I always find myself eager to read non-fiction when I can relate to it. There’s something about the personal experience and understanding that not only deepens the story but also emphasizes its intention. When I first encountered Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, it was casual. I didn’t know much about it and a quick glance at the synopsis had me intrigued. Picking it up, I was thrown into a viscerally astounding memoir that not only could reflect some aspects of my own experiences as a Chinese American but also educated me on the world that I had little to no experience with outside of pop culture.
Bui’s memoir covers the story of her parents in their escape from Vietnam and coming to America. Both a refugee’s story and an immigrant’s story, Bui unfolds aspects of her mother and father’s childhood with precision As the reader, you are able to take an emotional journey with her family. There was more than one time when I found myself sobbing while reading the panels of the memoir out of empathy, out of understanding, or simply through a scene that reminded me of my own family and my own parents’ struggles when they came to America.
I was more than excited when I was given the opportunity to be able to talk to Thi Bui at BookCon this year about her memoir. We talked about the process of creating her memoir, from collecting the oral histories of her family to learning about how to draw comics to eventually getting it published by Abrams Comicarts. We also talked about the Asian American community in the United States today, specifically the film industry and how they approach Vietnam War movies, and also about how the community is changing in the future.
The creation of The Best We Could Do wasn’t an easy path. Bui started the project in her twenties as a part of a project for school, collecting stories from her family members, eventually compiling the oral histories for what would be her graphic memoir.
“It started off as an oral history that I was doing to learn my family’s stories, pretty much to figure out why am I here in this country, figure out my origins. I was in my twenties when I started, so I had a lot of anger about misrepresentations of people like me who had come here because of the Vietnam War. The only representation, mostly in pop culture, was like the Vietnam War movies, and they were all really disrespectful of the Vietnamese experience. So, I guess I was reacting against that and trying to find a different way to represent it. Oral histories can be a little dry to read, so I was looking for other ways to represent it that could deal with big things and politics and history and all that, but also be really personal. Graphic memoirs stood out to me as a really powerful medium.”
And while the idea of simply talking to your parents about their past might not seem too hard, the idea was daunting to me. For myself, and I think many Asian American people with immigrant parents, there is an inevitable curiosity that comes with your parents past. They are not only from a different place but lived a completely different life before I existed (like all parents in the world). The culture and people that they grew up with are a literal world away. They are the gatekeepers to a large part of their own past that can be difficult to reach as their child.
I asked Thi about how she approached her family members for a project like this.
“Having a big formal project that I was doing for school made it easier. Because then I wasn’t like, let’s talk about these really painful memories, I was like can you help me with my project for school. And then once I started compiling the interviews like I did a lot of transcribing, and then translating from Vietnamese to English, and then once I put it on paper and edited it down to something readable and added photographs and drawings to it, my family was really excited to have these stories compiled, because I was also interviewing my older sisters. The level of their excitement was way beyond anything I’ve ever seen from them, so I was like, ‘Wow, Okay!’ Not only are they excited but I have their blessing to tell their stories!”
Additionally, on the topic of reaching out to her parents for their stories, she said:
“I was lucky because I had two parents who talked, regularly. So I grew up with the stories, but I just had to ask more questions about the stuff I didn’t quite understand yet. The more I read and learned the more questions I had, and also as I got older I just got more empathetic, once I became a mom especially. I was suddenly sorry for every resentment that I ever held against them because being a parent is so hard! How do you not screw up? So that probably made me a better oral historian after that, because then I was asking them questions, where I was really trying to picture what it was like in their shoes, the decisions they were making when they were young like me, trying to make a life. So then, the stories got more interesting. I wasn’t just asking them as their daughter, and only seeing them through that lens anymore, I was trying to understand who they were before they became my parents.”
Afer collecting the information, it was all about putting it together. Making the decision to create a graphic memoir meant that Thi had to learn how to draw comics. Despite her background in art, she had to learn a new medium altogether. “I drew a lot of bad pages that no one will ever see in my long journey to the book that you can see now,” she joked, as I asked about how she transformed the oral histories she’d compiled into one magnum opus.
“I could draw and I could write. But it’s really different doing comics. I had to unlearn all the drawing techniques that I learned in art school to draw quickly enough for the comics medium. Controlling time in the way you read comics was a new thing to me. So I had to think a lot about movies, and like wide shots, medium shots, and close-ups. And also controlling how fast or how slow you would read something through how I drew it.”
Then came the publication of the memoir, which was all thanks to a young Asian American woman working as an editorial assistant at Abrams.
“Her name is Clarissa Wong and she saw some of my work in Hyphen Magazine, which is a volunteer-run Asian American magazine that’s amazing. I pitched this idea to them where me and G.B. Tran, who is a cartoonist who did the graphic memoir Vietnamerica, were talking to each other and we did a two-page graphic essay about meeting each other. He had a really nice reaction to meeting me, and my reaction to learning about his was to want to kill him, because he had stolen my thunder! He finished his book way before I was even starting on mine, and I was like, ‘Oh god! And it’s really good! What’s the point of making mine?’ It was totally embarrassing, it was like the 80’s movie Highlander, like ‘There can only be one!’ It was just me making fun of myself for that really poor reaction, though that lasted about 15 seconds.
After that, I was really happy to learn about his book and read it. So I stalked him and found his email address and I wrote to him and asked him to do this thing together. It was really random. I wasn’t thinking about pitching my book yet, it wasn’t ready and maybe deep down I wasn’t sure if any big publisher would ever publish my book. But I did this thing for Hyphen Magazine and a little while later I got a message on LinkedIn from Clarissa Wong from Abrams. I sent her all these chapters and she said that she’s really excited about the writing, but the art needed a lot of work. But, if I was willing to work with her, to get it up to the right level, she would be interested in pitching it to Abrams. So she kind of acted like my agent, which is amazing! If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t think this book would be out right now.”
I think we should all say thanks to Miss Wong for helping this memoir get published, honestly. I can’t be the only one that read The Best We Could Do and then immediately wanted to listen to every story about their family’s past. And not just my family, I wanted to know the stories of my other Asian friends and how their parents came to America. It was like realizing that there is this gold mine of information and history that has been right under my nose this whole time. The memoir inspired me to once again take a deep dive into my roots. I asked Thi if she’s had a similar reaction from her audience.
“People in their twenties are wanting to talk about origins with their family, but they don’t know where to start. Use my book as your way of cracking open the silence, and maybe see how parents react to my book. Just start asking if there are any similarities or differences. Sometimes just putting a photograph in front of somebody can get them to remember a lot more stuff, so when you put a whole story in front of somebody, I think that they’ll probably have something to say, then you can ask follow up questions. It’s really hard to start a conversation cold.”
With such a visually brilliant spread on each page of the memoir, it’s hard not to imagine it made into a movie. But as far as an adaptation goes, it seems like we’ll have to wait just a little bit longer. I asked Thi if her memoir had been optioned for a movie:
“Yeah, I have, and I have unfortunately had to say no. I’m still really scared of the possibility of a bad movie being made. We’ve been burned so many times, and why wouldn’t it happen again? Honestly, I think I need to see more Asian roles being cast with Asian actors first, to even start to have some faith in the process, and then I want to see a lot more Asian American directors being able to call the shots. And there’s just so much money required in making a movie that even if a producer is really promising me that I can have creative control, I just don’t believe that I really will because of the amount of money involved. I’m just waiting for now on that. The thought of another bad Vietnam War movie being made, but with my family, it’s soul crushing.”
It’s difficult to admit that she’s right. In an age where diversity seems to be on everyone’s lips, there is still a shocking lack of Asian actors even playing Asian roles. Diversity, in the industry, is more a burden than an opportunity for authenticity. “The decision makers don’t know how to do it yet,” Thi responded.
“The sad part is a movie would get the story out to more people for sure. I think graphic novels are still this sort of fledgling form that a lot of people in Vietnamese American communities don’t really access a whole lot. So for me, it’s a challenge to get the book out in the right hands. But I’m hoping, there’s a lot of people learning about it and just sort of passing it along.”
Obviously, the topic of our culture and the Asian American community was the soul of my interview with Thi. Although I was interested in the process of her creating her memoir, I was also interested in hearing her outlook on where she sees the community going in the future.
“I think it’s going in a lot of different directions. There’s so much diversity just within the Asian American community. If you look at Southeast Asians versus like Japanese Americans or Chinese Americans, the socioeconomic picture really pretty different and the histories are pretty different. Southeast Asians are like a younger phenomenon in the US and they’re still trying to find their footing. But then we get lumped together here. I think we’re learning what to do about that too? It’s not like people in Asian countries loved each other, they all hated each other! And they’ve been at war for years and years. So it’s interesting for them, on this continent, to actually work together. That’s always a work in progress. I think there’s also this generational thing that I’m seeing, especially with Vietnamese Americans, our parents came and they suffered so much. I grew up being taught this hardline anti-communist stuff, but as I was growing up I was like, that makes it so hard for me to critique capitalism and things that I see that are wrong here. It took getting older for me to realize that some things aren’t Vietnamese, they’re just what my parents are saying is Vietnamese. So I see a younger generation actually not losing touch with their roots like our parents
I think there’s also this generational thing that I’m seeing, especially with Vietnamese Americans, our parents came and they suffered so much. I grew up being taught this hardline anti-communist stuff, but as I was growing up I was like, that makes it so hard for me to critique capitalism and things that I see that are wrong here. It took getting older for me to realize that some things aren’t Vietnamese, they’re just what my parents are saying is Vietnamese. So I see a younger generation actually not losing touch with their roots like our parents were afraid of, but the younger generation is redefining what it is to be Vietnamese American or Chinese American and their embracing culture on their own terms and they’re actually rejuvenating the culture, which makes it so much cooler. I totally rejected things like ribbon dancing and language school on Saturdays. To have only that kind of stuff be the vision of your original culture is sort of like having your parents dress you all your life. At some
I totally rejected things like ribbon dancing and language school on Saturdays. To have only that kind of stuff be the vision of your original culture is sort of like having your parents dress you all your life. At some point, you’ve got to break out on your own and figure it out for yourself and figure out what you actually like, and then the culture’s so much cooler.”
Yeah, those Saturday language schools were the worst! But in all seriousness, I felt inspired by Thi’s optimistic outlook on the youths reclaiming their past and embracing their culture. The formalities and boundaries of our culture, especially Asian culture, can often restrict things like open communication or decision making on how we define our culture. But Thi has an answer for that too, “That respect that we have for our elders is great in some ways, and then in other ways, it keeps us forever kids. We have to grow up at some point and individuate.”
Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do is her debut graphic novel and it is out now for purchase! Get your copy on Amazon now!