In Review: Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock’s powerful “Vanni”

By Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock
Published by Myriad Editions & New Internationalist

Vanni by By Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock

New Internationalist and Myriad Editions have collaborated on another graphic reportage work, following the fascinating and moving Escaping War and Waves by Olivier Kugler last year (reviewed here). In Vanni, Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock explore the tragedies of a land that should be the very image of a tropical paradise, Sri Lanka, starting with the natural catastrophe of the 2004 tsunami, then later the years and years of the grinding civil war in that island, which saw thousands of deaths, disappearances, tortures and other atrocities and masses of displaced civilians caught in the middle, killed, maimed, driven from their homes once more, but this time by human-made disasters, not the anger of the waves.

We get to know Antoni and his family, from the grandmother to the youngest kids, living in a simple but happy life in their wee village on the coast, where fishing provides a living. The Tamil Tigers are fighting against the Sri Lankan army and government, which has a long record of treating Tamil people as second class citizens. While understanding the struggle, Antoni and his family are as wary of the Tigers as they are of government troops, and for good reason – they don’t want the young men of their family to be co-opted into the fighting, but of course, inevitably their family is drawn into it (in extremely upsetting scenes later on the Tigers resort to raiding villages and refugee camps, press-ganging any women or men of the right age into service against their will, including some of the young women of the family).

Vanni by By Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock

Vanni by By Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock

The threat may be on the horizon, but before the war expands to swallow their world, first nature delivers a terrifying event with the tsunami. Pollock’s mostly monochrome artwork moves from smaller panels to four pages with very big panels, the large format of the book (almost quarto sized, I think), allowing the art to really shine. Those four pages utilise the large panels and no dialogue, just “silent” imagery as the wave arrives. The terrified villagers are trying to escape inland, but the angry ocean is far too swift; some desperately make for the roof of the one really solid building, the stone church (their own homes being much flimsier). In four large panels, the wave rears up as it strikes the land, washing over trees, buildings, people, the irresistible, awful power of nature made abundantly clear.

The following two pages remain free of dialogue, depicting the ruined landscape and shattered village left by the passage of the mighty wave. It is simple and powerful and awful; a terrifying depiction of how vulnerable we are in the face of nature.

The aftermath is extremely emotional, both in story and art – Pollock skilfully depicts the “thousand yard stare” of some of the survivors. Any of us who have been sudden, shocking events such as a bad accident, a sudden death in the family, a fire, will be familiar with that expression that clearly signals the utter shock of your world being ripped apart, the grief, the numbness, the feeling of what just happened, how could it happen, how could things become so terrible so quickly? It’s a form of PTSD, and that is an internal scar on mind and soul that never truly goes away.

In another, later scene one of the younger lads of the family, tired of refugee camps, returns to the sea and swims. As he dives under the water his village re-appears on the shore, as it was before, but when he surfaces and looks, all he sees is wreckage and refugee tents; it’s gone for good, and the momentary peace being in the sea gave him vanishes as quickly as the illusion of his old home.

Vanni by By Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock

Worse is to come as the civil war grows though. The refugee camps, already struggling, are over-burdened by new columns of civilians fleeing the fighting, and, as in every way our species has ever wages, those civilians often get caught in the cross-fire, shells and bombs hitting the camps. Supposedly by accident, and of course some may be accidental, but as the human rights violations rise it is obvious that some of the attacks on the camps are part of a deliberate fear campaign, with no regard for civilian lives, both sides committing atrocities in the name of their respective goals, both supposedly fighting “for the people” but in reality not giving a damn about those actual people who are suffering and dying.

There are many scenes here which are hard, as you would expect from this subject matter. Not only major scenes of death and destruction, but smaller scale depictions – refugees hobbling in their columns, some missing limbs from bombings and mines, the looks on the faces of children and adults, the obsessive over-protection of some of the older members of the family to the children, clinging to them, not letting them leave the tent or their sight for fear of another attack or disaster claiming them, desperately trying to protect what little is left to them and terrified that in the end they won’t be able to do so; the feeling of panic and helplessness is palpable.

In other scenes we see torture and execution – even here though, while not shying from showing the shocking events, Pollock, I noticed censored part of his art where two victims are forced to strip naked to humiliate them before being shot, a small touch, but one I found moving, as the artist attempted to give those men at least a tiny shred of dignity.

Vanni by By Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock

Vanni by By Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock

Vanni is very much inspired by Spiegelman’s Maus and the graphic reportage of Joe Sacco – Dix, in fact, mentions these in his own notes in the book, and how he read some of these works while he was in Sri Lanka with the UN relief agencies. The characters are fictionalised here, but the stories are real enough, taken from many personal interviews with eyewitnesses (now scattered around the world from India to France, Britain and Canada as asylum seekers), the names and elements of the stories altered somewhat to protect the and their family members who are still in Sri Lanka from potential vengeful retribution from the government there; a government which still downplays the huge scale of the civilian atrocities during the war and their own culpability in it to this day (their continued denials makes it all the more important that books like this give voice to the victims).

No, this is not an easy read, and you may well ask, why do some of us read books like Vanni or Maus or Footsteps in Gaza when we know how upsetting it will be? Personally, I have always subscribed to the old adage of “bearing witness” – if you cannot change events (and clearly we cannot with past historical events) then you at least try to bear witness to them, to be aware of them and make others aware, not to let the conspiracy of silence blanket those events and hide the foul deeds of the perpetrators from the eyes of the world.

The comics medium is, I think, remarkably well-suited to exploring these kinds of tales in an accessible manner, and Vanni can hold its head up alongside the likes of Sacco for giving a voice to those most of the world has forgotten, to share their cautionary tale of how quickly a seemingly stable, normal society can tear itself apart and its people with it.

Joe Gordon

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4 replies

  1. Once again, art meets reality. This time in the form of Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock’s cartoon strip “Vanni”, set in Sri Lanka.

    I spent four separate months travelling the island in 2016, covering the entire public railway network, and taking many bus journeys. I made several friends, and have been helping some of them financially to now. The mother of one friend was murdered, a victim of the Islam-inspired bombs set off on Easter Sunday 2019. She was at the Easter service in the Christian church in Batticoloa that was targeted by the Muslim terrorists. She had previously been in a road traffic accident that killed her husband, a son and a friend; her injuries required her to have a kidney transplant, to which I gave a considerable proportion of the cost – the kidney had to be bought.

    Another friend has had ongoing medical problems, and I have been helping her. She is a Tamil, and a teacher of Tamil to Sinhala-speaking Sri Lankans.

    As for the cartoon story, are Antoni and his family supposed to be Tamil, and are they the people on the roof of the building being swept away by the tsunami? The building has a cross on the roof, to signify a Christian church; but Tamils are Hindus.

    As for the loincloth covering the genitals of the man about to be shot, I have often wondered about the so-called indignity of bare genitals. I am a nudist, and have often visited nudist beaches. In Australia when on a kimberlite prospect and washing mineral samples while standing in a creek, I thought it stupid to get my shorts wet, and so I stripped off naked. The other men copied me, and the field geologist’s wife thought nothing of it; she did not join us!

    A book about the Tamil Tiger war, and worth reading, is “Elephant Complex”, by John Gimlette. Largely supporting the government actions against the Tigers (the author is/was a London based barrister), it does show how involved the war was. It should not be forgotten that Sri Lanka is a small island off the very close and very large Indian subcontinent; and India has long had its political eyes on the country. After the end of the civil war, the Indian government rebuilt all the railways in the north of island, making the relaid track the fastest part of the system. This was opportunity politics; most of the Tamils live in the north. Don’t forget Tamil Nadu is the closest Indian state to Sri Lanka (the strait is a few ten of miles wide at its narrowest), and there used to be a regular ferry service across it – suspended when a storm wrecked the pier on the Sri Lankan side.

    So geographically, the mainly Hindu Tamil Nadu state has a strong psychological affect on the island; rather as the mainly Catholic Eire has on Northern Ireland. The arms for the Tamil Tigers and the Tamil terrorists surely came partly from India.

    Towards the end of the civil war – when the Tamil leaders realised they had lost – large numbers of Tigers simply stopped fighting and swapped sides. It was as if it was a school playground dust-up, and they wanted to be seen to be on the winning side. The inscrutable orient?

    I take it both Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock are Caucasians, and they see the world through European minds. As we know, other cultures see the world very differently; take the Muslim suicide bombers wreaking murder all around the world. Indeed, death is seen differently by different cultures. I’d like to see a Manga cartoonist’s version of a tale such as Vanni.

    • Hi, Eric, I think the execution scene and the censoring of the genitalia differs somewhat from your experience – your nudity was voluntary. This was part of a humiliation of prisoners of war, to shame them and dehumanise them first before then executing them, so I can understand why he added the little black box over the sensitive area.

      Dix spent quite a period working with UN emergency teams in Sri Lanka, so caucasian or not he does have actual knowledge and experience of the events himself, on top of what he gleaned from interviewing the surviving refugees (in fact he suffered PTSD from some of what he experienced there, which I imagine gave him more empathy with the suffering of those he interviewed)

  2. Thank you, Joe, for your response to my thoughts. I have met many Sri Lankan Tamils in the UK, and that has been over several decades. A lot of them have been the sons and grandsons of those who came because of the civil war. Where I have met them is simple: at road vehicle fuel service stations, where so many have jobs on the tills. When I went to a service station this evening, I was served by an Ethiopian; pehaps another escapee from a troubled country.

    One story I heard back in the 1980s was that the reason why so many Tamils worked in filling stations was that they had a racket sending money from customers’ credit and debit cards to Sri Lanka, having tampered with the card readers. As a van and lorry driver, I heard the story a number of times, but have no idea as the veracity of it.

    For the land that gave us the word serendipity, and was marketed as the Paradise Isle, Sri Lanka has been very much a curate’s egg of a country. But then, most countries are. The ‘half-sad smile’ was something I came across.

    On a lighter note, I wrote a poem set in Sri Lanka, but based for metre and scan and some of the words on Johnny Cash’s song about the island of Ireland, “Forty Shades of Green”. I called mine Forty Shades of Brown. Here it is:

    I close my eyes and picture
    the sapphire of the sea,
    from the rush that is Colombo
    to the sands of Trincomalee.

    In a land of many cultures,
    of faiths without a crown,
    where hearts are kind and open,
    and there are forty shades of brown.

    But most of all I miss a girl,
    in Kataragama town,
    with loving smile, big black hair,
    and lips of eider down.

    Again I want to be with her,
    just wandering up and down,
    in the city or in the country –
    where there are forty shades of brown.

    Again I’m at Fort Station,
    with its ironwork and din,
    going second class to Matara,
    or returning, just back in.

    I’m in a growling diesel
    passing paddies left and right.
    On the way north-east to Kandy,
    or Badullah for the night.

    But most of all I miss that girl,
    in Kataragama town;
    her loving smile, big black hair,
    and lips of eider down.

    Again I want to be with her,
    just wandering up and down,
    in the city or in the country –
    where there are forty shades of brown.

    We pause at Ella, famous
    for its views and waterfall.
    Tourists throng the platform –
    sporting backpacks one and all.

    The driver has the tablet,
    station master’s whistle shrills,
    green flag waved, loco horn sounds –
    and we’re off to climb more hills.

    But most of all I miss my girl,
    in Kataragama town;
    her sweet loving smile, big black hair,
    and lips of eider down.

    Again I want to be with her,
    just wandering up and down,
    in the city or in the country –
    where there are forty shades of brown.

    I’ve yet to visit Mannar,
    or Jaffna further north.
    But, if alone, why should I?
    If alone, where is the worth?

    For these towns they’d be just places
    on the map – and little more.
    With my love not close beside me,
    the long hours would start to bore.

    For most of all I’d miss that girl,
    from Kataragama town,
    with her loving smile, big black hair,
    and lips of eider down.

    Again I’d want to be with her,
    just wandering up and down,
    in the city or in the country –
    where – there – are – forty – shades – of – brown.
    Where the breeze is sweet as Shalimar, [Shalimar – a woman’s perfume from the 1950s]
    and – there – are – forty – shades – of – brown.

    © Eric Hayman, 4th September 2016. Colombo, Sri Lanka, and afterwards.

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