“Every causality of war is someone’s grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, brother, sister, child, lover,” writes Thi Bui in The Best We Could Do. We all know this, intellectually, but in the pummel of daily headlines, our shock can turn to numbness, and sometimes we forget. Bui’s stunning debut graphic memoir reminds us that every casualty, every refugee, every person effected by war is a member of someone’s family. The book tells her compelling story as a three-year-old refuge from Vietnam, her life as an immigrant in the U.S., and her quest to understand her parents’ lives that were torn apart by war.
The Best We Could Do is beautifully illustrated in black and white with a red watercolor wash. The book grabs us from page one, even if we aren’t fans of graphic memoirs. The story begins in 2005 with the narrator in the throes of labor with her first child. Later, when she’s left alone in the hospital room with her newborn son, a “terrifying” thought creeps into her mind: “Family is now something I have created, and not just something I was born into.” She feels overwhelmed by the enormous responsibility and says “a wave of empathy for my mother washes over me.” In 1978 her parents had escaped Vietnam with three small children and a fourth who was born in a refugee camp: “I am now older than my parents were when they made that incredible journey. But I fear that around them, I will always be a child.”
For years the narrator had tried to bridge the emotional gap between herself and her parents. Like Art Speigelman in Maus, she shows herself interviewing her parents about their lives, the wars, and the country they once called home. Writes Bui, “If I could see Vietnam as a real place and not as a symbol of something lost, I would see my parents as real people and learn to love them better.” But the conversations are difficult. Her father had always been emotionally distant and it took time for the narrator to learn which questions to ask. Her mother deflects questions or is more likely to tell her stories to Bui’s husband. Still she persists.
As her parents talked about their childhood, she learns more about Vietnam’s history of war and violence: how the Japanese occupation during WWII left her father’s North Vietnam village starved for food and basic supplies; how violence against the Vietnamese caused her mother’s family to flee their upper class life in Cambodia and return to South Vietnam. With their different backgrounds, it’s unlikely the narrator’s parents would ever meet, but they found each other at a teacher’s college and, against her mother’s family’s wishes, they married. After their first baby died, the young couple tried to start over by moving to the beautiful coastal town of Ha Tien. It was 1965. Soon American troops appeared and war tore their lives apart again.
Even as the narrator tries to understand her parents, she questions the events of history. What if the French had not returned after WWII? She writes, “1945 could have been the moment for a union of Vietnamese leaders from the North, Center and South to create a self-determining democracy. Had they succeeded, the next thirty years of war might have been avoided, millions of lives spared. My own life, who knows how different?” Was the fall of Saigon a Liberation Day, or a day when their country was lost? Though some Americans question whether South Vietnam should have surrendered, the narrator notes that when the communists arrived, there was no bloodshed and no lives lost: “Perhaps Duong Van Minh’s surrender saved my life.”
Throughout, the artwork underscores the family’s emotional journey: the fear and uncertainty of living in a country besieged by war, their scary escape by boat where they traveled for days until they reached the shores of Malaysia and were taken to a refugee camp, and then the sharp contrast of a more comfortable but confusing life in the U.S.
Bui shows the true cost of war: how generations of her family tried to live their lives and raise their children while violence repeatedly erupted around them. She shows how the instability impacted every facet of their lives, not only during the wars and their harrowing escape, but in the decades that followed. Never feeling completely safe, even in the U.S., her parents taught Bui and her siblings the important skills needed to survive: when to run and what to take “when the shit hits the fan,” what Bui calls “My Refugee Reflex.” Still, emotional walls were erected between parents and children, husband and wife, walls that could not be scaled for years and in some cases never at all. But the narrator persists, even when her questioning uncovers uncomfortable truths, such as her mother admitting that her happiest years were before she met her husband and had kids.
As a graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do does more than simply illustrate a story. Trained in fine arts, Bui learned to draw comics in order to create this book. Her images are often haunting and thought-provoking. When she depicts herself first interviewing her mother, the women are shown talking at a table, with scenes of Vietnam in the background. To illustrate how she thought of her mother when she was a girl, Bui includes skillful drawings she made when she was 10. She even drew renderings of famous photos like “Saigon Execution” and helicopter airlifts from the roof the US embassy. One of the most powerful moments came when I turned the page and saw the actual photos of her family, “mug shots” taken when they arrived at the refugee camp. Having been caught up in the narrative drama, these photos jolted me back—this happened to a real family, these young parents and these three little girls.
This memoir represents ten years of the narrator questioning what it means to be a parent and a longer period of trying to better understand her own parents. Even after all that effort, the narrator still struggles: “I have figured out, more or less, how to raise my little family, but it’s being both a parent and a child without acting like a child, that eludes me.” By book’s end she comes to see her parents as independent, free-thinking individuals with their own lives and identities beyond simply being her parents. She writes, “But maybe being their child means that I will always feel the weight of their past.” Now she watches her son, hoping that the family legacy of war and loss is not passed on.
The Best We Could Do is deeply moving, warm and, at times, even funny. It’s relevant as we consider the current refugees—someone’s mother, brother, child, lover—who are seeking asylum today. This graphic memoir is a war story and a refugee saga, but at its heart is a story of parents and children, and what it means to be both.