Thi Bui, author of “The Best We Could Do,” on Vietnamese identity and telling her parents’ stories
This interview was originally published in the March 30, 2018 issue of The Slant. Want more Asian American news, media and culture every week? Subscribe for free today.
Thi Bui is a Vietnamese American cartoonist and author of the critically acclaimed graphic novel, The Best We Could Do—a national bestseller, ALA 2018 Notable Books Selection … and one of Bill Gates’ top 5 books of 2017.
A veteran illustrator, Bui’s work has appeared in The Nib, PEN America, the Asian American Literary Review, Hyphen Magazine and more. She is a contributor to Refugees Anthology, published by Abrams Press, and illustrated A Different Pond, a 2018 Caldecott Honor Book, with writer Bao Phi.
In The Best We Could Do, Bui poignantly depicts her parents’ journey and struggle from war-torn Vietnam in comic form—and it’s one book you can’t miss.
We caught up with Thi Bui over the phone.
Natalie Bui: While I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was really painful for your parents to have to retell these really heavy narratives?
Thi Bui: You know, I don’t know if it was painful for them as it was for me. My parents are talkers, so they actually — it’s not that big of a deal for them to be telling these stories. These are stories that I grew up with and revisited as an adult more thoroughly. There are are some details that were painful for them to dwell on but when it came time to draw it, I was the one spending hours drawing the panels that takes a few seconds to talk about it. I suppose it was a difference in reading it for them.
Maybe — they didn’t cry reading the stuff, but maybe it meant something to them to see it digested by their daughter and represented? I would probably say there was some discomfort to them getting used to the idea of getting their story told through somebody else.
NB: Of course, you were very inclusive and they had a very big role in developing this narrative as well.
TB: It was very collaborative and I tried to give them the chance to veto anything they wanted. I was sure to show them the rough drafts and even before it went to the editors, I made sure it got through their eyes first.
NB: What do you think of the notion that Vietnamese refugees or that our stories — Asian American stories are still centered around the refugee experience? I ask that because most recently, an Asian American author, Jenny Zhang, wrote the book “Sour Heart.” She wanted to write stories around people not always being the “successful great immigrant.” That sometimes these people are just plain weird, bad, and shitty people.
Viet Thanh Nguyen actually talks about how our stories are centered around the successful refugee experience. What do you think about the notion? Are we still at a place where we should be sharing those stories? Or are we at a place where we yearn for more — and aren’t defined by our refugee experience?
TB: I think it’s a young person’s yearning to be more than the war that brought us here, and it’s something I completely understand. But if you think about it — how many stories come out every year about World War II? How many stories are about the Holocaust? It’s a continuous stream. We are such a ahistorical culture in America that we need these stories constantly told in America and retold. So that they remember where we come from and remember what happened.
And if we lose that piece, then we lose that foundation on how we built the idea of freedom, that cultural freedom, and the the youth are yearning for. I don’t think anyone should have to write about the Vietnam war if they don’t want to but — it’s never been my intention. But I was born in the Vietnam War and I was writing an origin story — it would be a big fat lie to try to skirt around the fact that the Vietnam War is the reason why there is a Vietnamese American population in America.
The historian in me wants to give people a foundation that gives people a story that is more accurate, more representative of what people actually went through, instead of learning from the bad Vietnam War documentaries made by Americans. Viet Thanh Nguyen belongs to the same generation — he’s a few years older than me. It makes sense for people who went through it to write about it. He’s part of that 1.5 generation, and it’s a bit different from someone who is coming out from the early 20s right now.
But I don’t think that — it’s a constantly evolving process. But we can’t forget the historical piece.
Going back to what you were saying about the model minority thing, that is something I’m actively trying to work against in my comics journalism that I’m working on right now. The people that I’m talking to right now came as refugees, but they didn’t have that successful immigrant story. They are behind bars, in detention centers, waiting for deportation and there are so many of them. I’m trying to highlight their stories and round out the single refugee story narrative that my own family fell into.
NB: Is that a new project you’re working on?
TB: It is. I got pulled into anti-deportation work in December. [The Asian Americans] Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus reached out to me and some of their lawyers were talking about the Cambodians and Vietnamese who were rounded up in the fall. And they were working around the clock against a deportation case in November, December. They reached out to me to spread the word at the time and I don’t know, I felt a impetus at the time.
I have no idea how to tell a story that I don’t really understand. But I started doing research. The more I learned, the madder I got. So I’ve done a deep dive and now I’m writing a much longer piece about the history of Southeast Asians, them coming here, the act of U.S. intervention abroad, and then the immigration reform in the mid 90's and how that has landed so many people behind bars. And because they are immigrants, they have to serve their sentence, and on top of that they get punished extra with detention, deportations.
I’m talking to family members — it’s really heartbreaking. I’m using my best to highlight their stories.
NB: Whoa, I’m actually an employee at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — their LA Region!
TB: I think I saw that!
NB: It’s a really big case. We’re working on that right now — I didn’t know they reached out to you to work and change that narrative.
However — with the projects that you’re working on, who would you say your audience is?
TB: I was always writing for us. The existence of Vietnamese words being spelled in Vietnamese [with] the proper diacritics — people like me can read them, and I was always fascinated how I can pronounce the diacritical marks. People like me who grew up here but wanted to know more about how they got here. And also knew that they weren’t seeing the full picture in things that they had access to.
I had a lot of anger in my 20s with what went into the conception of the book. Basically, it was my revenge against all the bad Vietnam War movies I grew up with. Mostly it was for us.
But then the high school teacher in me wants to differentiate into different audiences and give people different access points. Mothers have identified with the opening chapter. Children who want to have better relationships with their parents often tell me that they read the book and cried and called their parents. Which is one of my favorite reactions.
NB: There were a lot of lines in this book that struck me, being a daughter of Vietnamese refugees. There was a line about how “proximity and closeness” are not the same, and how while we might look like, on paper, a close, all- around-American family, I can call my mom every day for five minutes — but talk about nothing. About what I’ve eaten today. Or if I bought rice.
TB: Yep. Yep.
NB: Do you still feel closer to your parents? Did writing this book fill that gap?
TB: It was a very sneaky way to spend quality time with my parents on my own terms.
NB: Very true.
TB: I now understand them a lot better. I was probably hoping for more reciprocity? You can’t always get what you want, you know? (laughs)
It’s a process to get your parents to understand who you are. And as you get older, and as you become a parent yourself, it’s easier to understand their shortcomings as well.
NB: Can you explain more about the reciprocity?
TB: Uh — well, the older generation has a hard time understanding that it was actually hard to be their children. If we only let the older generation tell the story of how they got here, then we get the classic immigrant success story, where you work really hard and you sacrifice everything for your children to have an amazing life. And then it doesn’t make any sense for us to be unhappy or ungrateful.
So I guess I was hoping for reciprocity and understanding what it was like to be their children — especially the psychological effects of growing up with people who respect you so much, and the will strain it puts on your relationship. I think they get it? But still, our communication styles are pretty different.
I’m never going to have a relationship with my mother where it’s like “I love you I love you I love you” to each other, so she has to learn a little bit about how I express myself and I have to accept the ways she expresses herself. So we move in translation mode.
But I suppose it makes me feel like I’m growing too. Like it makes me feel like I’m stretching and I’m accommodating my mother’s way of expressing herself.
NB: That reminds me of how I was watching this panel with John Cho and Viet Thanh Nguyen. [Cho] made such an interesting comment, because you know that John Cho and Viet Thanh Nguyen came from different generations. Viet Thanh was the refugee and John Cho was the son of refugees’ parents.
And he said that it was so much pressure when it was made known to you early on, how everything was a sacrifice for you. That everything was done for you, all these sacrifices were for you, us. Him. He said it was a lot of pressure to hear that, and he didn’t know if he would ever want to hang that statement over a child.
It made me think about your book, on how there was such a big theme of motherhood, on how carrying sorrow — on how it would affect raising your son. How would your son feel the weight of his past? I know this is a loaded question but — how did it affect the way you raised your son? Did you let him know of these sorrows, these sacrifices, and make it known to him?
TB: Oh, well, I’ll just be blunt. My son is half-white. He’s a good-looking boy who has a nice life in Berkeley. So I’m like, “I need to bust his bubble sometimes.”
NB: (laughs) That’s really funny.
TB: (laughs) You know, come on, his inherited trauma is pretty — pretty minimal. And I think he would need to know his actual history. He would read history all the time as a little kid, and he actually really loves it. He talks about the history of stories, and I always try to get his history from different perspectives. Like when we talk about World War II, we talk about the Japanese perspective as well as the American perspective, and the Vietnamese perspective — which he said people never learn about.
So I’m hoping — you know, the two groups that really bug me are: one, hateful men , and two, really clueless white people. And — and I’m determined to not have my son fall into either group. But he does live in a bubble and I have to work against that. And history — history is one of my best tools.
NB: That’s right — given your educator background, I wanted to touch upon another thing. On how the phrasing — “I love you” isn’t very common phrasing or language in Vietnamese — in how we talk to our parents, or to each other.
There was this one strip that really resonated with me, on how saying “I love you” isn’t easy but how our mothers are wanting to buy clothes for us — and that line where that mother says “Try it on!” Try it on!”
That hit so close to home because that is how my mom — gah! Every time I’m home there’s always a new dress waiting for me! And it was always a matter of trying on that dress right now. It’s one of my most favorite lines and it makes me think about we don’t say “I love you” very directly. I can’t even tell you the direct translation of “I love you.”
TB: Yeah. It doesn’t come out right.
NB: It doesn’t feel natural. However, when you threw in the word “con” and and you said “con ơi … we’re going home,” (with “con” being a loving term of endearment, and “con ơi” gesturing to that person being called –NB) that was really, really powerful. Because that word itself is so loving, and it was a very beautiful term of endearment that is frequently used in replacement to the lack of “I love you.” I wanted to ask why that term of endearment was important for you to integrate and how you describe that term to others.
TB: I didn’t know how intentional it was. It was just a very emotional response after giving birth to speak Vietnamese. You’re so hormonal after giving birth but I guess, now that I think about it, it’s what you said. That we do have many ways to express love in our language. And part of my goal for myself and healing is to develop the ability to see and express things as they are rather than — wishing for things that I don’t have.
Instead of wishing that my mother was this way or that way — or that my past has been different — learning to accept her and my history and my own faults. And seeing them as they are and also learning to recognize the beautiful aspects of those things too.
NB: And you’re right, there are a lot of phrases and terms of endearment. It’s always like an afterthought. Not as clear cut.
Thi, the last question I have for you is that there was another important theme for you. That this book wasn’t going to be a story on loss — or a symbol about loss. Through this process, did it help you learn to love your parents better? How did it not become a story of loss and loneliness to you?
TB: I think the whole process of putting the book together was a grieving process. But I do think that the loss is there. But, hm.
I suppose I didn’t know what was going to end up in the book. But whether it was me sitting down to write a diatribe of how lonely I was — it started there for sure. But the feeling — the loneliness was just an entryway into a process of reflecting. And I suppose, like, having the space of the book to reflect also let me see things differently and grow.
My hope that me being transparent of that process is the reader’s space to reflect and change and grow and hopefully act. I suppose the book is an offering. It is an offering where our community has a lot of wounds. And it’s important to be able to talk about them so that we can heal.
And I suppose I’m proud we’re doing it. Vietnamese people are — and we see them as masters of adaptation and they are ultimate survivors. But I never really worry that Vietnamese people are going to crumble away. I think that [there are] strong Vietnamese people who have gone through so much that are still tough as nails, are funny, and surprising in different ways.
I hope these things — the book is a window in time. It is a closed chapter now. But I hope we can heal. And I hope this is a new way to get a complete picture of our community. Because our community is so alive. It is changing and growing.
NB: Thi, thanks so much. This interview was — kind of emotional for me.
NB: Yeah! So it was really great to talk to you. It meant a lot to me to be able to see those phrasings and words. Just seeing the word “con” was so striking to me, and it was really healing reading your book for me.
But now more of a personal question for me. How do you suggest one, if we all aren’t going to be cartoonists and publish a book — how do you advise the younger generation to talk to their parents about this stuff? If they want to ask more about their time?
TB: Just ask, I guess! I’m trying to get my book translated in Vietnamese and it is a little bit difficult because I have to go through Vietnam-centered ministries. If your parents can read English I’m so happy that my book can be the crack in the door that you slide on the table. And if you can get them to read it, then it might get them to open up some opportunities to compare and contrast this family story with your own family story. Or even pulling out an old photograph and just asking more about it.
I remember when I first started, all of my questions were very me-centric. The further I got away from questions of myself , and using my empathy to imagine what my parents must have been thinking about or longing and hoping for in their life in their early 20s, the better my questions got and the more interesting answers I got.
Thi Bui was born in Vietnam three months before the end of the Vietnam War, and came to the United States in 1978 as part of the wave of refugees from Southeast Asia. “The Best We Could Do” has been selected as an Indies Introduce, Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title, and one of Bill Gates’ top reads for 2017. Her previous works include A Different Pond and Fear is a Great Motivator for Political Action.