The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui, is a beautifully drawn graphic memoir that tells the story of Thi’s parents before they fled Vietnam in 1978 with her and her siblings. More than this though, it’s also a quiet meditation on becoming a parent, and considering where she, her parents and her son sit in the generational story of their family.
Thi’s memoir is partly the result of her exploration into trying to get to know her parents better as an adult and a mother herself. “I am now older than my parents were when they made that incredible journey,” she writes. “But I fear that around them, I will always be a child… and they a symbol to me—two sides of a chasm, full of meaning and resentment.”
Thi’s spare, evocative prose and drawings together become greater than the sum of their parts. Early on, for instance, two of her siblings are drawn as shadows in a panel that introduces the family, naturally leading the reader to wonder what happened to them. The graphic form, meanwhile, rewards and bolsters Thi’s often quite appropriately austere prose.
Thi writes of moving with her husband from New York to California to raise her son with her husband Travis, in order to be closer to her parents. In a statement that will ring true to many people who live close to their families, she says, “I don’t know exactly what it looks like, but I recognise what it is NOT, and now I understand—proximity and closeness are not the same.”
After making her first trip back to Vietnam, she decides to record the family history in an effort to “fill the void between my parents and me”. She covers the birth of her siblings, and the death of her parents’ firstborn, Giang Quyen, meaning “great river”. “Some people in Vietnam say you shouldn’t give a baby a beautiful name or jealous spirits will come take the baby away,” she notes. And then, poignantly, “How does one recover from the loss of a child?” She asks what a lost child means for the remaining siblings, too. “Have our parents ever looked at us and felt slightly… disappointed? Such high hopes, so much possibility, to fall short.”
Thi describes, probably with some understatement, of a childhood in San Diego, a naval and marine corps base, where in the aftermath of the Vietnam War “not everyone welcomed our presence”. Her mother worked long hours building circuit boards, while two sisters went to school and Thi and her brother stayed home with her smoking, permissive father.
From there Thi reaches back into the past to try to find out how her parents became the people they are today. “Each of Bo’s stories about childhood has a different shape but the same ending,” she notes. Then, later: “I had no idea that the terror I felt was only the long shadow of his own.”
Their stories are complicated, violent, and tightly interwoven with world history in a way that refugee stories invariably and necessarily are; indeed it’s the comfort of the privileged to ignore world politics in the biographies of their lives if they so choose. Thi tells the more modern history of Vietnam as part of their story, too. Indeed this book is a fantastic example of history being so much more meaningful—and horrific—when told through the prism of real people’s lives.
Thi learns of her mother’s history through a box of photos that arrive from Vietnam when she’s young. “In those photos, Ma looked like someone I wanted to be as a little girl… a princess in a home far more beautiful than mine… in a country more ancient and romantic than the one I knew. It was an affirmation and an escape.” Later, her mother prefers to reveal her stories to Travis, adding an interesting dimension to the mother-daughter relationship.
Finally, Thi records her memories of giving birth herself, and the struggle of breastfeeding her son, who suffered from jaundice: “That first week of parenting was the hardest week of my life and the only time I ever felt called upon to be heroic.”
Be prepared to get something in your eye as Thi speaks to her newborn son and gets a sense of place in her family. “I could hear echoes of my mother’s voice speaking to me in my childhood," she writes, "but I could feel the voice coming from my own throat.”
Thi’s life as a refugee is not a usual one, but it’s not often one told as honestly and stunningly as it is here. Given today's global refugee crisis, this book really should be essential reading for everyone. At the least though, if you are interested at all in Vietnamese history, The Best We Could Do is a wonderful perspective on one Vietnamese family's experience in modern times.
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