Thi Bui: Creative Refuge(e)
Thi Bui’s family came to the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Tori Marchiony finds out how turning their story into a graphic novel, brought peace.
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.
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.