The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
Published by Abrams Books, 2017
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
In this deeply personal yet outwardly ambitious graphic memoir, Thi Bui recounts her family’s experience of displacement following the collapse of South Vietnam in the wake of the war, and their attempts to resettle in the US.
The book opens with the birth of Bui’s first child. Becoming a parent forces her to evaluate her relationship with her own parents; a relationship that has been tempered by supressed emotion carried with them from their homeland. By exploring her parents’ childhoods in relation to her own, she hopes to better understand why they became the people they did. Though on the surface the book thus functions as a multi-generational family memoir, this serves largely as a framework, allowing Bui to look at the notion of inherited trauma and whether or not it’s possible to break the chain of fear, anger, and resentment that refugee parents often unknowingly pass on to their offspring.
The timeline is fluid, rather than linear, creating an anecdotal feel. Instead of walking us through everything step-by-step, Bui weaves past into present; her own childhood into her parents’ childhoods, and so on. This ties nicely into the book’s central theme, reflecting the idea of shared heritage. It also allows her to highlight the similarities and differences in their experiences, as well as the culture divide between Vietnam and America.
The graphic memoir format works very well for this particular story. Traversing several countries throughout their lives, and speaking different languages (English, French, and Vietnamese) depending on their location and circumstances, art serves as a consistent universal language that binds everything together in a coherent, visual way. The style itself employs simple yet expressive watercolours, with muted peach tones running throughout.
There are uncomfortable truths to be gleaned from the Bui family’s experiences, like the immense class divide, the impact of poverty, the strict surveillance, and the harsh persecution that reigned during French colonisation and the resulting war between the North and South, but also long after US troops had left Vietnam (something the Western media did little to reflect at the time). It also shows how unwelcome many refugees seeking a better life were made to feel in the US (parallels with the world’s current political climate are hard to ignore). Through all of this, Bui asks herself how much of this refugee experience informs who she is, and how much is down to her alone. More importantly, she wonders if immigrant families will always carry the burden of their lineage, or if future generations may be free to grow up independent of that stigma.
I found this eye-opening on a historical and political level, as well as engaging on an emotional one. The book was supposedly a long time in the making, but I think Thi Bui has crafted something quite special, offering a unique and overlooked perspective on an important piece of recent history.
If you’d like to give The Best We Could Do a go, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here. If you’ve already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!