The graphic fiction Vanni is a poignant chronicle of survival from Sri Lanka’s civil war

Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock. Courtesy Penguin Books
30 November, 2019

The recently published graphic novel Vanni: A Family’s Struggle Through The Sri Lankan Conflict, by Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock, tells the story of a Sri Lankan fisherman named Antoni Ramachandran, who ekes out a living by the sea alongside his family, and his neighbours, the Chologars. The main narrative chronicles a five-year period, encompassing the Boxing Day tsunami and the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009.

This half a decade was an intensely painful time for Sri Lanka. The war between the state and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which spanned three decades, resulted in casualties in the tens of thousands on all sides. The Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 killed over 35,000 Sri Lankans and left millions displaced. Vanni follows the characters as they coped with the ever-encroaching war, the devastation of the tsunami and their constant displacement from one refugee camp to another as the war drew a noose around them.

Dix, who wrote the book, spent four years as a communications manager with the United Nations during the war. He was based in northern Sri Lanka’s Vanni district until September 2008, when the UN pulled out its staff after the government refused to guarantee their safety. He is also the founder of PositiveNegatives, an organisation that combines ethnographic research with illustrations, across mediums. Vanni is his first full-length comic, though the organisation has been making short comics for years. Lindsay Pollock is an artist who works with PositiveNegatives and his previous work includes A Perilous Journey, a trilogy of comics based on accounts of Syrian refugees seeking asylum, and Almaz, a comic about the plight of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, among others.

On the first page of Vanni, we are introduced to its cast of 12, via a family portrait next to a gentle seashore. The two families are companionably positioned side by side on the beach. Nothing here suggests the violence to come, aside from the LTTE uniforms worn by two of the older boys. Antoni and the rest of the characters are based on in-depth interviews conducted by Dix under wartime conditions, as well as with Tamil refugees in Europe. The granular reality of the interviewees’ testimonies survives in the finished work. The characters in the book are composites, but no less real for that.

We first meet Antoni on a cold London night as he drives partygoers through the city in his taxi. Dix and Pollock’s decision to open the narrative years after the war ended is a clever one. Knowing, as we do, that this is a story about war and natural disaster, meeting Antoni in London invites a brief sense of relief—we assume that the protagonist will survive the violence of the narrative. But, it also raises a sense of dread in us: how many of Antoni’s family survived? And what scars is he hiding as he politely answers the passengers’ inane questions about the tropical wonders of his homeland?

From here, Dix and Pollock take us 13 years in the past, where we meet Antoni as he used to be—a fisherman from the small village of Chempiyanpattu in Vanni. We learn how he met his wife; we become acquainted with his children and his neighbours. There are hints of the long years they spent living in fear. There is also a sense of sorrow, in the prologue, for Antoni’s father, who was killed in the racial violence of 1983. But, there is quiet pride as well; for Antoni’s brother, who joined the LTTE; for his neighbour’s son, who is a new recruit to the LTTE. At the beginning of the book, we get the sense that joining the LTTE was seen as a necessary sacrifice. Later, we are exposed to the cruel reality of LTTE recruiters taking children by force to join the war.

At this early juncture of the narrative, Dix and Pollock’s stage setting is efficient and generous. We empathise with the cast of characters and the realities of subsistence living in the midst of a war, through observing the two families’ daily lives. Pollock, though, also demands a respectful distance from the reader. We might listen in as Antoni speaks with Rajini, his wife, as he tells her how he lost his father, but the camera angles on the scene are not extreme close-ups. They do not force us into the middle of their conversation.

This visual approach, of listening but not intruding, is a recurring theme in the book. Dix and Pollock show immense restraint in not imposing themselves, and therefore the reader, into the private grief of the characters. We are invited to see, to feel, to bear witness. However, the book also deploys another approach to the subject matter, sharing with us the characters’ continuing experience of trauma long after the inciting incident has ended. By revealing the way they cope, they way they live in the aftermath, the book makes you feel the lingering impact of the war and not just the immediacy of violence. This combination is what hurts the heart most in this book. Vanni is not an easy read but then what clear-eyed war story is?

Vanni excels in many respects, but one in particular is worth marking. Pollock’s attention to detail, texture and the environment of the island is remarkable. Aerial angles, of the numerous camps Antoni and his family suffer in, are packed with information. The book’s world is made more real by the carefully rendered fabrics, fences, footwear, animals, and patterns on clothing. The effect of this realistic portrayal is slightly marred, though, by Pollock’s narrow range of depicting grief and fear. A wide-eyed expression appears on multiple characters’ faces, drawn so similarly as to appear almost comical. Pollock may be using this singular, repeating expression to function as an icon, to quickly communicate a specific emotion—what comics’ theorist Scott McCloud calls “amplification through simplification.” But a depiction of the nuances and range of human emotional experience might have served the story better.

That said this repeated expression shared by many characters also works as McCloud suggests. Perhaps this is the point Dix and Pollock are trying to make: humans express immediate shock in very similar ways and there are only so many ways our faces can express trauma. And a compassionate distance exists in almost all of these instances.

The main narrative begins in July 2004, five months before the tsunami. Here, Dix and Pollock have found a subtle way to compound the background tension of war. The first scene in this section starts with a view of the placid sea, foreshadowing the natural disaster to come. When it does arrive, the tsunami devastates the low-lying area of the village. Pollock’s depiction of the tsunami is a work of wordless horror and carnage. His choice to avoid the use of sound effects is wise. Phrases that are commonplace to represent dramatic noises in graphic fiction—“Pow!” and “Zap!” and “Aaargh!” would be out of place in a work such as this. His images of hurtling waves and the frozen expressions of characters convey the force of the disaster in a way that sound effects would have trivialised.

In scenes depicting the tsunami, Pollock eschews line for the most part. The waves and smoke are painterly, ethereal, and swift. It is a technique he uses to great effect throughout the book—the contrails of missiles, smoke from burning homes, surging waves, bewildered, shadowy figures drifting through the pall of smoke after a bomb explodes. All of these serve to pull us from the narrative because their visual depiction is tailored to stand in stark contrast to the depiction of the characters. The landscape begins to feel unreal, the environment unhinged from the emotions of the people.

Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock

The way Dix and Pollock handle violence is worth noting. The temptation in a story such as this, which describes a massive natural disaster in the middle of a warzone, might have been to depict brutality in a way that puts the reader in the middle of the scene. This is a technique often used in superhero comic storytelling—think of nearly any fight sequence in a DC or Marvel superhero book—and it can be an effective technique. Usually, by showing readers the gore in a scene, by positioning camera angles in the middle of the fray, by using motion lines to show immediacy and to play with time, the reader is immersed in the action on the page. But Pollock takes the opposite approach and this serves the book well. In Vanni, we are shown silent, frozen moments during the terrible scenes from the war. We are held at a distance, to observe from afar, to bear witness. This compassionate, almost respectful distance is powerful when used well.

Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock

On the rare occasions where Pollock abandons this approach and places us into the violence, it is devastating because the reader has acclimatised to scenes of death and pain from a frozen distance. To be suddenly plunged into the middle of violence is jarring and disorienting. A rape that occurs late in the book is told mainly in a single page of 35 densely stacked panels. The details of what transpired before and after are provided by two large panels that bookend the scene. The other panels alternate rapidly between close-ups on the face of Kavi, the victim, the rapist as well as Kavi’s friend, being held by soldiers. This rapid switching of focus forces us to enter into and re-contextualise the scene in each harrowing panel. Dix leaves this page entirely wordless, ensuring that we travel painfully with Kavi from panel to panel, moment to moment. The combined effect is shattering.

Pollock also excels at suggesting the flurry of activity and the confusion of war in his use of speech bubbles. When characters are under pressure—fleeing from falling bombs or lost in a jungle trying to escape the fighting—Pollock frequently shows a long conversation broken into snatches of dialogue in small speech balloons, their tails looping and curling over each other, behind trees or through bushes. Often a character’s speech bubble will be struck by a bullet or an explosion, hiding the text from the reader. It is a remarkably effective way to show how people communicate in times of great stress. And while Dix sometimes relies too much on the Sri Lankan lament “Ayio!” to convey grief or fear, Pollock’s layering of speech balloons and their curling tails emphasises the range of emotions that the word connotes.

Dix and Pollock depict trauma, as experienced by children, vividly but sympathetically. During their flight from the ever-moving frontline, Antoni’s neighbours, the Chologars rescue a young boy when his mother is shot in front of him. They carry the child to the temporary safety of a makeshift camp. The boy does not speak, hardly moves or sleeps, stunned by the trauma of his mother’s death. This is another storytelling tool Dix and Pollock wield to good effect—dwelling on the after-effects of trauma, rather than the act itself.

In a particular poignant scene, the Chologars offer the unnamed boy food, comfort and rest. The boy says nothing but Pollock’s page layout speaks for him. In an 11-panel grid, the Chologars and the boy occupy the central panel. The surrounding panels are vignettes of the Chologars trying to feed and care for the boy. The remaining panels are the boy’s wordless memories of his mother’s love and her death. The panels denoting memory are treated as if they were speech balloons, complete with tails that link back to the boy, winding over other panels, fracturing as they draw closer to him. Filling a speech balloon with an image rather than text slows the reader down and engages them more. Instead of being told what a character is thinking or feeling, we are shown it; we get to see their memories. The jumble of the boy’s thoughts and his inability to voice his pain imprints on us with painful clarity.

Non-fiction comics and dramatisations of real events are a rapidly growing body of work, as are autobiographical comics, memoirs and ethnographic accounts. Vanni is a fine entry point to this body of literature and joins recent work such as The Boxer by Reinhard Kleist, The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis and Mike’s Place by Jack Baxter, Joshua Faudem and Koren Shadmi, as well as older works including Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Palestine by Joe Sacco and Maus by Art Spiegelman. Vanni can possibly lay claim to being the first comic book to address the Sri Lankan war and is unique in that regard.

Given the effort Pollock has invested in the art, the book’s printing does a great disservice to the story. Larger page dimensions might have better highlighted Pollock’s detailed depictions of the landscape of the story. As it stands, many pages feel cramped into the space prescribed by the physical design of the book. The comic is composed of wide horizontal pages, and to confine them in a square book is peculiar. In addition, the subtle shading, low contrast and monochrome palette would have benefitted from a wiser paper choice and more attentive printing. The nature of the story means that there are frequent scenes of people in dark clothing hiding in shelters or trying to blend into the landscape. There is a fine line between a character lurking in shadow and still being visible to the reader, and disappearing into it because the printing was too dark. The current edition of the book turns Pollock’s painterly use of shadow into a muddy mess in many scenes set at dawn, dusk or night—an error that any subsequent edition could remedy.

Vanni is an important comic book and given that the new president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was the defence secretary during the war, it is also a timely work. Many voices must speak for a nation to be healthy; many versions of its story must be told. Vanni is a thoughtful place to start.