Communicating through comics with Ben Dix and Asia Alfasi

Communicating through comics with Ben Dix and Asia Alfasi

17 December 2018

Priyanka Mogul, Communications Officer

“Tonight we’re going to present to you two very personal stories of how Asia and I got into the world of comics… How we found the illustrated form to tell complex, and often traumatic, stories.”

Ben Dix, graphic novelist and founder of PositiveNegatives, began his talk at the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival 2018 with these intriguing words. Although comic books aren’t usually associated with the telling of human rights struggles, Ben and his colleague, Asia Alfasi, are changing that through their work.

Finding a space through graphic novels

Originally from Libya, Asia grew up watching manga cartoons dubbed over in Arabic. But it wasn’t until her family migrated to Scotland when she was seven years old that she discovered the true power of graphic novels.

“The east end of Glasgow in the early 90s was not the friendliest of places if you looked different,” she said. Being the first person in her school to wear a hijab meant that she was often ostracised and she felt as though “there was this insurmountable number of obstacles that separated me from my peers.”

Until she began to draw.

“As soon as I started drawing manga, something amazing happened. All of the kids who used to bully me before became fans. Instead of seeking me out in order to bully me, now they would actually fight for the place to sit next to me quietly and watch as I drew… This Japanese art form managed to bridge the gap between a Libyan school girl and her Scottish schoolmates. And I thought, if it can have a power such as this, this is just the beginning. How far can you go with something like this?”

The more she drew, the more Asia realised that not only is there a responsibility to tell her own story – but she wondered whether there was a way to tell other people’s stories in an authentic way.

“Comics can change so much. At the beginning I thought that maybe people can only draw their own, personal experiences. But is there any way to try and bring other people’s voices? Perhaps they can’t draw, [but] perhaps they have really pertinent stories to tell; really powerful stories and narratives that we need to listen to… Things that humanise issues.”

And that’s where Asia got in touch with Ben.

Beginnings in conflict

Ben’s journey into graphic novels began in the middle of a civil war in Sri Lanka. In 2007, he found himself as the United Nations’ Communications and Liaison Officer between the Tamil Tigers and the UN. 

It wasn’t until he was evacuated from the country that he realised the magnitude of what he was leaving behind: “The decision of leaving is something that has changed the course of my life. I drove out of there full of shame, abandonment, failure – on a personal, professional, emotional level – that destroyed me.”

He returned to London, quit his job at the UN, and began his journey of raising awareness about what was going on in the country. Struggling to work out the enormity of what he had been through, and having lost 36 friends in the conflict, he began to address the idea of creating a graphic novel on the issue.

While working on other projects, Ben began interviewing friends and colleagues who were now in the UK as refugees and asylum seekers. What was originally meant to be a four-month-long process turned into years of work. 

Ben spoke about how he realised that he had a responsibility to tell these stories – and that he couldn’t just tell the narrative the way he saw it: “I’m not the owner of the stories.”

This introduced a participatory method, whereby Ben kept returning to his interviewees with the script to ask them if this was their story – as they remember and experienced it. Once the script was edited by participants, graphic novelist Lindsay Pollock would storyboard the illustration, and Ben would once again return to the interviewees to ask if this was what their story looked like.

“We’d give them the space to edit so that it represents their lived experiences… You had to defend every action, every character, every moment. You had to back up with references, with facts, with reports. This graphic novel isn’t a work of fiction, this is a piece of research that is presented in an illustrated form… A piece of work that has been tested and checked by the people who own their stories.”

As he was working on the Sri Lanka graphic novel, Ben realised that this was something that could be bigger than the Sri Lanka story. And that’s when PositiveNegatives was born.

The growth of PositiveNegatives

PositiveNegatives is a non-profit organisation that tells stories of people of marginalised communities and individuals who don’t have a global voice – and, therefore, aren’t able to tell their stories themselves.

Asia emphasised that comics are also a great way to anonymise people – something that is often necessary when telling sensitive stories: “A lot of people have to stay anonymous, but they still have the right to have their stories heard and communicated. Drawing is a way to do that where you can communicate the place, the situation, the atmosphere, the person, the issue, the heart of it – without putting them in danger.”

PositiveNegatives now has a portfolio of more than 40 projects around the world, with 28 in production. Working with local artists, they have covered issues such as asylum seekers in Manus Island, Australia, crack cocaine addiction in West Africa and migration from Eritrea to Europe. They are also working in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan to make comics for children.

“The greatest thing for me about comics is having the ability to tell something in a cinematic style – with just one person,” said Asia. “You are the cameraman, the producer, the director, the artist; you are everything. And you’re able to do that with a pencil and a piece of paper… There’s almost no limit to what you can discuss using the medium of graphic novels.”

Watch the full event here

This event took place as part of the 2018 Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Ben Dix’s graphic novel The Vanni will be published in 2019 by Myriad