Thi Bui's graphic memoir The Best We Could Do still leaves us speechless. The beauty of her art and precision of her language create story that feels perfectly balanced. Bui's understanding of how stories are told comes through on every page, in every frame. In addition to being one of our shortlisted authors for the Reading Women Award in nonfiction, Thi Bui is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in autobiography. Bui told us about her writing process and the importance of reading stories from refugees.
This is your first book—congratulations! How does it feel to finally have your story out in the world?
It's wonderful and a bit like having another baby. Or more like a fully grown teenager who's ready to leave the house. I'm happy to see it out in the world having a life of its own.
A lot of readers have yet to experience the joy of reading a graphic novel or illustrated memoir. Do you have any advice for how to read them? Or what to pay attention to while reading?
In my writing for comics, I take out all the descriptive language from the words and put that information into the visual art. I also put a lot of thought into the pacing of scenes and how I want you to read the words. And I know that if I do my work well, it will read seamlessly and quickly, so the danger is that a reader might breeze through it and take for granted much of what's there. It's fine and natural to read a graphic novel or graphic memoir quickly and pay more attention to the words and the plot the first time around. But if my book took you less than two hours to finish, please read it again and let yourself notice different elements the second time—maybe the feeling of a two page spread, or the cultural details in the backgrounds, or the structure of the narrative.
The art is stunning. You mention in the story that this was your first attempt at the illustrated memoir format. How did you come to settle on illustrating your memoir and what were some of the things you learned along the way?
Thank you! I was inspired by graphic memoirs and other comics that I happened to read around the time I was looking for a way to visually represent the oral history research I had been doing with my family. In retrospect it was incredibly ambitious and maybe a little arrogant to think I could just pick up another art form and learn it on my own. I learned by watching other cartoonists work and asking them about how they made decisions. From how many different ways of working I've seen, I've learned that there's no one correct way to do it, but there are certainly things that just . . . work, you know? I make note of them in the comics I'm reading, and I try to understand them by looking at them closely and breaking them down. And I drew many iterations of pages that didn't work, but I learned from my bad pages as well.
Culture tends to believe that you can either be an artist or a writer. You’re both and you do it masterfully. What is your process? Do the words come first or the art? Or do they come simultaneously?
The words used to come more easily than the pictures. It used to take me forever to draw thumbnails because I had to train myself to think in sequential panels and also make compositional decisions like what "camera angle" to use, who to put in the foreground or background, and where the text would go. I've gotten much better, but only through practice. Now I generally take shortcuts through the scriptwriting stage by just scribbling notes for what I want to say. I prefer to go straight to thumbnails, which means I'm coming up with the art and the words at the same time.
Your story also includes much of your parents’ stories—their childhoods, coming of age, and how they found each other. What is it about our parents’ stories that they often end up becoming part of our own?
Parents are archetypal. They're major characters in our origin stories. We attribute (or blame) a lot of who we are on the people who raised us, who gave birth to us. When it was my turn to take on such a monumental role though, I understood the magnitude of the responsibility and also that being a parent is in many ways playing a role that may or may not be suited to who one actually is. So I took it upon myself to learn as much as possible about who my parents were before they became my parents.
What about refugee stories, in particular, makes them to important to remember? And how do stories help us with that?
Among Vietnamese Americans, our refugee stories are always just one or two layers below the surface. The Vietnamese nail lady or the pediatrician you might have a pleasant, ordinary encounter with probably carries inside them a whole history that is far more tragic or incredible than anything I wrote about in my memoir. Survivors often don't talk about their past struggles because there isn't really space for that in everyday life. Stories provide a space. To be honest, while I was writing, I was putting that narrative together for my own healing process. It's only since the book has come out that I've really thought about what it might do for other people. My friend Cynthia Nguyen, a psychiatrist who researches refugee trauma, told me about a conversation she had with Nisha Sajnani, the head of drama therapy at NYU. She shared these beautiful words: "The role of the artist is as witness to history, transmitter of memory and the one who gives invisible/omitted suffering visible form to make it possible to bear witness, to grieve, to empathize, to question, to reflect, and to act." I don't know if I do all that, but it is an aspiration to work towards.
Especially in the U.S., we usually get a heavy politicized story of the Vietnam War that overlooks the people who had to live it. How can we work to counteract that narrative?
We can listen to those voices now. There are so many great books to read! The writer Viet Thanh Nguyen (The Sympathizer, The Refugees) put a good primer together on Vietnamese and Vietnamese American literature.
And among those stories, there are even more omitted stories like those of ethnic minorities and people in Laos and Cambodia, who also suffered the impact of that war. Writers like Kao Kalia Yang and Saymoukda Vongsay are helping fill those gaps in the stories.
What have been some of your favorite books that you’ve read this year?
Something I should have read years ago is The Book of Salt by Monique Truong, which I inhaled while I was hungry and traveling to a place where people don't look like me. It was perfect. And Eleanor Davis' comic, You & a Bike & a Road, which dealt with sadness and trying to live more fully, which I relate to.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on finding a balance between my public life, which includes giving talks and interviews and meeting a lot of new people, with my introverted, introspective tendencies that scream at me to run away to the woods. I'm working on a few short comics, possibly a children's book, and a book-length work of graphic nonfiction called The Sea Is Rising, about climate change through the lens of people living in Viet Nam.
Thi Bui was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States as a child. She studied art and law and thought about becoming a civil rights lawyer, but became a public school teacher instead. Bui lives in Berkeley, California, with her son, her husband, and her mother. The Best We Could Do is her debut graphic novel.