Vidhu Aggarwal’s work draws from multiple arenas to create a unique narrative experience. Mediating modern technological paths while unpacking the mythological legacy that informing our global urban experience, Aggarwal combines words and images to produce digital poetics that explore the fallacy of the machine and the struggle between alienation and connectivity. Aggarwal’s new project Avatara takes the modern day fascination/fetishization with representative objects as an invitation to examine the shifting relationship between physical and digital embodiments. This work interrogates the unsettling truth that the modern context allows the body to yield to our yearnings in way previously only imagined. The modern experience is informed by new spaces informed by this fluidity around identity. Yet, our notions remain locked to established categories and traditional expectations. It is no surprise then that she would be drawn to comic narratives. For all the immaturity attached to comic books in the United States, the medium has and does offer a space for experimentation, exploration, and expression that more “serious” counterparts can sometime lack. Aggarwal’s concerns mirror the work of her collaborator Bishakh Som. Som describes his work as “investigates the intersection between image and text, figure and architecture, architecture and landscape.” A quick examination of his previous comic projects in Hi-horse, Blurred Vision, and Pool demonstrates his work builds on the legacy of autobiographical and investigative comic narrative pioneered in anthologies such as Zap Comix, Arcade, and Raw. Som’s ideological roots link him to creators such as S. Clay Wilson, Art Spiegelman, and Robert Crumb. Like them, Som’s work examines society and uses the comic narrative to spotlight shifting boundary. Aggarwal and Som are busy on all levels. Aggarwal’s other job is full time professor of poetics and founding editor of SPECS: A Journal of Arts and Culture, as well as managing two manuscripts under review with publishers. Som has recently completed Apsara Engine, a 200-page collection of seven short stories he too is sending to publishers for review. I caught up with Aggarwal and got her to answers some questions about comics, narratives, and the unstable other.
JC: Why collaborate on a graphic narrative now? What can this kind of project accomplished for you?
VA: In a recent piece in the New York Times, A.O. Scott laments the seeming end of adulthood/patriarchy via an analysis of pop culture — he talks, for instance, of the popularity of comics among adults. Graphic forms definitely have this childhood and particularly boyhood resonance in our culture — unlike say movies or painting. Also, both graphic narrative form and poetry can be done with limited materials (unlike say making movies) and therefore are available to the amateur. And I love that! Of course, Bishakh’s complex, architectural graphic sequences could never be described as amateur! But “high-seriousness” is usually not a quality associated with comics — there’s a history of superheroes and alternative universes. Scott McCloud describes comics as “a sequential art” — one in which the gaps between panels is part of the meaning of the comic, much like line breaks in poetry. And I had seen some of Bishakh’s amazing interpretations of H.D. and D.H. Lawrence in this literature/comic book anthology series called “The Graphic Canon.” So I was curious about collaborating with him myself. I had also commissioned work from Bishakh for two issues of SPECS, a journal I edit — and his work has a thrilling architectural play between figure and ground, humans and technologies, animate and inanimate objects. My own work, particularly the poems in The Trouble with Humpadori, concerns a monstrous, shapeshifting figure, which I call Humpadori — an entity that seemed to belong more to a science fiction universe rather “Poetry” per se! Poetry associates would tell me they just didn’t “get” this idea of this weird kind of infantile monster that takes on the properties of any number of objects, The Taj Mahal, unicorns, maps, etc? Where was I, Vidhu Aggarwal, in the poems? So instead of a poem about me posing in front of the Taj Mahal, Humpadori becomes a monstrous, drooling version of the Taj Mahal. These poems seemed to call for a visual rendering. Because this figure of Humpadori seems to break down the boundary between the figure and the background, I was really fascinated to see how Bishakh might visualize this figure, given how the backgrounds in his work are often as pulsing and alive the characters. The skyscapes can be fleshy.
JC: You have a focus on identity and community in your work. How do you think your work reflects the contemporary debates around these issues? How much is your heritage identity influencing your thinking?
VA: Well, I’m really interested in the violence of identity — how identity is imposed upon us beyond our consent. We are gendered, raced, and so on — in ways that are difficult to escape. The superhero comic was always a fantasy about excess or surplus identities. I’m interested in narratives of escapism, camouflage, and disguise. My hybrid poetry manuscript Avatara is about an immigrant tech worker who finds a godlike gaming identity far more compelling than life. Part of my own experience as an Indian immigrant girl growing up in the South (New Orleans and Houston) was picking up cultural codes in an awkward, piecemeal way — the dilemma of being a bad copy of an American where the racial landscape still had the residue of the Civil War: black or white. There’s always the question of: What are you? Much of my understanding of India growing up was filtered through Bollywood musicals. Similarly, I learned American English by watching television. I really felt like I was learning about the U.S. through soap operas or Star Trek. Humpadori is my version of a Bollywood spectacle combined with a New Orleans Mardi Gras float—the hybrid cultural mechanism that is identity. Humpadori is an identity performer. Humpadori is like a lumpy, campy, and awkward Houdini — an escape artist obsessed with his bindings — the markers of identity he invites the audience impose upon him.
JC: Comics offer a complex cognitive experience for the audience; can you talk about how your project capitalizes on the graphic form?
VA: What has been most fascinating for me in working with Bishakh is how his graphic interpretation of Humpadori is very feminine. I gave him the manuscript and told him to do as he pleased without any instructions. I myself thought of Hump as alternatively male and female depending on the incarnation (for instance Humpadori Unicorn is very male, Mermaid is female). I really did not know exactly what to expect from his initial drafts, but I was blown away. He combined the technological with the biological with vivid umbilical cables uniting the bodies from different poems — lions, mermaids, playback singers. Like a giant cosmic desiring machine (a la Deleuze) but very womanly. Also his figures took on aspects of the Hindu (pre-Vedic) goddess Kali/Durga both violent and life-giving. There was an aspect of these gods and creation myths in my work that his images really brought out in new ways. I wrote the poem “Lady Humpadori” as a specific response to Bishakh’s Humpadori images. And then Bishakh did this short comic book based on “Lady Humpadori.” I loved how the lines sounded completely different split into panels—took on different meanings. I thought the dialogue bubbles with the elevated lines were hilarious. I think Bishakh is particularly masterful in writing dialogue. He often punctures the high-toned musings of his characters with great wit and he was able to do this puncturing with lines of the poems. That poem and process was a total surprise — a real back and forth.
JC: I see your work drawing on an urban aesthetics that engages with afrofuturism and desifuturism narratives common in fictive texts, but becoming more widely seen in contemporary art and culture. How would you describe your aesthetic to those unfamiliar with the ideological landscape you are working in?
VA: I’m a fan of Octavia Butler, Samuel Delaney, Nalo Hopkinson, Janelle Monae, Nnedi Okorafor, Michael Jackson, John Jennings and Stacey Robinson’s project Black Kirby, Nick Cave’s soundsuits — they create alternative fictive spaces for black subjectivity through futures: wild techno-bodies, new familial modes, Afro-diasporic myths, and fantastical world building in fiction, music, comics, art. I don’t know of as many South Asians working in speculative modes, but what’s out there is inspiring. There’s Mary Anne Mohanraj and Vandana Singh, two science fiction writers. There’s also the poets, Monica Mody and Bhanu Kapil. You could also include the work of Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. There’s artist Rina Banerjee. And, of course, Bishakh Som, who draws these highly detailed futurist architectural spaces with South Asian motifs. A lot of science fiction has borrowed from South Asian mythologies — avatar, the word for digital incarnation we get in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, comes from the word for the embodiment of gods into flesh. I was joking with Bishakh that the time is ripe for South Asian or desi-futurism given how many science fiction stories take on South Asian tropes (James Cameron’s Avatar, Ian McDonald’s Cyberdebad Days). Shouldn’t we out desi-scape them?
JC: Is your work supplanting established forms or subverting existing systems?
VA: I do think it’s a point in time where we are beginning to recognize the graphic narrative as a high art as much as a popular medium. Art Spiegelman, Osamu Tesuka, Alison Bedchel, Winchluss, Junko Mizuno, Marjane Satrapi. At the same time poets are engaging with popular culture more than ever: Joyelle McSweeny, Tan Lin, Stephen Burt. There’s something in the air. Personally, I’m interested in a greater flexibility and mobility in poetry. I grew up thinking of a poem as a sacred object, and recombining my own work through video and comics is a way of smashing that idea. Are we going to see further projects? I’d love to work with Bishakh again and collaborate on a longer graphic narrative. We’ll see!