Note: I moved to California from Montana when I was 8 years old. A Vietnamese family lived
across the street–mother, father, and 3 daughters. Our family ALSO had 3 daughters, and my mother being my mother (i.e., could make best friends with literally any person EVER cause she possesses the magic secrets of extroversion) immediately became quite close with the mother. I became pretty good friends with the middle daughter, and my youngest sister and the youngest daughter became life-long friends. As kids, we spent SO MUCH TIME together; my childhood is beautifully marked by their presence. This graphic novel brought back all those memories and had me crying from the very first pages and literally sobbing into my shirt by the end.
Diverse Elements: An #ownvoices memoir from a Vietnamese-American woman about her family’s past in escaping Vietnam during the war and the perils, pitfalls, and prejudice of growing up in an immigrant family in the USA.
The novel starts out with the birth of Thi Bui’s son in New York City. The labor is long, intense, and dangerous. Thi’s mother is there, flown from California, but has to leave the room because she cannot bear to watch this play out. The delivery is finally successful, and Thi ponders what it now means to not just be part of a family but to have created a family. She is now both child and mother.
Thi then takes the reader on a journey through her childhood–growing up poor in a small, dark apartment, she and her little brother left alone with their father all day, who had a temper and scared them with talk of possessions and ghosts. It’s here that Thi answers the question, What happened to make him this way?
And that’s where the real story begins here. Thi Bui takes the reader back into time, back to the fields of Northern Vietnam, back to the French schools and relative safety of Southern Vietnam, and brings to light the complexities of a people struggling to thrive in a system of colonial power. Throughout this narrative, Thi also brings it back to the idea of family bonds, motherhood, and forgiveness, leading to a beautiful conclusion.
What I Liked: Its simplicity. The tone is understated. The graphics aren’t screaming out in full color (the galley I have is black and white–the final proof will be in two-tone color throughout). Her style of both drawing and writing quietly cuts through to the heart and is powerful because of it.
What I Disliked: Absolutely nothing. Holy freaking cow, I have no criticism here. I just want it to be published already so I can go out and buy 5 copies and send them to people.
What I Loved: Thi Bui’s relationship with her parents is crazy real. She speaks to experiences we’ve all had as well as the unique experiences of an expatriated family in the USA. She loves her father even though he frightened her as a child. She loves her mother even though she feels inexplicable anger toward her mother’s methods of coping with tragedy and depression. She loves them and forgives them their trespasses because they did the best they could do.
Also, wow, the way she approaches describing her parents’ backgrounds. Her mother coming from a privileged, upper-class, French-educated family and her father coming from a northern Vietnamese village in the midst of multiple conflicts, where as a child he had to listen to the sounds of people being killed.
Once again, she brings it back home.
“What becomes of us after we die? Do we live on in what we leave to our children? How much of ME is my own, and how much is stamped into my blood and bone, predestined? I used to imagine that history had infused my parents’ lives with the dust of a cataclysmic explosion. That it had seeped through their skin and become part of their blood. That being my father’s child, I, too, was a product of war…and being my mother’s child, I could never measure up to her. . . . What has worried me since having my own child was whether I would pass along some gene for sorrow or unintentionally inflict damage I could never undo. But when I look at my son, now ten years old, I don’t see war and loss or even Travis and me. I see a new life, bound with mine quite by coincidence, and I think maybe he can be free.”
Why It’s Important: Hearkening back to personal experience again here. My grandparents live in the San Francisco Bay Area. We used to visit a lot since we only lived 4 hours away. I grew up surrounded by cultural diversity just by walking down the streets of my grandmother’s neighborhood to the local park. Hearing other languages, smelling foods not cooked in my household, trying to read signs written in Chinese or Hindi or Korean–this was a part of my daily existence as a child. My mother always wanted to know everyone else’s stories, and made friends with people from everywhere. The Vietnamese family across the street, the Jamaican preschool teacher at our private school, the Mexican family from the Air Force that became best friends for years and years, and on and on.
As I grew older, and began to encounter racism both subtle and overt, insidious and abject, it floored me that “Why do I have to press 1 for English! This is America!” was even remotely an issue. Aren’t we all immigrants? Don’t we all have parts of our past that threatened to break us? Can’t we celebrate our differences in a way that unites instead of divides?
This book is important because it gives a human voice to suffering and war and the dire need for acceptance and love and understanding. It portrays the horror and stress and wreckage of being forced to make the decision to leave one’s homeland when all your friends are disappearing and your children tell you, “They told us to report our parents.” It comments on how this happens to countries where the colonialism holds all the power and what happens when some feel forced to take back the power.
It is important, then and now, as we listen with horror to the human impact of the war in Syria, the on-going conflicts in Palestine, but somehow choose to forget.
It is important because it reminds us that every face has a soul, and every soul has a journey, and every journey is back-breakingly difficult but continues to press on toward hope.
Recommended For: Anyone who lives in an area that has immigrant families. Anyone who listens to the news and thinks, “That’s sad, but not our problem.” Anyone who has ever in their life felt torn between their parents and their own futures.