Aminder Dhaliwal begins her book Cyclopedia Exotica with a mock-up of an encyclopedia explaining her narrative world — a world in which there are human and cyclops populations, living side by side. It’s a pleasant and effective framing device, putting you in the frame of mind of a junior high student flipping through your biology textbook, but it’s deceptive in its structure and tone; while it feels distinctly all-ages, the book concerns itself with some decidedly mature themes. I’m not talking drugs and sex and violence, I’m talking about the sorts of growing up people have to do in their twenties and thirties, the very real struggle of coming to terms with adulthood.
Dating, domesticity, childbirth, all of these are addressed within an even more visceral framework: dealing with these things while living in a society that views you as ‘other’.
The world of Cyclopia is one in which a dominant culture—two-eyes—has loomed over a minority—one-eyes; all the familiar microaggressions are on display, from exploitative media…
…to body-shame-based erasure, a la whitewashing.
Each character in the book struggles with a separate conflict; Pari and Tim, an interracial couple, struggle with the direct biases inherent there, while also dealing with a unique pregnancy. Bron underwent a failed cosmetic surgery in an attempt to look more like what the world deems ‘normal’; Pol finds himself fetishized on dating apps, and Latea is concerned that her modeling jobs further complicate problematic practices.
All these heavy concerns might seem overwhelming, but in reality, Dhaliwal presents a book of heartwarming vignettes that are gag strips in their execution: setup, example, punchline. This structure helps to soften some blows, but more importantly, it cements these moments of minor, humorous transgression as commonplace, everyday, both external and internal.
Dhaliwal’s style, artistic and emotional, exhibits a deep and caring understanding of human nature, a sort of joy at life’s complications. There’s an honesty to the work that transcends the fantastic premise and begins to feel real, intimate peeks into a culture so easily understood that it’s hard not to feel at home. At other times, the magical nature of the fictional world expresses itself just enough to remind us not to take the book–or ourselves–too seriously.
Cyclopedia Exotica is a great time, a book that feels not just prescient but almost relieving, a pleasant reminder that frustrations, while frequent, are not the final word.
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