Journeys in Time and Space
- Delving into the poem that’s survived re-reading longer than the Bible and Shakespeare.
- Music has always been the quickest route to Kaki King’s soul.
- Thi Bui on how writing about her family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam helped her heal.
Thi Bui is an admired graphic novelist and illustrator. Her 2017 memoir The Best We Could Do was selected for an American Book Award, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and an Eisner Award, and listed on over thirty best of the year lists.
Bui was born in 1975 in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Her family fled Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War and moved to the United States in 1978. The Best We Could Do chronicled her family’s time in Vietnam, their immigration, and their enduring trauma.
Bui studied art and law at the University of California, Berkeley, earned an MFA in sculpture at Bard College, and an MA in art education at New York University. She taught for seven years at a high school in Oakland, CA, for kids who speak English as a second language and is now a professor at California College of the Arts.
She won a Caldecott Honor for illustrating A Different Pond (2017), written by poet Bao Phi. She and her son illustrated Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2019 children’s book Chicken of the Sea.
Kaki King is a virtuosic guitarist and composer. She is admired for her skillful fingerstyle technique combined with percussive fret-tapping and slapping as well as live sound loops.
Born in 1979 in Atlanta, she began taking classical guitar lessons at age 5. She played drums in high school bands and studied music at New York University, where she rediscovered her love for guitar. She released her debut album, the solo acoustic Everybody Loves You in 2002. She switched to electric guitar and a full band for her third album Until We Felt Red (2006). In 2014 she toured the United States with a visual and music storytelling performance in which her guitar was used as a projection screen. Her eighth album, The Neck Is a Bridge to the Body (2015) was released as a soundtrack to this multimedia show.
King was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2007 for co-writing the film score to Into the Wild, which also featured two of her songs. She has performed with symphonies and chamber ensembles, and recorded the album Live at Berklee (2017) in collaboration with the Porta Girevole Chamber Orchestra.
- Art & Design
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores the inner lives of some remarkable thinkers.
On this episode of Articulate, there’s an ancient poem that has survived rereading longer than the Bible and Shakespeare, but why?
Daniel Mendelsohn: You are always finding yourself in the text, but because your self changes, you are finding different selves and noticing different things.
Music has always been the quickest route to Kaki King’s soul.
Kaki King: It is too horrifying and scary for me to have actual, real friendships but I could be in your band.
And writing a graphic memoir about her family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam helped Thi Bui heal.
Thi Bui: People in the Vietnamese diaspora, they carry the sense of grief for this lost country but they’re not really allowed to grieve, so the book was really my grieving process.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Twenty-seven centuries have passed since The Odyssey first slipped into the Western Canon. Since then, it has been retold endlessly. The Wizard of Oz, Cold Mountain, Apocalypse Now, and many more have all borrowed its basic premise. Today readers, teachers and translators remain as captivated by it as ever. This epic poem may be 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter or iambic pentameter, depending on your preferred translation, but it is in every form, a wanderer’s tale. For Emily Wilson, a University of Pennsylvania scholar and the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English, questions about identity and otherness remain some of the story’s most enticing.
Emily Wilson: What is it to be in a family? What is it to be a person over time? For me, that’s one of the most fascinating questions just in general, but then The Odyssey speaks to that question of, am I the same person that I was 20 years ago? Am I the same person in America that I was in the UK? Is Ulysses the same person when he’s on the battlefield, verses when he’s with his son, verses when he’s with his wife? What is it to be the same or to be different? How do we treat people who are different from us? It’s a poem that’s about diaspora, immigration, emigration, travel, belonging, being at different places geographically and also being at different places spiritually and psychologically.
The story goes, that a decade after the fall of Troy, the Greek hero Odysseus has still not returned to his kingdom in Ithaca. For seven years he’s been stuck on an island, trapped by an infatuated nymph named Calypso with no crew, ship, or real possibility of escape. Back home, Odysseus’ faithful wife Penelope and unimpressive son Telemachus remain hopeful for the king’s return, even as rowdy suitors flood the palace, attempting to court the queen and plotting to murder the prince. What follows is the long and winding journey of a complicated hero. Odysseus is a beguiling liar, a cheater, and a trickster. Compounded as he is by human desires and failures, he makes a perfect subject for classicist and memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn.
Daniel Mendelsohn: If you’re into literature business, I’m a professor of literature, I’m a writer. It’s almost reflexive that you’re going to think a character like Odysseus is great, ’cause he’s a great storyteller. That’s how he wins over people again and again. He lies, he cajoles, he tells a great tall tale to get his way. So we think, he’s so great.
Odysseus ensnares the imagination of those who love a good yarn, but his character isn’t always an easy sell. Take, for example, Daniel Mendelsohn’s father Jay, a mathematically-minded senior, who decided to take his son’s course at Bard College and reveled in the rebuttals. Mendelsohn Sr. was very hard to convince.
Mendelsohn: Everything I thought was great about him because he’s like a writer basically. Odysseus is like a writer. My father thought was terrible. He said, “How could you trust a person like that?” And you know what? It’s a great question. So to have this voice of opposition constantly speaking up in the class, was sort of enacting some kind of oedipal drama between me and my father. He was always challenging me. I was always having to sort of look over and deal with this Greek chorus.
Jay Mendelsohn, as Daniel writes of his father in his memoir, An Odyssey, forced the classicist to learn the story in new ways. This is what happens to everyone who rereads the poem. Personal circumstances shape the response.
Mendelsohn: That’s what great about these epics, and particularly Homer. Look, you are different too. The you who is reading it changes over time, just like the characters in the text.
Mendelsohn: So the me who read The Odyssey at 15, and then in college, and then intensively in grad school, and then when I started teaching. I have been different at every set. So when you’re young, you love the adventure and the cyclops and the whatever. Look this is what my whole book is about. Having my elderly father in the class with me, reading the parts about Odysseus and his elderly father, that’s the stuff I pay attention to now. Maybe when I was 22, I thought it was interesting but it didn’t speak to me. That also fathers and son—
AJC: You find who you are at that time as you read it?
Mendelsohn: Yes you are always finding yourself in the text, but because yourself changes, you are finding different selves and noticing different things.
But readers don’t evolve alone. Over the years, the story itself has changed with each new translation. Throughout her rendition, Emily Wilson engaged in both an interpretive act and a creative one. She pondered the Homeric question, “who indeed was the author of this poem?” Or was there more than one? She rendered the poem in contemporary language in iambic pentameter. She found new ways to manage repeating themes, and to offer narrative clarity.
Wilson: I want it to be absolutely clear what’s going on at every moment. I think there’s also a false perception that because it’s very old, it must be very difficult. Like the older it is, the more difficult it must be. So I wanted to use an English that would not be that difficult.
AJC: So it sounds like you’ve gone for the ABCs. Accurate, brief, and clear.
Wilson: Yes, um hmm, exactly, yes.
Every translation, Daniel Mendelsohn points out, makes the story new again. You might even say that each one is its own story.
Mendelsohn: I always like to think of all translations in a conversation with each other, because every translation, and I know this from my own experience, is a reaction to earlier translations. I could talk about every English translation in print, and tell you why there’s some wonderful thing about it that the other ones don’t have. And I don’t think any responsible translator would ever claim to have written the definitive translation, partly because our language keeps changing and Homer’s language is fixed. So 40 years from now, there will be a new kind of English language that it will need a new translation.
And so The Odyssey will continue to evolve. At once ancient and new, familiar and revelatory. A reflection of those who dare to interrogate it.
Though she’s not part of any globe-trotting, stadium-shredding, rock band, Kaki King is one of the world’s foremost guitarists. Since her 2003 debut, her bold percussive style has expanded notions of what guitar music can both sound and look like. But given all her six-string heroics, the guitar is placed in King’s ranking of favorite instruments may come as a surprise.
Kaki King: I’d say drums, drums, drums, drums, bass guitar, bass guitar, guitar.
But as much as she enjoys playing other instruments, the guitar has been King’s most constant companion and valuable ally throughout her life and career. Take for instance, the ground-breaking 2015 multimedia performance project, The Neck is a Bridge to the Body, which adorns King’s music with striking imagery.
King: It’s all about allowing the guitar to tell a broader story. Now we’re telling it visually. I want to see a guitar X-ray. I want to see the guitar kind of broken up into chunks, and thrown around a bit and put back together and moved this way and that. We’re showing the inside of the guitar. We’re breaking it down, we’re pulling it apart, we’re expanding what it can be.
Such creative curiosity has driven Kaki King since childhood in suburban Atlanta, where she began taking classical guitar lessons at age five. She quickly became devoted to her craft, to the exclusion of other interests, an intensity she learned at home.
King: My generation of women, and especially growing up in the South, it was not normal for a girl to be obsessed with one thing and one thing alone, and only want to do that thing and not have a lot of friends. However, my family, because we’re a little bit different, that was fine.
King: My mother is a genius, and my mother had a physics degree by the time she was in her, I think she was 21; Master’s degree. When she went to work in the world of coding and working in physics, she was not allowed to rise. She became an activist. She became active in the woman’s movement, and that lead her to become a lawyer. So my mother has this brain that is the size of the city. There was no stereotypical ‘this-is-what-a-girl-does’ type of behavior in our household. It was a very feminist household that I was raised in.
King’s mother was deeply practical. After founding her own legal practice, she convinced her husband to become a lawyer as well. But Mr. King remained a free spirit, who delighted in his daughter’s musicality.
King: He saw that I liked music, that I was good at it at a very young age. He was never any kind of Stage Dad. He never pushed anything on me ever, but he would see me kind of gravitating towards certain things and he would go, “Hmm.” Next Christmas I got a drum set. Wasn’t told how to play it, or to play it, or anything like that. Then, “Let’s clean out that garage house that’s been doing nothing. We’ll sound-proof it, so if you want to have a band, you can have a band.” I think secretly he was like, “Please have a band.’
To her dad’s great pride, King would go on to play in numerous bands throughout high school. For the painfully shy, then still-closeted young woman, these groups offered a rare chance for social interaction.
King: It was too horrifying and scary for me to have actual real friendships, but I could be in your band, because I could speak a language with you musically that I didn’t have to then converse with you. We didn’t have to be close, but we could certainly exchange musical ideas. So I was everyone’s drummer, everyone’s bass player. Over time, the guitar became the thing I did privately.
King studied music at New York University, despite having no real plans to play professionally. On graduating in 2001, she assumed she’d return to Atlanta to start working at her parents’ law firm. But then chance intervened. Shortly after 9/11, feeling isolated and aggrieving in a frightened New York City, King brought her guitar into the subway seeking comfort. What she found was a way of life.
King: I just graduated and I also had moved to Brooklyn, away from the city where most of my friends still were. There was just these geographical, psychological, and actual physical barriers. You couldn’t travel throughout the city easily. So I was completely alone. I needed connection with humanity. I think that the appreciation people had for me at that time was really overwhelming and really wonderful. People then asked, “Do you have an album, a CD? “Can I buy one?” And I thought, well I might as well make one.
The next five years were a whirlwind for King, with appearances on late night talk shows, contracts with two different record labels, and even a Golden Globe nomination for her work on the score of the 2007 film Into the Wild. Fully consumed by this barrage of success, King’s 20s seemed to fly past. Because she was doing so well professionally, it was only in hindsight that she paused to take stalk of the personal costs.
King: I didn’t have these years where I grew a social group. I wasn’t part of a scene, I wasn’t gigging with that person, going to see that show. Because I went from a nobody, 22 year old getting out of school, dealing with a broken world, to being signed to a record label at 23. It set me apart, it was lonely. It was another shot of loneliness.
This loneliness caused King to start drinking heavily, culminating in a stay in rehab at age 31. But today she inhabits her version of herself that she says feels more whole.
King: I know myself to be myself every day. I’m very predictable. I don’t have the kind of mood swings. I don’t have the kind of substance abuse issues. I don’t wake up to a person and not know who that person’s going to be. I wake up to myself. I think that’s part of adulthood, it’s part of parenthood. I have unconditional love. I’ve never had unconditional love, ever. And feeling that for your children, and feeling the relief of yourself. I don’t need to worry about myself because I need to worry about you. Your needs, I’m going to put above mine no matter what. Everything that I go and do, and even if I’m away from you, it’s because I’m creating something or making something so that you can have a better life, or a life period, or we can keep the roof over our head. Whatever it is, it is for them. That sounds like such a burden, and such a horrible thing when you don’t have children. Then when you do, you’re like, Oh what a relief! It’s not just about me. I don’t have to worry, I’m fine. But I can give something to someone else, and I don’t need anything back.
This maternal selflessness was put to the test in 2017 when King’s three year old daughter, Cooper, was diagnosed with ITP, a rare autoimmune disorder that caused her to bruise easily and require frequent medical interventions.
King: Fortunately she never felt bad for a day. The only things that made her feel terrible was having to go to the hospital, and having transfusions and things like that. Other than that, none of her bruising was from trauma. So it wasn’t like she was being hit, it’s just simply, Oh, brush against the couch and a bruise appears. It was terrifying as a parent.
King: I was beside myself with fear.
AJC: It’s still a worry.
King: It’s still a worry, but she will, I have full confidence that her life will be very unimpacted by this, whether it goes into full remission, whether it’s acute case of it, or whether it is something that does last. ‘Cause it could.
In late 2017, in order to process and cope with the emotions surrounding her daughter’s condition, Kaki King started a collaboration with information designer Giorgia Lupi. Bruises joins her music with Lupi’s data visualizations to document Cooper’s symptoms, as well as King’s reactions to them. The work offers an intimate glimpse into King’s experiences and approach she hopes that will offer audiences the same kind of relief that music gives her on a daily basis.
King: Maybe the fact that I allow people a space to come in to a situation, to put their phone down, to watch something and hear something that’s magnificent, that gives them a release and a charge, and a catharsis that allows them to continue on. They can go back and they can continue to fight another day, maybe that’s just as important.
Today, more than three decades after she first picked up the guitar, Kaki King is still searching for ever more interesting ways to strike a chord.
Thi Bui knows what it is to commit to something for the long haul. In her early 20s, she became consumed with piecing together the many accounts of her family’s tumultuous immigration to the US from war-torn Vietnam, and her own difficult upbringing. 12 years later, she finally finished weaving those stories into her debut graphic novel, 2017’s national best-seller, The Best We Could Do. The time in between saw Bui, a sculptor by training, learned for the first time how to make comics. She also had her first child, and for seven years taught here, at Oakland International High School, where all the students speak English as their second language.
Thi Bui: Other refugees who are much more recent than other immigrants from all over the world, it connected me to a bigger story of human migration. It was all part of the therapy. Really, that was working on this book.
The family’s journey to America was fraught with danger, and would leave each of them forever scarred. The 336 page illustrated memoir probes the young lives Bui’s parents in search of context for her own childhood, with a mother who was constantly working and a father who was emotionally unavailable. Over the course of many interviews with her relatives, not to mention the birth of her own son, Bui found new empathy for her parents. They had, after all, done the best they could. The book is a testament to resiliency and a document of inter-generational healing. When Bui returned to Vietnam in 2017, after it was finished, something within her had shifted.
Bui: It was really cool to not go back looking for an origin story anymore, and to just be able to appreciate Vietnam as the country that it is now without trying to find my place in it. ‘Cause it’s really this bustling, ever-changing country of 95 million people who are not me. So I feel free of that sense of loss that I was raised with. People in the Vietnamese Diaspora, they carry this sense of grief for this lost country but they’re not really allowed to grieve. So the book was really my grieving process. Maybe that was another reason it was so drawn out, ’cause I had to unpack a lot of stuff.
But back home in Berkeley, California where the familial relationships she wrote of are still unfolding every day, contentment comes with the acceptance that there will be no perfect solution, no tidy epilogue.
Bui: With Asian-American families, it’s really complicated. That whole healing process happens in dark corners, it doesn’t really happen face-to-face. We had a couple of hugs but not that many. It’s not like in the movies where suddenly we’re good. The conflict that I introduced in the book, with my mom how I’m just sometimes a snot and I’ll argue with her over things like what we’re having for dinner. That’s still ongoing, it’s every day.
AJC: In the book, when you said, “It was tough to swallow when you realized that your mom’s happiest days were before children.”
AJC: Did that information come before you were pregnant, before you had thought about starting your own family?
Bui: It did, actually.
AJC: Did it impact your view of what your offspring’s destiny would be like?
Bui: Yeah, I mean I guess it’s this secret that a lot of women keep, right? That motherhood is really hard and it requires a lot of sacrifice and maybe you aren’t completely happy about it. I guess in some ways it prepared me for motherhood. I wasn’t going into it blind.
Of course, Bui has felt blindsided by plenty of other things throughout her life. Take for instance, January 2011, a full six years before The Best We Could Do was ready for shelves, when graphic novelist GB Tran’s wrenching account of his family’s experiences in fleeing Vietnam was released to great acclaim.
Bui: I was crushed, because I thought that my book was going to be the first Vietnamese-American graphic novel about the Vietnam War. Here was this beautiful book that was really well done, and I was like, I hate him. After I got over that immature response, I stalked him I was like, ‘Hi G.B. Tran, my name is Thi and you just did what I wanted to do. But maybe we can be friends now that I don’t want to kill you anymore, and also do you want to do a collaborative comic with me?’ He kindly agreed to do it. We did a two-page comic about meeting each other, so I got to draw my fantasy of pulling a Highlander on him, and going, “There can only be one!”
AJC: Clearly there was room for both of you.
Bui: Yeah, I mean it’s so cool to have other people go before you. I think because I didn’t grow up with movies or books or any kind of pop-culture that had people like me, I thought that I had to be the only one in order to make it.