Thi Bui’s new graphic memoir The Best We Could Do is a stunning book. It opens in a hospital room as Bui gives birth to her son, and then jumps around time as she tries to understand her parents’ lives, which are epic in scope, and her own.
Bui covers the Vietnam War, what happened after the fall of Sai Gon, and what made her parents decide to escape the country. With other families, they got on a boat, and when the captain became incapacitated, Bui’s father learned how to pilot the ship. Navigated by the stars, he guiding them to Malaysia, in what must be one of the tensest and most suspenseful sequences in comics this year. She talks about life in the refugee camps, and the joys and the hatred that they encountered when they moved to the United States.
Newsweek called The Best We Could Do, out now from Abrams ComicArts, "one of the books that will make 2017 interesting," and cartoonists, writers and scholars who have praised the book for the ways that Bui manages to combine the personal and political, detailing the lives of three generations in a way that pulls no punches. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking book that has earned the right to mentioned in the same breath as other legendary comics memoirs like Maus and Persepolis and Fun Home. It’s a story that is more timely than ever given our current political climate and the anti-immigrant hysteria that some have stirred up.
As Bui put it in an interview with CBR, “I have a dream of how I would like America to be. It’s one in which I don’t have to defend my right to exist.”
CBR: You talk a little about this in the book, but I wonder if you could start just by talking a little about how the book began.
Thi Bui: It began as an oral history. I have parents who talked very freely about Viet Nam and our family history and politics. It’s always been part of what I know, but when you sit down to record a story and make sense of it you realize how much you don’t know. The stories ballooned into a really massive oral history project. Once I collected it, I realized that the next problem to figure out was how to present it. Traditional oral history can be a bit dry and I knew that just having transcripts even with photographs wasn’t going to convey even ten percent of the emotional story.
At the same time, I started reading some really seminal graphic novels like Maus by Art Spiegelman and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Because I could write and I could draw, I figured maybe I could do a graphic novel. Of course, that was arrogant thinking. [Laughs] I had to take a long time to actually learn the medium of comics. That’s part of why it took so long. The other reason it took so long was I had a baby and I moved across the country and I helped start a brand new school for recent immigrants and English language learners in Oakland, California. I was writing the book on the side, so it wasn’t until I took a break from high school teaching two and a half years ago that I was able to devote myself to the book and finish it.
So it took a decade, but it sounds like you spent most of that time learning how to tell the story more than anything.
I’m not a traditional cartoonist, in the sense that I didn’t start knowing how to do comics and then told the story. I learned how to do comics by telling the story. Which is something that a lot of people who teach comics advise against -- because it’s hard. I’ve always been trying to tell stories but I didn’t know that. I was in an MFA program at Bard College in sculpture, and I kept getting in trouble for making work that people said was too narrative. At some point I wised up and realized, maybe I need to change the medium.
You mentioned Maus and Persepolis, but did you have a model for what you wanted this book to be?
No. I only had things that I didn’t want it to be like, which can be useful, too! [Laughs] When I grew up my family would watch every single Vietnam War movie that came out, hoping that maybe this would be the one that tells the story properly. We were always disappointed, of course. Sometimes more than disappointed. At some point I had to write the story that I had always wanted to read.
You said that your parents talked about a lot of this with you, but I got the impression that the process of making the book really brought you and your father closer.
How much of his story did you know before starting this project?
I knew bits and pieces. The process of trying to fit it all together into a chronology forced us to have a lot of conversations. We’re dealing with very early memories and moving back and forth in a really chaotic time. We’re also dealing with trauma. I realized that I had certain times in my life that I couldn’t remember because I had blocked them out in order to keep functioning. It was a process of digging into his early memories to try to create a narrative that made sense.
Your father is an amazing man, and the way your mother describes him is very striking but you have this very scene where you’re describing your childhood fears and then speaking about your father: “I had no idea that the terror I felt was only the long shadow of his own.”
I don’t think I would have been able to say that -- or think that -- before having a child. One of the reasons why I sat on a lot of the material was because there was a shift that happened in me that made me feel like I could possibly do justice to the stories. Shifting from being a child to being responsible for someone else and realizing that it’s a huge responsibility and how does anybody not screw this up. [Laughs]
In the book you really convey how giving birth is this moment of love but it’s also traumatic and these things are linked.
I guess I do present childbirth as a pretty traumatic thing, don’t I? [Laughs] The nice thing is, like my mother says, you do forget. There’s a lot of good stuff that follows. I guess I find American culture tends to put a lot of emphasis on the individual. Living in America there’s a lot of kids moving away from home and parents going into nursing homes and your own kids growing up and rebelling against you. It’s a bit lonely because everybody’s on their own. On the other hand, there’s a lot of freedom and you get to do what you want. So you’re free of the inter-generational living together annoyances that I hint at in my book.
I guess maybe the only other model that I’ve ever heard of that sounds right would be a Native American respect for the elders who took care of the world before you and passed it to you and you’re moving through the world borrowing it from future generations. There’s an interconnectedness there and historical perspective where you’re not so lonely, you’re part of a trajectory. I think it makes people feel more responsible but also less alone.
How did you decide on the title, The Best We Could Do?
I went through some bad titles. The working title for a while was "Refugee Reflex" and then it was "Reflex" -- but I knew it was bad because it sounds a lot like "Reflux." Around the time I was rearranging my life and building a place in the backyard for my mom and finding a place nearby for my dad. I was adjusting how I had been living to make room for my parents in it. I guess that voluntary giving up some of my independence made me realize the book was as much about parents and children as it was about Viet Nam. In the story of Viet Nam -- at least in the 20th Century -- there was a yearning for independence and self-determination. That’s not that different from the yearning for independence and self-determination that you feel as you’re growing up and moving away from your parents.
Your parents don’t have the life they would have ever imagined for themselves when they were young.
Everything has been a series of adjustments to circumstances.
People who read this will notice the place names. You don’t write “Viet Nam” as one word for example. Could you talk a little about why for people who don’t know?
That was my small act of defiance against the English language. I wanted to write for a non-Vietnamese-American audience, but I also wanted to write for people like myself and like my parents’ generation. For people who can read Vietnamese, it’s very frustrating to read Vietnamese names without the accent marks because then you don’t actually know how to pronounce the words. And it’s a monosyllabic language, so “Viet Nam” has always been two words. It’s smashed together by the English language. That’s what the English language does with all place names like “Sai Gon” or “Ha Noi.” It’s a lot of work to make something incorrect. I wanted to name them the way they’re actually named.
Related to that, were you ever conscious of your audience or who would read the book?
Very much. I think that has to do not with marketing but with being an educator. I wanted to make it accessible to a wide audience. I thought a lot about who the readers would be and I tried to give each part of that audience an access point. If you couldn’t relate to the historical stuff, maybe you could relate as a child or as a parent. And I wanted it to be a mirror for experiences that don’t often get represented.
Before you assembled this oral history, did you and your siblings discuss these things much?
Yeah. A lot of sibling talk is about your parents and there was a lot of self-therapy. The book is really a form of therapy.
I ask because your siblings were older so they remember a lot of different things that you didn’t. For example when you went back to Vietnam, they remembered places while you went, "Oh, this is from that photograph."
That was part of thinking about how you tell a story that you weren’t really a part of. It was about empathizing as much as possible with the people who were there. Drawing it I had to think about concrete details like what were people wearing, what kind of stool would my mother have sat on, what did the cooking apparatus look like. The kinds of things that ground the story in lived details. I had to do a lot of visual research. I drew the layout of our house in Viet Nam many many times with both my parents to make sure it was right.
I’m sure that researching some of this wasn’t easy.
I got into a lot of really depressing rabbit holes just reading about the history. It was hard to find exact reference material. But that work is also pretty fun, though.
There must have been a lot of depressing rabbit holes.
Yes. Sometimes I wondered about why I was writing about a war from many years past, but sometimes it takes that long to get the proper perspective. A lot of the past forty years has been the Vietnamese diaspora getting over the hurt of losing that war. My parents’ generation carries a lot of hard line anti-Communist sentiment. You can’t really blame them because there was real hurt there, but it is forty years later. Things have changed; we don’t have to carry those divisions into the future. I think my generation is letting go of some of that baggage.
In the book you make clear how complex that baggage is because it’s not as simple as being Communist or anti-Communist.
Yeah, because things really aren’t clear.
In Vietnam, Diem was this brutal dictator in the South and Ho Chi Minh was doing horrible things in the North. There was no place for moderates or people who wanted change but didn’t support such violence.
It didn’t make it into the book, but one of the things that my parents learned was what the North Vietnamese thought was happening in the South. The campaign was to liberate the South from American imperialists. When they managed to do that, Northerners came down and my father’s father came down to see him for the first time in twenty years. He was very surprised that we weren’t starving because that was the story they had been told. He actually brought supplies because he thought that we would be starving.
That theme of independence and striking out on your own made me think of how your parents were resettled in Indiana and then moved to California. They made these amazing leaps and adjustments over the course of their lives.
People do amazing things when they don’t have any other choice.
I guess that’s the other theme of the book.
Under extraordinary circumstances there are only two choices, you sink or you swim. My parents swam, but it wasn’t easy.
You said in the book very explicitly that one of the things they taught you was to swim, to continue that metaphor, and to be prepared to do that at a moment’s notice. Which has both good and ill qualities, I’m sure.
I think so. In times of peace it feels a little bit like how I imagine a war veteran might feel. Maybe a little ill-suited to normal life. Because you’re equipped with a mentality and skillset for times of great trouble.
You also made a great piece for The Nib in January called “Fear is a Great Motivator.” Could you talk about where you were when you made that?
The Nib came up with that title, I didn’t.
The things that I was thinking about were what do we do now and how do we get people to wake up and do stuff that they haven’t been doing before -- like paying attention to who their representatives are and making phone calls. I was also thinking about race relations in this country. I have a lot of friends who are people of color who have quite a bit of mistrust of white ally-ship. And I have a lot of friends who are white who are great allies. I sometimes feel like a weird bridge, part optimistic and part pessimistic. Mostly I was trying to encourage people.
You make the point that the “liberal bubble” that some people deride is a place where you don’t have to defend your right to exist. That seems like such a small thing, and yet, here we are.
Yes. There’s a lot of uncertainty.
You captured that sense of uncertainty but possibility.
I suppose my priorities are clear to me. I have a dream of how I would like America to be. It’s one in which I don’t have to defend my right to exist. It’s one where maybe the racists need to prove what economic boon they’re bringing to the rest of us. [Laughs] There’s a lot of work to do. I’m not wasting any time with fairy tales about how inclusive America is because, I mean, clearly it’s not. It’s taking some major steps backwards. I would say to my liberal friends that those nice myths about democracy and inclusiveness have never been very comforting to me. Maybe the one good thing is that it’s clear now. The problems that many of us have been trying to get people to think about and face up to are really undeniable now.
On your blog you’ve talked about and posted pages from “A Different Pond” which is drawn in a very different style from this book. What is “A Different Pond?”
It’s a 32-page children’s picture book. It was written by a poet named Bao Phi who lives in Minneapolis. He’s an activist and a community organizer and a slam poetry hero to a lot of Asian-Americans. I was sent the manuscript without his name and I liked the manuscript. I asked who the writer was and when they told me I was like, yeah, I’ll work with him. [Laughs] It was also a chance to slow down with the art. I had to draw and color so fast for my book. It sounds like it was a slow process but the writing of it and pulling the material together into a cohesive narrative took the longest. Drawing and coloring it was this really crazy few months. The artist in me wanted a project that was shorter so I could dive into the art. That’s why the style is so much more detailed and in full color.
When is the book coming out?
It’s coming out in August of this year.
The content of it was great, too, because it’s an immigrant story about a Vietnamese-American family that came here around the same time as mine. It’s about a father and son from the son’s perspective. One of the cool things about getting to illustrate it in great detail was getting to put a lot of the stuff of daily life and everyday surroundings into it. I took a page from Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen,/i> and collected memorabilia. I spent a lot of time obsessing over the posters they would have had on their walls, what kind of shoes the boy would wear. I really wanted to put him in some Adidas but I knew that his family could not afford them so I looked up what in the early '80s would have been the knockoff shoes. It’s 1982 but they’re wearing bellbottoms because all their clothes are hand me downs from the church.
That sounds like a nice change, a related but very different project.
Yesm exactly. Next I’m going to do more short pieces. One of them is going to have to be about education. I have many years in public education and I have a lot of things to say about that. My big next project is about climate change in Viet Nam. It doesn’t have a happy ending, but it is about resilience.
What is the status of things in Vietnam? I’m sure the people in the Mekong Delta have to deal with rising sea levels and acidification.
The Mekong Delta is only six feet above sea level. With the amount that the sea is rising every year, the whole area is going to be underwater by 2050. That area grows half of the rice of the entire country. About a million people will have to move out of the area. They’ve already had to adjust their farming techniques quite a bit due to drought over the past few years and now they’re having to adjust even more. But they are. I think studying it, the world will learn a lot about how we’re all going to have to adjust. It sounds like science fiction, but it’s reality now. It’s completely ridiculous when you juxtapose it with climate change denial in the US. There’s no climate change denial in Viet Nam.
The Best We Could Do is available now from Abrams ComicArts.