Thi Bui Asks Readers to Reconsider Their Assumptions About the Vietnam War

Bui’s powers as a documentarian and oral historian make The Best We Could Do a thought-provoking take on Vietnam and immigrant experiences in general.

The Best We Could Do

Publisher: Abrams Comicarts
Price: $24.95
Writer/Artist: Thi Bui
Publication date: 2017-03

Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do is a new graphic memoir that immediately invites comparisons to works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Like these works, The Best We Could Do provides an intimate and compelling treatment of life amidst political crisis. Bui alternatingly tells the story of her life as a new mother in California, her parents’ upbringing in Vietnam, and that of the sweeping changes that bring these two worlds together.

The story is bookended by the birth of Bui’s son Travis, but the real heart of The Best We Could Do seems to come in Bui’s ambivalence over her father and mother, Bô and Má. Bui eschews the easy narrative of triumph over adversity when recounting her parents’ experiences as refugees and immigrants. In its place is a far more challenging vision of the immigrant experience in which scars remain and the sacrifices may not have been worth it. When we meet them as older people, Bô and Má are, each in their own way, irascible and unpleasant in ways that Bui finds baffling at first. The Best We Could Do approaches this apparent intransigence as a mystery to be untangled.

Bui’s deeply conflicted portrayal of her father Bô, is perhaps the book’s most compelling sketch. When we first meet him, he is a brooding figure who seems to live only to chain smoke and rationalize his distance from his family. “In the dark apartment in San Diego, I grew up with the terrified boy who became my father,” Bui tells us, “Afraid of my father craving safety and comfort, I had no idea that the terror I felt was only the long shadow of his own” (128-9).

From there, Bui follows Bô through what seems like every imaginable station of life in Vietnam. Bô moves from the remote Northern town of Hăi Phòng to the chessboard,” a “Southeast Asian version of the Lower East Side” where criminal elements inspire terror and excitement, to University, to a teacher’s college where he seeks an exemption from the horrors of the war, and finally, a refugee camp. Any hopes for redemption are ultimately dashed when it becomes evident that his apparent liberation comes at the cost of Bui’s mother’s happiness: Bui writes, “I’d like to tell this as a happy story, in which a young man, my father, meets a young woman, my mother. They fall in love and marry, and several years later, have me. But my mother’s version of the story foils this” (190).

Speaking primarily to a Western audience, Bui takes on the surprising task of asking readers to reconsider their assumptions about the causes and failures of the Vietnam War. For Bui, the US exit from Vietnam in 1975 wasn’t simply a retreat from ill-advised foreign policy; it also constituted an act of abandonment. Asking us to consider the famous image of CIA agents fleeing the roofs of their Saigon apartments via helicopter, she reminds readers, “There is no single story of that day. In Vietnam today, among the victors, it is called Liberation Day. Overseas among expats like my parents, it is remembered as The Day We Lost Our Country” (211).

Her take on the war’s end raises a thorny set of questions. The version of the country known by Bui’s parents is, at some rate, inseparable from French and American occupations and the long line of invaders preceding them. What happens the way of life -- and colonial holdovers -- that an independent Vietnam looks to supplant?

This dilemma sets the stage for the emotional climax of The Best We Could Do, which comes with the family’s arrival in a refugee camp: “We were now boat people,” she tells us, “five hundreds of thousands of refugees.” With this, her parents’ version of Vietnam seems in imminent danger of being struck from the official record. Bui accentuates this realization with a striking page layout in which she inserts the family’s government identification photos. Complex lives and long family histories are endangered when reduced to such impersonal official documents.

Bui’s artwork and draftsmanship are among the greatest strengths of the memoir. Set against a red and gray watercolor wash, Bui has produced a gorgeously rendered set of illustrations. Her illustration is stylish without feeling flashy or gimmicky (as is the case with too many graphic novels as of late). Instead, she emphasizes tight narration through an understated style that combines the expressive whimsy of “clear line” comics with subtle references to East Asian visual traditions. One can, for example, see hints of Vietnamese and Japanese woodblocks in many of the book’s spare angular sketches. Artwork like this will send readers back again and again to tease out the emotional layers of her human subjects and fine suggestiveness of her sparse backgrounds.

In a final analysis The Best We Could Do is perhaps a small step behind the very best graphic memoirs out there. For all her debts to Maus and Persepolis, Bui doesn't quite forge the distinctive voice or fantastic splendor that makes these works so memorable. She moves unevenly between dry academic narration, emotive confession, and light humor. Tonal issues aside, Bui’s powers as a documentarian and oral historian make The Best We Could Do a thought-provoking take on Vietnam and immigrant experiences in general. It’s an impressive debut by an author/artist who seems poised to create some significant work in the coming years.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

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10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

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7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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