Today, I’ve been granted the good fortune to interview graphic novelist, Thi Bui, about her debut graphic novel published by Abrams ComicArts, The Best We Could Do, a heart-rending account of her family’s journey out of Vietnam. My review of it is here, and a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly is here.
Currently at the beginning of her book tour, Thi was able to answer some questions about the impetus for writing The Best We Could Do, what she hopes readers will gain, and how she sees the work of artists and writers creating change in the world.
The Best We Can Do is your debut graphic novel. Would you please describe what it’s about and what readers can expect?
The Best We Could Do is my journey of trying to make sense of the experience of being a refugee. Readers can expect to be drawn into a family saga that spans three generations and three wars in Vietnam, then crosses the ocean to an America that may or may not be familiar.
Why did you decide to tell your family’s story?
I grew up without stories that reflected my life experience or cultural history. In a sense, I made the book that I wanted to read.
The Best We Could Do is deeply personal. How did you decide which experiences to include or leave out?
There are things about your family or your own baggage that you don’t really bring up in a social context because they’re too sad or awkward, right? But in a story, you need to portray people as the full and complex humans they are, to arrive at some sort of truth. I didn’t tell everything. I just revealed enough to tell the story the way I felt it needed to be told.
Part of The Best We Could Do includes your realization that you wanted to know more about your parents’ past. What was that process like for you and them?
I interviewed my parents endlessly. As I kept going and also as I got older, I pursued the black and white questions about their political opinions less and focused on questions about their lived experiences more.
You could have approached this project from a multitude of angles. Did you know from the beginning the message and perspective you wanted, or did this evolve over time?
The entire process of writing the book and shaping the story was a dark wander through the jungle at night. I got lost a lot.
As all people who work with children and teens know, much of our youth in this country struggle with their own parenting crises, such as becoming young parents themselves or dealing with unstable parents, and internalized inter-generational conflicts. What advice would you give teens and young adults struggling to make sense of the world they live in?
Be kind. Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, and learn as much as you can of their story, and maybe it will help you understand why they do the baffling things they do.
Now that we are living under a new administration, and the arts and humanities are under attack as not actually ‘helping anybody,’ how do you see your narrative in light of the rapidly shifting socio-cultural climate of our country? And do you see art and literature as a way to resist the tide of overwhelming assaults on humanitarian sensibilities?
The current administration is scapegoating immigrants for problems they didn’t create, and it can do that because recent immigrants are one of the most vulnerable groups of people living here. I hope that narratives by and about immigrants and refugees lend some power to them, and also draw attention to the gross injustice being done to them.
Some of my students looked over excerpts from The Best We Could Do, and resonated with its themes. They had a few questions for you as well.
First, M* (age 17) asks, “When you moved to the United States and faced judgment from others, did you ever wonder if your parents made the right choice for you? Did you get angry? Did it affect you growing up, and does it affect you today?”
I definitely wanted to live somewhere I belonged, but it was more a feeling of yearning for something lost than anger at my parents. I knew they didn’t have great choices. I felt anger at the jerks who treated us badly, and a little powerless as to what to do about it. Today I can feel more sympathetic or willing to understand where they were coming from, even if I don’t agree with or accept nativism, because I have built up my ability to define who I am on my own terms.
K*, (age 16), asks, “My dad has PTSD, too. It’s made living with him really hard. How did your parents cope with the changes they went through? How did it affect their relationships? And has it affected the way you view your own relationships?”
My parents both sought answers and solace in Buddhism and books. My mom got involved in community work helping others, and my dad wrote poetry, some of which he published. They’ve never gone to therapy, but I have! I discuss in the book some of the ways in which PTSD affected their relationship with each other and with their children. It wasn’t easy to talk about.
I am very protective of relationships between parents and children – it is a driving force behind my advocacy for immigrant and low income families, because I know that the suffering that one generation experiences passes on to the next, unless the relationships that have fallen apart can somehow be repaired.
T*, (age 17), asks, “Do you still experience anything that reminds you of what you faced a child?”
Only in the sense that I still feel like I have a lot to learn and more of the world I’d like to see. And the same yearning to be free. The nice part about getting older is that I also realize that I know *a few* things, and I have much more agency now than I did as a child.
About The Author
Thi Bui was born in Saigon, Vietnam, and came to the US with her family as part of the wave of “boat people” refugees of the late seventies. She is a writer, artist, and former public school teacher.
Thi was a founding teacher at Oakland International High School, where she taught for seven years. In addition to writing and illustrating, she currently teaches in the MFA for Comics program at California College of the Arts. She volunteers with an artivist group called Print Organize Protest, and continues to advocate for immigrants and refugees today.