Once I started reading this book, I couldn’t put it down. Thi Bui’s debut illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do , is an exploration of family and identity, past and present. In the preface, Bui explains that the evolution of the work, from an oral history project turned handmade book 15 years ago to its current form as a graphic novel, meant she needed to learn to draw comics, an undertaking she describes as having a “steep learning curve.” Based on her stunningly narrative art which breathes and runs and wonders and mourns and serves as the perfect medium for the story of survival it tells, I’d say she made it over that learning curve just fine.
Though her own understanding of self — as a parent and a child — is inextricably tied to, and informed by, her specific experience as a Vietnamese American whose family fled to the US in the 1970s after the collapse of South Vietnam, the pressure, guilt, and confusion she feels as a mother and daughter are easily recognizable. Bui begins with her own labor and delivery, long and complicated. It yields, of course, the birth of her son but also a deeper empathy for her own mother. With the new found perspective of a parent trying to understand her role and relationships within her family of origin and that which she has now created, Bui takes readers back through her own childhood and her parents’. Through Cambodia, Vietnam, and the US, through the First Indochina War, to the Vietnam War, to the aftermath, in boats and bunkers and shared beds, through two generations of both unknowing and surety, of flight and fight, we come to know the Buis, Thi, Má, and Bố especially, as individuals within a family.
This book is beautiful. It is personally meditative while also deeply informative, telling the history that lives in one family’s bones while spanning multiple nations, borders, and generations.
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir
by Thi Bui
2017, 336 pages, 7.0 x 1.6 x 9.3 inches, Hardcover
$15 Buy on Amazon