Thi Bui traces a Vietnamese American family’s life in illustrated memoir

An illustration from the book “The Best We Could Do,” by Thi Bui, which was chosen as a book for the Seattle Reads program. (Courtesy Abrams Books)

This story originally ran in the South Seattle Emerald and is republished with permission.

Thi Bui’s graphic memoir “The Best We Could Do” begins with the birth of her first child in a hospital contemplating her mother’s experience with childbirth in Vietnam and her family’s journey to the United States as refugees.

The story traces her family’s story through her parents’ childhoods in Vietnam under French rule, political upheaval, the Vietnam War, and to modern day, where her parents and siblings all live close together in California.

Like other graphic memoirs, the story examines her parents’ lives as well as her process in collecting and understanding what they experienced. The rich images flow off the page in black, white, and a rich, rusty orange throughout the book.

Graphic artist Thi Bui (left) created an illustrated memoir of her family’s journey from Vietnam to the United States in “The Best We Could Do.” (Photos courtesy Abrams Books)

Bui comes to Seattle for a series of talks around the city, hosted by the Seattle Public Library’s Seattle Reads, a program that encourages people in the city to all read and discuss the same book. She will speak at the Centilia Cultural Center at 1660 S. Roberto Maestas Festival St. on April 14 at 7 p.m., and at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service at 3639 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. on April 16 at 6:30 p.m. Click here to see all of her appearances throughout the city.

Bui spoke with the Emerald about her book’s critical success, its connection to other historical graphic memoirs, and the graphic novels she has planned next.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aaron Burkhalter: Did these conversations or the creation of this book change how your family related to each other or how your family talked about this history and family story?

Thi Bui: I feel like they talk about it less now. It’s interesting because then we had a focused place to put the story. For a while I was having lots of really intense conversations with my parents, and we were able to do that because it was for a project and it wasn’t just, you know, for fun — and those conversations aren’t really fun; they’re pretty intense. Now that it’s done, I think that, at first, my parents were used to not talking about that stuff anymore, so they sort of kept going and I had to be, like, “Oh my god, don’t tell me anymore. I can’t put any more in. It’s gone to print.” I feel like it’s archived now, like people in the family are satisfied that our story is archived and that it’s been about coming to terms with the fact that no archive can say everything, no story tells all the stories within it. For being nonfiction, it took this small slice of what happened.

AB: There’s a rich variety of graphic novels that are memoirs, particularly those that are historical, and including a lot where the artist and family are interacting on the page. How did these books influence the story that you told about your life and family.

TB: I was really moved by “Maus” by Art Spiegelman and “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi. Among cartoonists, it’s kind of a cliché — because they’re such big books — but they really are masterpieces.

Art Spiegelman does such a good job of including the family relationships and the relationship between the interviewer and the subject with the story that’s being told about the Holocaust. And I spent a lot of time actually trying to figure out how he made it so seamless. And what I decided for myself is that there is no way that those conversations happened exactly like that. I think they must have been composite conversations. But either way, it is a nice way to show how history works, and especially how oral history works.

I also, by contrast, learned a lot about how to tell my family’s story because reading them I was like, “Wow, so much of the conflict is laid out in dialogue with Art Spiegelman and his dad. They fight a lot.” But it’s a very New York, Jewish thing to do. Whereas my people speak in pregnant silences and don’t argue. So I had to figure out how to do that in comics. It turns out that comics are actually good at showing silences too. I think that also comics are so good at appearing to be very simple and easy to read and easy to do. They aren’t at all easy, but the perceived simplicity of the form is a nice balance to some of the heavy subject matter.

AB: What do readers get from graphic novels like this that they don’t from reading the same story in text?

TB: I think that there are so many stereotypes and terrible clichés about Vietnamese people from bad Vietnam War movies that we’ve all watched that I had to do something visual to replace those stereotypes. Photographs are not always good at doing that, because we’re also a media-saturated culture and photographs of refugees kind of dehumanize them too in a way. So I drew my characters so that I could try to get to people’s hearts and show Vietnamese people as whole human beings. Hopefully by the time you see those photographs of my family as refugees from the refugee camp, that ties us to reality but you’ve also had a chance to get to know us as human beings first and hopefully like us.

AB: That was an interesting and affecting moment for me reading the book, when you reveal the pictures. How did you come to decide to put the photographs in there like that?

TB: I always knew that those photographs had a lot of power. They had a lot of power over me as a little kid. I was able to handle them. They’re tiny little ID pictures, and we had several copies of them. Most people I know who went through a refugee camp have those photos as well.

I knew there was a power to them but it took me a while to figure out exactly where to place that power. It was a deliberate choice to delay that connection with current events, because I didn’t want that dehumanizing effect of showing people at their most desperate and that being how you understand these people.

AB: Like Art Spiegelman, you depict conversations with your parents as you’re researching and as you’re drawing and even show your parents reacting to what you created. How did they feel in the end about the finished product?

The short answer is they still love me. The long answer is I was learning how to do comics and I was also learning how to be a good oral historian and also learning how to be an ethical storyteller. I made a couple of mistakes early on, not showing my father the uncomfortable stuff, and he saw it anyway and had to negotiate that.

Then I decided that I would show my parents every chapter in its rough draft form before I even sent it to the editor so they could have veto power if they wanted it. But they didn’t actually use that veto power. They would actually remember more stuff. Their memory would be jogged by reading my rough draft. So they would add more information that then I had to edit in. That’s the best kind of editing.

AB: What was your reaction to the book becoming such a critical success?

TB: It’s totally bananas. It’s really surreal. I try not to let it get to my head, and my family’s pretty good at not letting me get a big head — like, they don’t care. They’re just like, “Alright, what do you want for dinner?” Mostly I just look at it as an incredible opportunity to get some weight behind other projects that I want to do. Stuff that I’m interested in now about current events and less about the past, but there’s still linkages to the past.

AB: What are those projects?

TB: I’m working on a book about deportation of Southeast Asians. The folks that I interview also tend to have come over as refugees of the Vietnam War — but not just Vietnamese people but also Cambodians and Lao people. They didn’t have the same “model minority” success that I am enjoying, even though we have so many similar origins. I feel like it’s this untold shadow story of the refugee experience.

They ended up resettled in poor neighborhoods with a lot of crime and many of them joined gangs, got in trouble with the law, and then either were victim to some racism in the courts of lack of representation and really, really harsh drug laws in the 1990s. So they ended up spending way more time in prison than they should have. And when it came time to go home, instead of being able to go home and figure out reentry like everybody else, because they were foreign born, they got stripped of all their legal status and so then they were sent to immigration detention to be deported to a country that many of them have never stepped foot in because they were born in refugee camps along the way.

The book is called “Nowhereland,” because it is about these spaces that are neither America nor another country, but we have them all over the country. Some of them are immigration detention centers and some of them are county jails and prisons. I’m going to a refugee camp in Greece this summer, and I feel like refugee camps in a way are part of the Nowhereland system.

I am also working on a sort-of science fiction story about climate change in Vietnam, but also climate change in poorer countries — what I call “the global south,” the poorer half of the world that will be hit harder by climate change because it doesn’t have the same resources.

AB: The Best We Could Do discusses how Vietnam was depicted in the United States. How do you look in that moment of history in the 1960s now having pulled together all these different narratives and perspectives?

TB: The 1960s is such a beautiful time in Vietnamese history. Here it’s associated with war and violent images, but I also associate that time with really great music and fashion and the arts and black and white photos of my parents looking very young and hip and beautiful. I think a lot of us do who have parents from that era. So I’m happy to complicate the memory of that time and place here among an American audience.

AB: What is it like coming to spend a whole week in one community to have so many conversations about this book?

TB: I’m excited because there’s a very big and very active Vietnamese community there that I have interacted with before. The libraries are more embedded in the community, so that’s pretty exciting. And I’m going around to different branches, not just the main one, so that’s pretty cool too.

For the first time ever there’s going to be a professional staging of some scenes from the book. It’s something I’ve been very, very guarded about. I’ve said no to every single offer for film or TV or stage rights for this story, because I’m just so scarred by all the bad Vietnam War movies I’ve seen. It would break my heart to be one made from my family’s story. But I know the director, and I’ve seen her work. So I said yes to a Seattle Public Library-only staging of it. I’m still kind of terrified, but I’m also really intrigued. So I’m the most excited about seeing that.

AB: In some appearances you’ve done before, you’ve invited the audience to come up and read different parts from the book together so it’s not just you reading it. Why do you do that?

TB: Partly because I don’t want to do all the voices by myself. The other is that the public school teacher in me is really concerned that my audiences have a good time. I want things to be interactive because it seems so boring to have to sit there and listen to an author speak for an hour and a half. So I do it to get some people off their feet and interacting.

It’s fun for me too, because it makes every talk different. I actually really enjoy hearing my family members embodied by different people. I’ve started to think of it as an exercise in empathy for non-Vietnamese people to play Vietnamese characters. And then for Vietnamese people to take on these Vietnamese characters is also meaningful but in a different way. For them, I think, they’re thinking about their own family members when they’re doing that, and that’s pretty powerful for me.

AB: You’ve done a lot of interviews. Are there any questions you don’t want to be asked anymore?

TB: Once in a while I get asked an insulting question, like, “So did you do any research for this book?” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”

AB: It’s clear in the book that you did.

TB: I would hope so. I think maybe I’ve come to realize that memoir can be kind of a gendered genre of writing that a lot of first-time female writers get encouraged into. And then when you write a personal family story, sometimes people think you didn’t do any rigorous historical research on top of it. But whatever, I have come to embrace that Trojan horse.

I also embrace that other Trojan horse that comics are often perceived to be a low-brow medium that’s not as intellectual or rigorous as a prose novel. So I guess my least favorite question is “Why did you decide to do this as a graphic novel and not, like, a real book.” Which seems crazy to ask somebody who draws, “Why did you not draw it?”

An illustration from Thi Bui’s memoir “The Best We Could Do.” (Courtesy Abrams Books)