After visiting her native country in 2001 to see relatives she thought were long dead, Vietnamese American artist Thi Bui jettisoned her grad school assignments and instead began recording her family history. A lush black, white, and rust-toned graphic autobiography called The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir would follow a decade and a half later, the product of countless hours of interviews, transcription, drawing, and a crucial exploration of the refugee experience in this era of expressly unconstitutional efforts to halt immigration into the United States.
Bui was three years old when her parents and siblings stowed away in a rickety fishing boat bound for coastal Malaysia in 1978, among hundreds of thousands of families fleeing ongoing war in South Vietnam for the promise of a new life in America. Much like in Matt Huynh’s recent comics adaptation of Nam Le’s story, the hazards endured by this “second wave” of refugees (often called “boat people”) are detailed in The Best We Could Do, but their trip comprises only a segment of Bui’s ink-and-watercolor book. More prominent is the effort to tell her family’s story — with carefully rendered interactions like those in Rutu Modan’s comics — and close up the emotional distance between the artist and her parents. The rifts are a result of the weight of innumerable sacrifices made by the elder Buis and the burdensome years of their youth.
“(I)f I could see Viet Nam as a real place, and not a symbol of something lost … I would see my parents as real people … and learn to love them better,” she writes.
Bui recounts an arduous experience in Malaysian refugee camps and the overcrowded stay under her cousins’ roof in the Midwest that followed. During her family’s subsequent move to San Diego, there were Pledges of Allegiance, blatant racism, and “reasons to not want to be anything OTHER.” Similar to her comics essays on refugees and nationalism for PEN and The Nib, Bui pairs wrenching efforts to assimilate with historical context and difficult pre-immigration memories — her mother’s secret studies of Vietnamese culture under stifling French rule; her father hiding in an underground tunnel as a child while French soldiers burned his village. Decades later, we see American fighter pilots destroying “a country dependent on agriculture” and an illustration of AP photographer Eddie Adams’s infamous “Saigon Execution.” Bui’s research and geographic shifts amount to somewhat disorderly plotting that bounces us from the States to her native country and back, but it’s balanced by her versatility in portraying diverse settings, from tidy apartment interiors to Nha Trang’s beaches to ashy, angular village hut rooftops.
Omnipresent peach washes contribute to a sense of sameness from panel to panel, but they’re effective in accentuating the swirls of Bui’s blotty grey brushwork and emphasizing the defined inked lines in her strong portraiture, landscapes, and more. The sources of the narrative’s emotional rushes differ as often as the book’s locales, but I loved the visualization of the first chapter’s New York City Methodist Hospital room, where Bui battles through a difficult labor and gives birth to a son. Her mother and her husband Travis offer critical support, while the memoir’s heavy theme of preserving familial relationships — and in the language of this apt medium, of origin stories — slowly comes into view.
“Family is now something I have created … and not just something I was born into,” Bui narrates from her hospital bed. “The responsibility is immense.”