The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir

By Thi Bui
Published: 2017
The Best We Could Do book cover with the title and an illustration of a family from behind looking at an urban landscape in the distance

Overview

Before she began to work on The Best We Could Do in 2005, Thi Bui had never drawn a comic in her life. Twelve years later, the debut graphic memoir would be released to widespread acclaim from critics and literary heavyweights alike. An American Book Award winner, a National Book Critics Circle finalist in autobiography, and an Eisner Award finalist in reality-based comics, Bui’s memoir traces her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Việt Nam in the 1970s and their effort to build new lives for themselves in America. Bui documents parental sacrifice, excavates family histories, and grapples with the inherited struggles of displacement and diaspora. “This memoir feels not just created but also deeply lived” (The Washington Post). “A stunning work of reconstructed family and world history” (Booklist Online). “Narratively intricate, intellectually fastidious, and visually stunning” (Vulture). Writes Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winner and board member: “A book to break your heart and heal it.”

"I began to record our family history...thinking that if I bridged the gap between the past and the present, I could fill the void between my parents and me."
Thi Bui in The Best We Could Do

Introduction

Before it would become a bestseller, before it had a title, before the first comic was drawn, Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do was a project of reconstruction: an attempt to bring together generations of family stories. “I was a graduate student and took a detour from my art education training to get lost in the world of oral history,” writes Bui in the book’s preface. "I was trying to understand the forces that caused my family, in the late seventies, to flee one country and start over in another.”

Dissatisfied with the limits of oral history, Bui turned towards other genreshunting for a way to weave the personal, political, and historical. “I was inspired by some of the big graphic memoirs like Maus by Art Spiegelman and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi,” shared Bui with The Mary Sue. “And then, I didn't really want to write a memoir; [but] the oral history needed a protagonist to lead you through the story and I had to volunteer myself.”

The memoir opens with the birth of Bui’s son, an event that shifts the project from a historical reconstruction to a book about parents and children. Life with her new child, rife with potential and uncertainty, catalyzes a realization that family was “now something I have createdand not just something I was born into.” Thus, Bui returns to her parents’ histories: this time not just as their child, but as a parent herself.

The Best We Could Do slips seamlessly between perspectives, voices, and even decades. Bui and her mother, Hằng sit at a kitchen table in Berkeley, California, as Hằng recounts her past in Việt Nam. A moment later, there she is: a little girl diving deep beneath the waves in the coastal town of Nha Trang; surrounded by friends on the lawn of a French lycée; a bright-eyed, ambitious college student meeting Bui’s father, Nam, for the first time.

It takes longer for Bui to find the right questions for her father; but when she does, Nam’s stories come quickly, each of them with “a different shape but the same ending.” Born in 1940, as the world was “plunging headlong into chaos,” Nam grew up in the path of war and famine. Left with his grandparents in Lợi Đông after his father joined the Việt Minh, Nam remains haunted by the violence he witnessed as a child when the village was taken over by French forces during the First Indochina War. Decades later, in an apartment in San Diego, Bui remembers growing up with the terrified boy who would become her father. “Afraid of my father, craving safety and comfort,” she writes, “I had no idea that the terror I felt was only the long shadow of his own.”

This becomes a theme throughout the memoir: history as a shadow and memory as a cycle. “Rewind, Reverse,” reads one chapter title. “Either, Or,” reads another. “Fire and Ash,” “Ebb and Flow.” Bui’s move to New York City after college finds symmetry in Nam’s arrival as a young bachelor in Sài Gòn, reading Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir with freedom on his mind. The birth of Bui’s son is a reminder of Hằng“How did you do this SIX times?”whose own labors become stories later on in the book. As Bui traces her family’s escape after the fall of South Việt Nam in 1975, she intersperses her own memories among her parents’, describing the chocolate bar her mother used to distract her and her sisters while Hằng provided translation help at the airport, her glee at seeing snow for the first time at her aunt’s home in Indiana, the two kinds of spaghetti her sisters would make when they came home from college to babysit.

“I keep looking toward the past, tracing our journey in reverse,” writes Bui. “Over the ocean, through the war, seeking an origin story that will set everything right.” Throughout the book, stories are constantly written and rewritten, told by one person and untold by another, “...with no beginning or endanecdotes without shape, wounds beneath wounds.” With sweeping scale and careful intimacy, Bui mediates memory across generations. In her deft hands, a mother’s love is rendered in a piece of blood sausage. A chessboard becomes a neighborhood; chess pieces become a war. An unassuming brown file folder holds a lifetime’s inheritance.

“What becomes of us after we die?” Bui wonders in the last moments of The Best We Could Do. “Do we live on in what we leave to our children?” It is a question etched into every page of her memoir: what it means to be both parent and child, to translate memory into history, to search for a better future while longing for a simpler past. The book offers no clear answers, only a tribute to complexity: memory and grief, guilt and gratitude, love and sacrifice in all their equal parts. "She does not spare her loved ones criticism or linger needlessly on their flaws,” writes Publishers Weekly. “Likewise she refuses to flatten the twists and turns of their histories into neat, linear narratives. She embraces the whole of it.”

Thi Bui

Photo by Andria Lo

Thi Bui (b. 1975)

Thi Bui (pronounced tea, like the drink, and buoy, like the thing that floats on water) was born in Việt Nam the same year that her grandfather died, three months before the end of the Vietnam War. Bui was three years old when she, her parents, and her siblings left South Việt Nam by boat, eventually making their way to a refugee camp in Malaysia, and months later, to America. Growing up as a refugee in San Diego, California, Bui sensed that “the Vietnam War had left a deep psychological scar on her parents, but she rarely heard them talk about it” (Mother Jones). Those scars are a part of Bui’s own inheritance from Việt Nam, an instinct she calls the “Refugee Reflex”; a flight-or-flight response, driven by the awareness that “things can change, can go from bad to worse very quickly, and “...you must be ready to grab those important to you and run, or stay and fight, and nothing is guaranteed” (Bookpage).

As a child, Bui pursued art as a form of escape, passing the time by making crafts, drawing, and daydreaming. “Whether I was escaping my drab physical environment or tense emotional environment, I’m not sure...maybe both?” Bui shares. “It’s not like that anymore, but that’s how being creative started — first as an escape and then as a rebellion” (Seattle Public Library). She had a knack for imitation and for observational drawing, and drew steadily throughout school; "...but I went to public school in California during budget cuts, you know? They weren't great experiences” (The Comics Journal). Bui dropped her art classes and took drama instead.

In college, however, she met the sculptor Jane Rosen, a drawing teacher who became hugely influential in teaching Bui to draw. Bui refined her drawing style, explored new mediums, and studied law. After graduating with two bachelor's degrees—one in legal studies and another in art—Bui moved to New York and completed an MFA in sculpture at Bard College. She considered a couple of potential futures: a career as a civil rights attorney or a life as an artist, butinstead, she turned towards teaching. It was in this second graduate program, this time for arts education, that she would begin the project that would become The Best We Could Do (Abrams ComicArts, 2017).

Bui credits “a kind of academic grumpiness” (NPR) with sparking her first ideas for the book. She was a graduate student at NYU, “deconstructing all of the bad representations of Vietnamese people in the Vietnam War in movies and pop culture and American scholarship” (NPR) and seeking narratives that captured the personal dimensions of life during conflict: something “more relatable, more wholly human” (Mother Jones). During a trip to Việt Nam in 2002, she began to reconstruct the family stories that she’d grown up around; stories that she’d understood very much as a kid, but that were “from another country and her parent’s generation,” (NBC News). With few memories of her early childhood, Bui found herself “documenting in lieu of remembering” when she returned to their street in the Bàn Cờ neighborhood of Sài Gòn. This documentation became her master’s thesis, coalescing extensive historical research, interviews, and transcription of her family’s oral histories in a homemade book.

Bui loved what she’d created with her thesis, but she was still searching for a format that would feel more human, capturing the details of personal life—complex and quotidian—elided by history books. She turned towards illustration. Craig Thompson, the author and illustrator of the landmark graphic novel Blankets became Bui’s first comics mentor, convincing her to consider sequential comics rather than an illustrated journal. The Renaissance styles that Bui had learned from Rosen informed some of the brushwork techniques within The Best We Could Do and Bui’s other illustrated works: but she had to learn to draw more simply, “...to develop a shorthand, since drawing for comics is about getting the idea of the thing across, more than drawing a very observed study of the thing” (The Comics Journal).

After putting herself through two graduate degree programs, Bui was not interested in going back to school. Instead, she amassed thousands of hours teaching herself to draw comics, studying the work of other artists and producing hundreds of pages, only a few of which would make it into the book. In the meantime, life moved forward. Bui gave birth to her son. She and her husband took on a cross-country move from New York to California so their family could be closer to her parents and siblings, now clustered just minutes from each other in Berkeley. In California, Bui helped to found the Oakland International High School, the first public high school in the state for recent immigrants and English learners. Her writing days gained new interruptions: curriculum writing; comic arts residencies and workshops; makerspace projects with her husband and son; and walks with her mom, who moved to a studio apartment in Bui’s backyard, and her dad, just four blocks away.

Bui notes that the process of writing The Best We Could Do changed her relationship with her parents, but also with her younger self. “Drawing anyone as a child is an incredibly healing process of loving and forgiving them,” she shared in an interview with the Seattle Public Library. “I didn’t realize until drawing myself as a child or a younger person over and over that that could work for oneself as well.” Her work, says Vulture, is a constant reminder that “...all historical memory is as situated in our individual personal chronology as it is in any objective one.”

Bui does not call Việt Nam home, though it should have been. She processed that grief over the course of creating The Best We Could Do. “What I learned from history and from talking to my parents was that the moment of rupture was not exactly our emigration,” said Bui. “It was a process of decades that eventually made Việt Nam and my parents incompatible...by the time I was born, it was not my country at all. But it had gained its independence, finally” (Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center). Instead, she has learned to call America home: “America, the land of such amazing contradiction” (BookPage).

“Her story delivers the painful truth that most Vietnamese of the twentieth century know in an utterly personal fashion,” says Bui’s friend and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen. “That history is found in the marrow of one’s bones, ready to be passed on through blood, through generations, through feelings.”

In addition to The Best We Could Do, Bui has illustrated the picture book A Different Pond, written by the poet Bao Phi (Capstone, 2017), for which she won a Caldecott Honor. With her son, Hien, she co-illustrated the children’s book, Chicken of the Sea (McSweeney’s, 2019), written by Nguyen and his son, Ellison. Her short comics can be found online at The Nib, PEN America, and BOOM California. She is currently researching and drawing a work of graphic nonfiction about immigrant detention and deportation, to be published by One World, Random House.

“I have a much more objective relationship with Việt Nam now that I am no longer searching for my origin story in it,” said Bui. “It is a complex, beautiful country of 95 million people who are not me. I carry some part of it in me, but I am not necessarily a part of it” (Seattle Public Library).

June 2021

  1. In the preface to the book, Bui notes that The Best We Could Do originally began as a project of transcribing her family's “oral histories.” What is lost and what is gained by transforming an oral history into a written one? If you were to begin a record of your own family’s histories, how might you choose to begin?
  2. The title of the book first appears in the narrative on p. 55, a page titled “Hôpital Grall, September 1965.” What is the impact of its placement there? Does this context change your reading of the title? How does the phrase resonate with new or different meanings throughout the book? Who do you think is included in the “We”?
  3. Bui uses a variety of visual techniques throughout the book to emphasize dialogue, to switch perspectives, to move from place to place or to convey a sense of emotion. Can you think of a page in the book that you found particularly compelling? Why did this page appeal to you? What visual elements stand out? How do they shape your understanding of what’s happening?
  4. Throughout the book, time moves fluidly between past and present, often changing in the space between panels or pages. Choose a page in the book and consider the composition of the page. How much time is passing between panels? Does that passage of time stay constant across the page? What might change about this page if it was told as an oral history? As a written one?
  5. The Best We Could Do spans several decades and three generations. How does Bui convey the passing of time? How does she convey memory? How does she identify speakers or storytellers?
  6. In an interview with The Mary Sue, Bui spoke about her choices of color in the book. “I tried out blue, but I felt like there’s a certain kind of blue that just reads as graphic novel blue. Also, it didn’t work with the way the story felt with me so I tried a few different shades of brown and I finally found just the right shade.” What did you think of Bui’s choice of brown? How do you think it affected your reading experience? Did you notice anything about the ways Bui used color or shading to evoke a scene? Can you think of any colors in your own life that evoke clear associations or emotions?
  7. When visiting her family's old apartment in Sài Gòn as an adult, the author finds herself “documenting in lieu of remembering” (p. 180). What do you think is the difference between “documenting” and “remembering”? Which do you think the book is doing?
  8. Throughout the book, language plays a major role: whether the colonial French language taught to Bui’s parents in school, the Vietnamese language of her birth, the Malay language spoken at the refugee camp in Pulau Besar, or the English language in which the book is primarily written. In what ways does this multilingualism affect your experience as a reader? Why do you think Bui chose to translate certain moments in the text to English, while leaving others untranslated? How would you describe your own relationship to the language or languages that you speak?
  9. Bui presents the births of the six siblings in reverse chronological order (p. 42, 46, 47, 48, 50, and 52). Why do you think she did this? As a storytelling technique, do you think it was effective?
  10. The Best We Could Do opens with a timeline of the history of Việt Nam, focusing on the period of war from 1945 to 1975. Why do you think the author chose to preface the book with a timeline? Are there any dates on the timeline that are referenced in the book? Can you point to those moments?
  11. Birth and pregnancy play a prominent role throughout the book, which begins and ends with the birth of Bui’s son. "It was important for me to bookend this story with a very typical experience, a pretty universal and archetypal entryway,” Bui shared in an interview with Brooklyn Magazine. “Physical experiences have always been humbling experiences because they put you back in your body and help you connect with other people.”Did you find the opening scenes to be effective in this way? Can you point to any other moments of the book where physical experiences are used to “put you back in your body,” or to ground the reader? Were they effective?
  12. Over the course of the book, there is only one moment when Bui incorporates real photos (of her family at a UN refugee camp in Malaysia, p. 267). Why do you think she chose to use real photos here? After spending the greater part of the book without the incorporation of photos or found documents, what is their effect?
  13. At the end of the book, Bui writes: “But when I look at my son, now ten years old, I don’t see war and loss...or even Travis and me. I see a new life, bound with mine, quite by coincidence, and I think maybe he can be free” (328-329). How does Bui’s relationship with her son change over the course of the book? What about her relationship with her parents? How does her understanding of parenthood change? Her understanding of childhood?