I first read about artist/writer Aminder Dhaliwal in this NYT piece, then started following her Instagram account. The premise behind Cyclopedia Exotica and Dhaliwal’s art led me to purchase the book, whose message is pertinent in the current xenophobic climate in the US. Through characters who are Cyclopes in a world of the two-eyed, Dhaliwal examines the daily micro aggressions and prejudices that minorities encounter, as well as the Cyclopes’ responses to them. Anyone who does not fit the WASP-y cis/het norm will probably be able to identify with the struggles of Cyclopes, and those who think they are good allies might have some moments of discomfort when they see how they have contributed to repressive social, economic, and political systems.
Cyclopedia Exotica is more comic than graphic novel, and by that I mean that it is a collection of stories as opposed to a traditional novel-type of story. This allows Dhaliwal to examine a variety of situations and issues that intersect and diverge for Cyclopes living in a two-eyed dominant world. Among these issues are:
- Physical differences and plastic surgery
- Assumptions about sexuality
- “Mixing” of races and the prejudice that couples and their children face
- Bullying in childhood and its long-term effects
- How members of non-dominant groups becomes accepted and the limits of that acceptance
- Stereotypes and the erasure of minority groups from pop culture
- Self loathing
Dhaliwal has created an engaging cast of characters to explore these issues. Etna was the first Cyclopes pin-up, and her sexual appeal opened doors for other Cyclopes but also contributed to stereotypes and later criticism. Tim and Pari are expecting their first child. Tim is two-eyed and Pari is Cyclopes; both have good jobs and Pari struggles not only with the inappropriate questions and thoughtless remarks about Cyclopes from co-workers but also with whether or not she will go back to work. Vy and Latea are models from different eras who try to come to terms with the moral implications of promoting products for Cyclopes that might actually be harmful to them. Bron is unhappy as a Cyclopes and has suffered from a botched surgery to “fix” his one eye to make two. He has never felt that he could just accept being Cyclopes but now he feels he belongs to no group. Other characters’ stories allow Dhaliwal to examine art, representation in TV and movies, childhood bullying and adult mental health, dating, and trying to buy a home. She covers a lot of ground in this book, and the stories and artwork are outstanding. If you are interested in reading under-represented authors and about under-represented communities, then Cyclopedia Exotica should top your “must read” list.