It took author/cartoonist Thi Bui more than 10 years to write her illustrated memoir “The Best We Could Do,” about her family’s immigration from Vietnam. Written while she was raising her son and working full time as a teacher, the hope that she was creating something lasting kept her going.
“I was hoping to do something useful for Vietnamese Americans,” she said, in a telephone interview from her Oakland, California, home. “I wanted to create something to show to other people in the community, who didn’t have access to their history. Our story is pretty common to hundreds of thousands of people, but it hasn’t been really understood in the U.S.”
Bui’s book, the 2019 Seattle Reads selection, tells the story of her family: her grandparents’ and parents’ life in French-held Vietnam, the devastation brought about by the war and the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and her family’s harrowing escape by boat to Malaysia, and their eventual arrival in the U.S. in 1978. Released in 2017, the book became an acclaimed national best-seller, winning numerous honors including the American Book Award. Bui will be in Seattle April 13-16, to participate in a number of Seattle Reads events presented by Seattle Public Library (SPL). Hundreds of copies of Bui’s book are being made available, for checkout by library patrons or via informal distribution at numerous locations in the community.
Stesha Brandon, literature and humanities program manager for SPL, said that Bui’s book was chosen by the Seattle Reads selection committee for several reasons. “We felt that her memoir provided excellent entry points for discussion, particularly around the refugee and immigrant experience, and also offered great entry points for discussion around the impact of trauma on families — something I personally thought was such a beautiful part of the book, offering us an opportunity to talk about this thing that’s so hard to talk about,” she said. “Many families will, I think, see their own experiences in this book, even if they aren’t necessarily refugees or immigrants.”
The committee also appreciated that the book offered a personal perspective on recent history, most notably the impact of the Vietnam War. And they thought its format as a graphic novel “might prove appealing and accessible to new audiences,” Brandon said. “Every year people ask, ‘Is there a way to engage youth and younger adults?’ It’s a reading program for adults, but we have been looking for opportunities to provide intergenerational programming.”
Bui herself chose the book’s format as a way to be more accessible, after originally conceiving what became “The Best We Could Do” as an academic project. Inspired by graphic narratives like Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” and Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” she settled on writing and illustrating it as a comic, with panels — thinking, since she already knew how to draw (Bui studied art at the University of California, Berkeley), that she could teach herself the format quickly. “Turns out, she said, “the comic is a completely different medium that took me a really long time to master.”
Crafting the book as a comic meant thinking about pacing, about “how much of a scene I want to show and how many pages I have to do it in, and then figure out how fast or how slowly I want the reader to move through the scene.” The language she used to describe the process is cinematic: establishing shots, medium shots, close-ups, pans. Drawing a comic is, she said with a laugh, “the cheapest way to make a movie!”
Each of the book’s 300-plus pages was hand-drawn with watercolor brushes and India ink on Bristol paper, then scanned and colored with Photoshop. Lettering was added digitally, in a font created from Bui’s handwriting.
Though “The Best We Could Do” begins with Bui’s story of giving birth to her son, much of it covers territory its author doesn’t remember; she was born just months before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Bui herself needed to rely on her parents’ memories of these often painful events. Those conversations, she said, weren’t always easy, but it helped that she was having them in the context of a project.
“There were many times when the conversation could easily have ended if it was just casually talking, but we were recording and I had to push through and insist on certain details, getting chronology right, following up,” Bui said. Ultimately, though, “I think it was kind of cathartic, especially for my father, to put it all in order.”
Since the book’s publication two years ago, Bui has spoken to numerous audiences; she likes to engage them by doing live readings of the comics, casting anyone who volunteers to read different voices in the story. She’s looking forward to visiting Seattle, and particularly hopes to connect with the large Vietnamese community here. (SPL is making excerpts from “The Best We Could Do” available in the Vietnamese language, as part of a discussion guide.)
Young people, she says, often ask her how to talk to their parents about their past (her tips include jogging memories with photographs and “being less judgmental”); older readers tell her they bought her book to give to their children, “so the younger generation can understand what happened to them.” Ultimately, she hopes her story will help all of us understand our neighbors. “Being a child of survivors is hard,” she said. “There’s a lot of intergenerational trauma, and a lot of wounds people are trying to heal.”
Thi Bui will participate in a number of events as part of Seattle Reads 2019:
• 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 13, at Seattle Public Library’s Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle
• 1:30 p.m. Sunday, April 14, at Northgate Community Center, 10510 Fifth Ave. N.E., Seattle
• 7 p.m. Sunday, April 14, at Centilia Cultural Center, 1660 S. Roberto Maestas Festival St., Seattle
• 1:30 p.m. Monday, April 15, at University of Washington’s Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center, 3931 Brooklyn Ave N.E., Seattle
• 7 p.m. Monday, April 15, at Seattle Public Library’s Greenwood Branch, 8016 Greenwood Ave. N., Seattle
• 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, Asian Counseling and Referral Service, 3639 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., Seattle (also features a staged reading from the book)