Benjamin Dix draws cartoons. But unlike the light-hearted strips you might get in the weekend papers, Dix tackles issues that are very real, very dark and incredibly depressing, all of which are derived from his former life as the communications manager for the United Nations. The British cartoonist will be in town for the Singapore Writers Festival from 3 to 12 November to talk about his work and his thoughts on how literature can give a voice to the voiceless.
We caught up with Dix prior to his arrival and chatted about his life experiences.
What prompted or inspired you to start tackling humanitarian issues in your comics?
I worked for the United Nations in the Tamil Tiger region of north Sri Lanka called Vanni. Through the conflict 2007-2008, we were spending many hours a day in a bunker under attack from the Sri Lankan Air Force. Spending so many hours in a bunker became normalised. I used to watch TV box sets and listen to music. One day someone gave me a copy of Maus by Art Spiegleman. The book is a fantastic graphic novel portraying memory of the Holocaust. I was mesmerised by the book and that evening I realised that the history I was currently living through in Sri Lanka could also be portrayed as a graphic novel.
Years later, back in London, I began to meet my Tamil colleagues and friends who had survived the war and become refugees in UK, Switzerland, and India, and I interviewed them about their survival of the conflict and their journey out of Sri Lanka. I realised that this was the story I wanted to turn into a graphic novel. I made the methodology and ethics of the production of the book into my Ph.D. in Anthropology. I then realised that this was a wonderful communications tool to tell complex, sensitive stories through sequential art and founded PositiveNegatives. One of the wonderful attributes of using graphic art to tell these difficult stories is that you can anonymise the respondents and can tell their candid stories without compromising their identity.
How did dealing with all these sobering issues in the UN affect you?
I had a love/hate relationship working for the UN. I found that working for the organisation in the field, like in Vanni, took me to places and allowed me to interact with remote communities that I would have never had access too otherwise. I felt that on a personal level, I had some wonderful colleagues (both national and international), I could truly help some people, build the capacity of my team members, bring some relief to some troubled lives and generally do some good.
However, I felt at an organisational level, there were huge issues of corruption, incompetence, and political bias. Our mission in Sri Lanka completely failed the Sri Lankan Tamils, in that we evacuated in their greatest hour of need due to weak leadership in the UN country team and political meddling in the UN internationally.
The evacuation from Vanni at 11am on 18 September 2008 was a turning point in my life. It was a moment of complete failure and shame at the organisation and global mechanisms that I represented in the role of a UN staff. The following anger that the UN directed towards me for speaking out against the organisation and Sri Lankan Government and exposing their failures was staggering and made me realise the personal egos and sense of self-preservation of individual careers inside the UN that exists at the expense of exposing severe human rights violations.
The issues of evacuating from the Vanni completely reshaped my life. I suffered from PTSD with a sense of abandonment and guilt from leaving behind our team and civilians in Sri Lanka where thousands perished at the hands of the warring parties with no international humanitarian assistance or witness to violations. After two years of counselling and getting myself strong again, I realised that I wanted to tell the story of survivors of the conflict in the form of a graphic novel.
What do you hope for your comics to achieve?
When reading our comics, I hope that people are introduced to individuals and their life stories. I find that comics have a fantastic way of taking you inside people’s lives, memories, dreams and fears – spaces which are hard to access through another media. When people read one of our comics they are not reading about a statistic or a theory, but they are engaging with someone’s life story and can hopefully empathise with their struggle against whichever force; politically, racial, culturally is being represented in the story.
How are you dealing with your PTSD?
Now I don’t feel that I suffer from PTSD really. The evacuation has left a change in me, that I’m sure will stay for life, but I have been able to move on in my life and work with other global issues. The experience of evacuating from Sri Lanka has certainly shaped my life and given me a deeper, emotional understanding of the many sensitive issues I now deal with at PositiveNegatives.
A social worker I once interviewed said that he hopes that his job will be extinct in the future because that means there are thankfully, no more social issues. Do you hope that you too can one day stop making your comics?
Of course I would be very happy if there were no more social issues in the world for us to write comics about, however, I honestly don’t see that as a possibility. Humans are complex and there has always been and will always be inequality, discrimination and abuses of power, so I don’t see us running out of projects sadly.
Benjamin Dix will be appearing in two panel discussions – From Apart to A Part: Writing to Unite and Of Monsters and Men – and conducting a class – From Syria to Europe: Three Refugees’ Stories at the Singapore Writers Festival