By Terry Hong
On the cover of Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir is a perfect quote: “A book to break our heart and heal it,” blurbs fellow Vietnamese American refugee and 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction Viet Thanh Nguyen. While the narrative might feel familiar—parents and young children escaping war to start a new life on the other side of the world—Bui’s version, presented in panels of black, white, and shades of reddish brown (as if she’s melded her very bones and blood onto the page), proves astonishingly original. Between starred reviews, accolades, and growing buzz about awards and prizes since its March debut, Bui may soon enough be joining her compatriot Nguyen on podiums and stages.
The “seeds of this book,” Bui writes in her Preface, “were planted around 2002.” Multiple mediums initially included a “clumsy homemade book” to a “pretty academic” text-and-visuals project before she settled on the comics approach—without any previous training. She tried and discarded various titles, from Buis in Vietnam and America: A Memory Reconstruction to Refugee Reflex which “sound[ed] an awful lot like ‘reflux,’” Bui jokes. She eventually chose The Best We Could Do when she “realized that the book was about parents and children.”
Becoming a mother herself in 2005 altered Bui’s sense of family, especially her relationship with her own mother—who birthed six children, an experience Bui can’t fathom after surviving the birth of her first (and only) child. In the book, while lying exhausted in her hospital bed gazing at her sleeping son, she muses, “Family is something now I have created—and not just something I was born into.” Motherhood brings new urgency to her need to remember, understand, empathize … and, ultimately, make peace with the tumultuous events of her brief childhood in Vietnam and the challenges of adjusting to life as refugees and later as Americans.
A year after her son’s New York birth, Bui reunites her extended family, resettling everyone in Berkeley, California, where her mother will become the fourth resident in their home and her father will be just four blocks away. Separated since Bui was 19, her parents remain a daily presence in each other’s lives. Her sisters and brother are not far. The family’s now three generations continuously (re-)connect her past, present, and future.
Bui’s memoir beckons all readers, beyond geography, background, culture, or lineage; she speaks to the disconnect and isolation we’ve all felt at various points in our lives. “I keep looking toward the past … tracing our journey in reverse … over the ocean … through the war seeking an origin story that will set everything right.” The Best We Could Do is oh-so-right indeed.
Terry Hong: You started drawing this amazing memoir in 2005. Quite the incubation period! What made you decide to go the graphic route? How did you know you could do it?
Thi Bui: I was inspired by some great graphic novels around the time I was looking for an appealing way to present the oral history I had done. I didn’t know that it would take so long! I might not have done it if I did.
TH: You had never drawn a comic previous to this project. What was your art background? And how did you ‘teach’ yourself to make comics—I feel like it’s such a specialized type of literary expression. What came naturally? What was most difficult?
TB: I had already put myself through two Masters programs, one for fine art, and one for education, and there was no way on earth I was going back to school. So I studied comics on my own. I had already figured out how to study … so it was just a matter of doing it, finding mentors and peers, and practice … lots of it. I think I did the 10,000 hours or 1,000 pages I’ve heard people say is necessary before you really get the hang of a discipline.
TH: How many of those 1,000 pages became part of Best?
TB: I never counted … but not very many! Everything was drawn and redrawn so many times, especially the early pages. Chapter 2 [in which Bui begins to introduce her family’s past] was like the Bermuda Triangle. Every time I went back into it, I’d get lost!
TH: You were 42 (a bonafide Bloom-er!) when Best hit shelves in March this year. How different—if at all—do you think the book might have been if, say, you had written it in your 20s?
TB: I feel so much happier at 42. More sure of myself, and with more life experience. Ironically what I might have put out in my 20s might have been more confident in tone, less questioning, and probably less empathetic. Probably insufferable, actually.
TH: In the book’s “Preface,” you talk about “reorganizing” your life to accommodate more time with your parents—you uprooted your life on one coast and headed for the other to keep your extended family closer together. Having both parents close by during this creation process must have been incredibly helpful. How were they as collaborators? Any obstacles during the process?
TB: Well … sometimes my mother will interrupt a pretty good writing session with some mundane stuff of daily life. That is a reality of living with each other. But it’s not much for the trade-off, which is being able to walk out to her studio to ask a follow-up question or invite her for a walk. My father comes over almost daily to visit my mother, so I also have easy access to him.
I am fortunate to have two parents who are talkers. I’ve heard from other children of immigrants that their parents never talk about the past, so I feel fortunate. For me, it was more a question of balancing their perspectives against each other’s and with my own memories and those of my siblings. And with history that has been written or recorded in other ways.
TH: When you say ‘studio,’ is that your mother’s living space? Or is she also an artist?
TB: No, she’s not an artist. She has a studio apartment in my backyard that my brother designed and my husband built. We call it the Mom Shed.
TH: So when you finally presented the stupendous, substantial finished book to your parents, what was their reaction?
TB: In typical fashion, they were very pleased but pretty subtle in their reaction. My mother took the book and disappeared with it back into her studio. I gave my father a copy for Christmas, and he was pretty happy.
TH: How have your siblings reacted to having the book out in the world? Many Asian cultures balk at exposing intimate personal details, so a memoir could be tricky.
TB: My sisters and brother have been very supportive. I did run a lot of things by them in advance, and gave everyone living a pseudonym to protect their privacy. My oldest sister is a psychiatrist, and we talk about the book a lot as a form of therapy.
TH: Must be therapeutic for many of your readers, too. And what about your husband and son? You chose to start the book with your son’s birth in NYC in 2005. So what do father and son have to say about the book that so intimately reveals their lives?
TB: My husband is my confidante and has talked with me about the book so much over the years, he knows pretty much everything in it. But he chose not to read it until it was finished. He said he got up to the point where my father made it to Indiana and our family was reunited, and he cried. He’s not very exposed in the book. My son grew up with the book happening so I’m not sure that he thinks it’s all that strange to be in a book, or have authors and cartoonists over at our house. He’s a lucky kid!
TH: Lucky indeed. Just wait until the books starts winning all the prizes and then gets chosen as required reading in schools and universities! And then everyone will know he’s THAT lucky kid!
TB: I can’t even think about prizes, yeesh. As a teacher who remembers how painful it was to answer standardized test questions about literature that I loved, I hope having the book taught in schools won’t make any kids hate reading.
TH: Teaching comes up in your preface when you mention moving from New York to California to work with immigrant kids in Oakland at an alternative high school you helped found. Are you still working there? How has sharing an immigrant background with your students impacted your teaching style/goals?
TB: I took a leave from Oakland International High School three years ago when I signed the book contract with Abrams, because I knew I couldn’t make my deadlines without dedicating more time to the book. I’ve gone back to teach twice for an intensive three-week period called Post Session, where I get to teach a fun art or PE class. One year, I got a maker grant and persuaded my husband, who is a general contractor, to take his vacation time to teach a furniture building class with me. The students designed and built furniture that they needed at home, and at the end of the three weeks, took it home.
My politics have definitely been affected by being an immigrant and working closely with more recent immigrants and their families. But on a daily level, I’m also just very practical. I remember what it was like to not have somewhere to put your clothes or books, and how good it felt to do something useful for your family.
TH: Speaking of immigrant families, so many immigrant kids are under parental pressure to go the doctor/lawyer/engineer route. What do you tell you students who face such pressure about their future?
TB: I think maybe the doctor/lawyer/engineer route opens up a little later in the immigrant experience. Maybe for 1.5- or second-generation immigrants. The kids I worked with were all recent arrivals, in the ‘survive this year and we’ll talk about the next year’-mode. For them, getting a job, any job, especially with their limited English, was paramount.
TH: The Vietnamese refugee story seems to be more in the limelight than ever before, given various immigrant/refugee threats/bans, as well as Viet Thanh Nguyen winning last year’s Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer. What do you make of this recent literary proliferation—and how great that so much of it is through the lens of the 1.5 generation like you and Viet!
TB: It does seem like a recent phenomenon, doesn’t it? Then again, maybe people are paying attention differently? I need to go back and reread earlier Vietnamese American authors. But it’s definitely exciting to have books coming out in succession. Bao Phi and Ocean Vuong among others.
TH: Yes, Bao Phi, who’s scheduled to debut his first picture book in August, A Different Pond. Which YOU illustrated, oh yay! What was collaborating like? Would you do it again?
TB: It was great. Bao made me a folder of old family photos and a lot of shots of random ponds on the side of the highway. I would have liked to do more in person, but he lives in Minneapolis and I live in Berkeley. The first time we met was sitting down to sign ARCs of the book! I’d definitely work with him again. I think I might be illustrating one of his poems soon.
TH: And as for your Vietnamese American ‘predecessors,’ I think Monique Truong is probably the first major breakout VA writer? And Dao Strom, and lê thi diem thúy, and a few others. Vietnamese American literature by Vietnamese American writers is comparatively new-ish (as opposed to, say Robert Olen Butler and Tim O’Brien writing from their male Western gaze) …
TB: Vietnamese Americans as a group are only about 40 years old. It’s taken us this time to settle, go to school, master the language, be allowed to study something not practical like art or writing, and buck against a system that compelled us to be grateful, quiet minorities.
TH: Your family’s return trip to Vietnam is woven into the book … how often do you go back? Does Vietnam feel like “home” at all?
TB: Vietnam is not my home, though it should have been, and I think that grief is something I was processing over the course of working on the book. What I learned from history and from talking to my parents was that the moment of rupture was not exactly our emigration. It was a process of decades that eventually made Vietnam and my parents incompatible. As I say in the book, by the time I was born, it was not my country at all. But it had gained its independence, finally.
I have made a home of America, which lately is less comfortable!
I’ve only been back to Vietnam twice. I’m planning a research trip this fall, and hope to be back several times.
TH: And your son?
TB: If we save up all our pennies, this fall will be his first time.
TH: Speaking of the future—what’s next on the creative docket for you?
TB: I spent a long time thinking about Vietnam’s past, and now I’d like to spend some time thinking about its present and future. I’ve been following news stories about droughts, floods, and the saltwater intrusion that’s been wreaking havoc on the rice farmers of the Mekong Delta. Climate change is a reality there, and much closer than in the U.S. because the Mekong region is only six feet above sea level and grows half the country’s rice. About a million people will be displaced by the sea rising, possibly in my lifetime. [In light of] the climate change denial that’s happening here, this is maddening. I have to explore this.