By Anya Shukla
I’ve realized that I have been frontloading these reviews with books I want to read—fiction, romance, comic books—and saving the denser, 800-page behemoths on my list for the end. What can I say, I have no willpower.
Guess that will be a problem for Future Anya, though, because right now, it’s “Cyclopedia Exotica” time! Yippee!! I have wanted to read this book for just under a year, so I am very excited. Mostly because I have never stopped loving comics, and never will stop loving comics.
Review: After finding fame with her first comic, “Woman’s World,” Aminder Dhariwal continues to promote social justice with “Cyclopedia Exotica.” The book describes a society similar to ours… except that it contains both cyclopes and two-eyed humans. Two-eyes have historically seen cyclopes as inferior creatures; while that prejudice is slowly fading away, echoes of racism still remain.
A host of one-eyed characters fill this book: Pari navigates parenthood with her two-eyed husband, Tim; Pol and Latea build a relationship; Jain and Grae address societal perceptions of cyclopes through art; Bron and Arj struggle to find themselves. The parallels between our world and Dhariwal’s are striking, and “Cyclopedia Exotica” masterfully explores modern-day beauty standards, stereotypes, and representation. My Rating: 4.75/5.
What I Loved: The way “Cyclopedia Exotica” promotes social justice: I never felt like “Cyclopedia Exotica” preached simpering messages of tolerance. The comic form lends itself surprisingly well to racial justice education; Dhariwal uses humor to soften the parallels between her book and our world.
In one strip, a media studies teacher notes that “a lot of folks think there’s not enough cyborg representation in film” (pg. 77). She agrees with that perspective but always reminds her students about “Cyborg,” a 1978 movie featuring cyclopes who take over and destroy the entire world. The comic panel ends with a screening of “Cyborg” “as part of the four-film cyclops-on-film series,” the teacher says, “in which we screen ‘Cyborg’ four times” (pg. 77). This punchline—that “Cyborg” is the only cyclops movie out there—made me both laugh and think about the lack of diversity in media. That’s powerful stuff. (Also, I spent 30 minutes trying to summarize this strip before determining that I cannot capture its hilarity. Please read the book.)
Dhariwal’s characters navigate many issues faced by marginalized populations: the battle between economic reality and personal beliefs, societal disregard, outright racism. Latea, a low-level cyclops model, needs money, so she puts aside her values to work for a company that marketed an eye augmentation surgery to make cyclopes look more like two-eyes. Jian attempts to pursue a Hollywood career but feels “the industry wants to buy my name and audience, not my ideas” (pg. 194). Pari battles a biased bus rider.
Yet their storylines contain more than this prejudice. Arj talks to his therapist about his clumsiness and past. Pari debates going back to work or staying at home to take care of her kids. Pol goes on awful dates. Yes, prejudices stain many of these moments—Arj’s childhood bully constantly insulted cyclopes, for example—but racism does not define these characters’ lives. Just like people of color are more than their race, these individuals aren’t just cyclopes. They are mothers and boyfriends and models and writers and artists and humans.
What I Didn’t Love: I’m being super-duper nitpicky here: I wanted more. More comics, more time, more opportunities for characters to develop.
It took me a few strips to understand the characters and their motivations, and some aspects of their identities only became clear after I read Dhariwal’s “author’s intentions” section at the end of the book. With just a little more content, I feel I could have a better understanding of the messages and storyline of “Cyclopedia Exotica.”
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads: “Sometimes, there’s a story we tell ourselves, and sometimes, a story is told about us” (pg. 246-247).
Up next: “Behold the Dreamers” by Imbolo Mbue.