Aminder Dhaliwal, A Witch's Guide to Burning

Aminder Dhaliwal’s Latest Shows That Our Culture of Work Is a Malice Burning Us Alive

Aminder Dhaliwal’s A Witch’s Guide to Burning shows the follies of our toxic relationship with overwork and how to break its spell.

A Witch’s Guide to Burning
Aminder Dhaliwal
Drawn and Quarterly
May 2024

We have created a malicious work culture. Long working hours—even multiple jobs—are common for many people looking just to stay afloat, leading to burnout. To add insult to injury, we toil with thankless, unfulfilling labor only to eventually be laid off.

A Witch’s Guide to Burning, a new book by cartoonist Aminder Dhaliwal, has much to say about our relationship to labor and how it affects our perspective of ourselves. We strive to be seen as “productive individuals”, contributing to society through our labor. What is our worth as members of society if not to produce? Even the word worth carries a myriad of meanings.

Fitting its title, this story begins with a burning. Singe, a young witch, is burned at the stake for not being productive enough for her village. She is saved by the Night Witch, a nebulous collection of witches’ spirits that were burned in the past. On her journey of healing, Signe is joined by kindred spirits, Yew-Veda, a witch doctor, and Bufo Wonder, a talking frog who also happens to be a powerful witch with a tragic past. Together, they confront their traumas and the burden of overwork while fighting literal demons.

A Witch’s Guide to Burning has a unique structure. With little in terms of traditional panels, this is not a standard comic/graphic novel. There are more texts per page than similar books, and the illustrations are placed on the page as in a picture book. Color is used sparingly, but when it does appear, it accentuates key moments of the story, and you won’t forget it. Dhaliwal’s writing is strong enough to sustain itself front and center. This is a profound departure from Dhaliwal’s previous work, like the post-apocalyptic Woman World, which has a more traditional comic panel structure. Through her work, Dhaliwal has found an inspiration to elevate her craft as an animator and a writer.

A deeply personal experience fuels a Witch’s Guide to Burning. In a recent interview with CBC’s Tom Power, Dhaliwal discusses how, during the COVID pandemic, she realized that work was engulfing all of her time. This starkly contrasts the image of people having more free time during the early days of lockdown. The high demand for her work as an illustrator resulted from people watching more shows on streaming platforms. The work took its toll.

Signe and other witches tie their personalities and beings to the labor they perform for others. These village witches are a resource, a source of labor, in their communities. They are burned once the village sees they cannot produce efficiently enough. They are given no choice, no recourse. When viewed from this perspective Dhaliwal’s A Witch’s Guide to Burning is a radical work.

What is our analog to witch burning? A Witch’s Guide to Burning is an allegory to our current exhaustion with work. Witches, a specific type of skilled worker in the world of the book, are burned when they are no longer considered useful. “We’re all sucked dry of magic, then burned.”

Taking the theme of being burned to another logical step—our burning world—places the labor of the witches and our own into a greater perspective. I wrote this review during a record heat wave across the Eastern part of the United States. Anthropogenic climate change is directly related to our fixation on productivity, society’s craving for more efficiency, and overconsumption. It’s fueled by overwork. Through our current actions, we are not only getting burned out by work but also “burning” the planet. Though Dhaliwal doesn’t directly address the specter of anthropogenic climate change, it’s impossible not to see the connection given that the site, the physical space of the field where Singe is burned, is also incinerated.

When reading Dhaliwal’s A Witch’s Guide to Burning, I was constantly thinking about another recently released book, Ajay Singh Chaudhary’s The Exhausted of the Earth: Politics for a Burning World. Chaudhary draws a direct link between anthropogenic climate change and the exhaustion of the planet, its resources, and ourselves. Dhaliwal also follows this zeitgeist by creating a world where exhaustion is a byproduct of labor and the catalyst for individual destruction.

“Fire burns magic. Every trace of it—including any memories of your magic—would’ve been burned away,” she writes. This is the fate that Signe and many like her are cast by their villages. We as a society should not sacrifice others and ourselves for the sake of our convenience. The hands that create, as if by magic, are that of humanity. We should not take their labor or “magic” for granted.

A Witch’s Guide to Burning is a phenomenal book. It’s an allegory of labor, and the salient price we pay to constantly produce is exhaustion and burnout. As Signe tells Yew-Veda at a critical point in the story, “…don’t forget to take care of yourself too.”