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.