Thi Bui’s debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, is a deeply affecting look at her Vietnamese family’s complex journey to the very country that inflicted a lion’s share of the destruction to their home region during the Vietnam War. Bui’s story ranges through many time periods: the present, her childhood in California, her parents’ extensive and exhausting process of attaining refugee status and their tumultuous time in Vietnam. Bui’s prose is carefully crafted, and her brushstrokes are similarly spare and simple, rendered in a muted palette of black, white and burgundy. The effect is immediate: Readers will be drawn into each and every frame. Bui’s minimalist approach ensures readers can’t gloss over the harsh realities of her family’s immigrant experience, but it also forces us to recognize the universal struggles and triumphs that all families experience. Fans of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis will not want to miss this incredibly relevant work.
Bui reflects on the current political climate and encourages Americans to listen to the incredible stories of refugee families like her own.
The idea that people come to this country to steal from it is a crazy one.
As the poet Warsan Shire has attested, “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.”
Running for safety is one of the most basic, primal instincts we humans have. It is natural, and human, to migrate in search of security, shelter, food and a better future, perhaps a place to raise one’s children. Borders, the structures that can halt such migration, are shaped by conquest, wars and treaties, and as such are entirely man-made and unnatural.
“In my experience, people who have had a brush with death help others when they need it.”
Periodically, conflict or natural disaster—or some terrible association of the two—force large waves of people into involuntary migration. To have lived one’s entire life free of this experience is to be very lucky. To go through it, I think, peels away some layers of the veil between life and death. You realize that the stability of your world is not to be taken for granted. That things can change, and go from bad to worse very quickly, and you must be ready to grab those important to you and run, or stay and fight, and nothing is guaranteed. In The Best We Could Do, I narrate the story of my family who fled from home in a small boat in the late ’70s, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In my experience, people who have had a brush with death help others when they need it. People who, perhaps because they have not had that experience, lack the empathy to extend help to refugees often say that we should be helping our own instead. But often they don’t do that either.
America, the land of such amazing contradiction that I have learned to call home, and into which I pour a significant amount of taxes, donations, labor and love, is at a crossroads. Either it succumbs to fear of “outsiders” (many of whom are just as American as anyone else) and hurts many people, or it progresses into a multicultural social experiment that will be the envy of other nations. I would like to see the latter happen, and I know that living together is a learning process. So I offer my little book, the best I could do, to put human faces and names and personal stories onto the words “immigrant” and “refugee.” And I seek out and read and listen to stories that are different from my own. It is the best way I know how to build community and understanding.
I am holding out my hand. Not to steal. Not to take. This book is an offering of peace, and a hope for understanding.