Memoirs fascinate me. There is something about digging into the heart and soul of a person’s life which is incredibly gripping. Each human being has such different experiences in their lives– there are constant lessons to learn and amazing stories to uncover. Thi Bui’s family memoir, The Best We Could Do, shows the reader the path to uncovering these lessons and stories without sugar coating. With the additional magic of being a graphic novel, it’s easy to be astounded and inspired by Bui’s family’s past.
In 1978, Bui’s parents fled South Vietnam with their four children; one not yet even born. In 2002, Bui is still grappling with the events which her family experienced leading up to their escape and continuing to follow them through their lives in the United States. These events drove a wedge between child and parent. Then, as Bui begins to embark on her own journey of motherhood she seeks to close the gap between herself and her parents. By asking questions and learning the history of her parents and their experiences, Bui begins to understand.
The gap that grew between children and parents, as in most cases, stems from misunderstanding. The reader gets to follow Bui’s tale as she jumps back and forth between present day, birthing her first child, asking her parents about their pasts, and everyone’s life in Vietnam leading up to the war. It’s clear from the start that the relationship Bui has with her parents is tense and uncertain. But the reconstruction of these relationships as Bui begins to understand their motivations and the choices they made to protect their family is heartbreakingly moving.
Bui’s parents grew up in very different circumstances. Bui’s father grew up in conflict and poverty-ridden North Vietnam while her mother grew up wealthy in (relatively) safe South Vietnam. This provides the reader much more insight into the holistic details around colonization and conflict which led Vietnam to where it is today. Bui collects their stories. Stories of hopes, dreams, war, fighting, education, family, and more. These stories from Bui’s parents are rife with contradiction. Watching Bui untangle the web of their memories reminds us how important communication is– it’s obvious they both choose to remember what is important to them in a meaningful way, but these selective memories also put up barriers between all the members of her family. This is as true a reflection on life as I have ever read.
It took Bui over 15 years to create this book. In the introduction Bui states,
If was difficult to carve out the time and headspace to work on something that not only required a lot of historical research, but was also intensely personal and at times painful. I often wanted to quit.
Masterfully, Bui combines three-generations of family stories with Vietnamese history and distills these ideas into small illustrated panels. With a simple watercolor palette dominated in oranges, the graphic style reminds me of Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer. Simple illustrations capture both quiet and loud moments coupled with varying intensities of color to provide depth and power. This is at once both escapist and terrifying as we see all these conflicting images of present and past, home and work, peace and war, all depicted in a similar fashion.
Unfortunately, I feel like this also allowed me to step away from the true emotion of the story. The Best We Could Do felt almost cinematographic as I watched this story unfold. This experience left me feeling detached. It also could have been the way Bui wrote the tale– after all, her family is still alive to read this memoir. Perhaps my separate also incurred from her inability to get too detailed and raw with the story. After all, it can be challenging to show people how you really view them in such a public light.
While the story and the history and the illustration and the color are all engrossing, that’s not what sticks with me after reading this memoir. What sticks with me is the underlying meditation about what it means to belong. Bui’s memoir provides a lens which allowed me to ponder what relationships I have in my life, how these relationships evolve, and what these relationships mean in relation to larger social, political, and economic issues. While the Vietnam war might have happened many years ago, it’s easy to see parallels in today’s discussion on immigrants and refugees. With this lens, The Best We Could Do suddenly has a universal application for empathy in the Other. This one-page panel in particular left me practically in tears:
The Best We Could Do comes highly recommended to anyone who is interested in more #OwnVoices immigrant tales, graphic memoirs, or those looking to deepen an understanding of their own familial relationships.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and Abrams Publishing in exchange for an honest review. This is no way affected my opinions of this book. Check out Abrams ComicArts and Thi Bui on their respective websites for more information.
What do you think?
- What was the last book you read which inspired you to reflect back on your own life? Why?
- Do you read graphic memoirs? Why or why not?
- What are your favorite immigrant #OwnVoices stories? Share your recommendations below!