Graphic Novel Review
The graphic memoir The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui opens with a single frame from the point of view of a woman—peering over a pregnant belly, and round, mountainous, knees somewhere in the distance. “I’m in labor,” declares the caption. “The pain comes in twenty-foot waves and Má has disappeared.” Bui’s mother has stepped out, as the pain of watching her daughter labor becomes her own pain— and too much to bear.
The start of the book begins an unexpected new life. With the birth of her son, Bui’s birthed herself, as a parent, and discovered a new understanding of her mother. Starting from the seed of understanding what it is to be a parent, Bui traces, across cultural and generational divides, the historic, and traumatic, events that shaped her parents’ lives in Vietnam. As an immigrant who arrived in the US when she was a young child without clear memories of her life before, the trauma of the wars that Bui’s parents survived are ghosts— nebulous, unshaped— but real and alive, and felt by their children in the everyday. “And though my parents took us away from the site of their grief, certain shadows stretched far, casting a gray stillness over our childhood… hinting at a darkness we did not understand but could always FEEL.”
There’s a sense of rawness here— a willingness to look into the gaps in familial relationships. In the abyss are stories— from the past and present—shifting across continents and perspectives. We see Bui’s childhood and feel her sense of displacement growing up in the US— shaped by America but without a sense of belonging. Bo’s childhood includes hiding underground for days as women and children of his village are killed by French soldiers. Ma’s a scholar and teacher in Vietnam, but in the US she is resigned to manual labor in an electronics factory.
Stories of national and personal loss and heartbreak, and epic and small acts of violence coexist. And yet, the satisfaction of this book is in its generosity: in asking questions, in listening and learning about where we came from, and in uplifting the voices of our parents. Bui’s clear voice and vision address the power of acknowledging and sharing the refugee experience. Her text and drawings bring alive stories that are vivid, raw, and compelling— and yet, one may need to do some historical research to gain context. Similarly, the publisher’s website offers an excellent resource on the pronunciation of people and places. Being put into this space of active reading is one of the pleasures of this book.
Even though the book might take you into territory where you might need to educate yourself, the book’s reflection on the complicated dynamics between parents and children will resonate with every reader. We like to think that our lives are our own— they begin with our first breath and end with our last. But what if our stories extended not just forward but backward through time? We might exist on more of a continuum of belonging than we want to know. Bui’s illustrated memoir looks into this uncomfortable and yet loving space— where do we start and where do our parents begin? How do their experiences, before we were born, shape them? How do these experiences live on, through us? The Best We Could Do exists, like the labor of birth, in a necessary space of pain and love. It is an exquisite book that transports and transforms us in waves, panel by panel.