Sets Sights on Racial Hatred

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Aminder Dhaliwal is an award-winning animator working in Los Angeles who has directed, storyboarded and written for Disney TV Animation, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. She was named one of the "Top 10 Animators to Watch in 2020" by Variety, and her premiere graphic novel, 2018's Woman World, posits a birth defect that wipes out the male population (for the better); it began as a weekly Instagram post.

Her new book, Cyclopedia Exotica (Drawn & Quarterly), recently featured in a full-page Arts spotlight in The New York Times, tells the travails of a community of one-eyed immigrants who coexist uneasily with their two-eyed neighbors. Targeted by curious online daters and porn addicts, as well as cosmetic surgeons eager to give them that desirable two-eyed look, the cyclops community is challenged by xenophobes protesting mixed marriages, hateful attacks from "subway Karens" and, in some cases, physical violence. The comic is about identity and is a response to the general concept of "otherness."

In 2018, Dhaliwal began sharing pages with her 250,000 Instagram followers: She was drawing from her experiences as a South Asian woman growing up in England and Canada, but she wondered if the topic was relevant. "I remember saying to a friend, I want to do a book on microaggressions, but that’s, like, so old. Is it even worth doing?" she told the Times.

The answer is clearly a resounding yes! It is more important than ever to address on the public stage, in whatever terms possible. Dhaliwal's comic ultimately turned into an almost–300-page book that addresses with wit and biting humor a host of these and other hostilities that reached yet another peak during the pandemic year. I asked Dhaliwal, via email, to explain the significance of the cyclops metaphor in her current work.

The cyclops has allure that, for me, no other mythic character enjoys. I recall as a kid being terrified by the film Sinbad the Sailor, when he encounters the cyclops. Where did your motivation to use this image come from?Originally my interest was in mythological creatures. I was drawing monsters as pinups because I found something interesting in mixing sexuality with monstrosity. Cyclopes intrigued me most out of all the creatures because the only notable difference from humans is the mono eye. I thought it would be interesting to explore a creature that was "almost human." Eventually this would turn into a metaphor for race.

The Cyclops to me is "the other." Those pushed to the sidelines to be gawked at, but never truly seen.

What does the cyclops represent in current symbology? Is it a positive or negative attribute?To me, I used the Cyclops to explore identity, both the problems and the joys—I think it has a very balanced attribute.

What are you hoping to get as a response from your audience?I hope people see themselves in my Cyclops characters.Have you considered what happens when a cyclops loses its only eye?

I didn’t explore a Cyclops losing its one eye, however I do have a character who has a procedure to get two eyes, and then loses vision in one of them. He tosses between identity issues of whether he is a Cyclops or "two-eyes."

What does eyesight mean in your cyclopic world?Eyesight in Cyclopedia Exotica is about point of view—it is how you see the world and how the world sees you.