There is a moment during my family’s Thanksgiving dinner where we go around the table and identify something we are grateful for in our lives. However hokey, however contrived this little tradition might seem, I appreciate that it helps us remember the root of this most American holiday: gratitude for sanctuary. Hundreds of years ago, people sailed across the ocean and risked their lives to come here. It’s not a cliche. They tossed their dead children who didn’t survive the journey overboard in makeshift coffins. They drank dirty water for weeks. They exposed themselves to the elements, to disease, with no guarantee but the land they walked on when they dropped anchor. And they walked on the some of the same ground I walk on, here in Pennsylvania. Some of the trees I see in my town’s arboretum of a college campus might be those that earlier Americans saw, too. I walk through the streets of Philadelphia, my city, and I can almost imagine the pages of my AP US prep book flipping back and back further still to the beginning. The black-and-white footage falls away as past and present blur into one. I see the Liberty Bell, walk past Independence Hall, feel creeped out by unreadable old tombstones, smell horse shit from carriage rides, traverse cobblestone streets only Philly locals know how to walk through on heels. The ground is the same, and it feels solid beneath my feet.
It’s easy to get lost in that mythos of America’s heritage, but the truth is, it’s here now, in a very raw way, as immigrants and refugees still seek the same rights and freedoms that this ground offers. Whatever else defines this imperfect nation, it is, in the very basic sense of the word, a territory, a ground, a land to walk on. However we got here, we are here.
An exceptional reminder that the American Dream is not an abstract, boldfaced term you read about in a textbook or hear a politician describing in a stump speech is the debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui (2017). Born in Vietnam, Bui and her family came to America during the Vietnam War while she was still a child. In this ambitious graphic memoir about her family’s life in Vietnam and in America as refugees, Thi Bui paints a transportive picture of pilgrimage through soaking watercolors that immerse you in what people seek in our American promise. Never has such a story been more relevant and necessary than today in 2017. Reading about Bui’s family brings it home that America’s founding as a place of solace does not have to be a relic but could instead still be a reality.
The Vietnam War is something I think my fellow Millennials would agree seems distant. Speaking for myself but maybe others my age and younger, I recognize that the Vietnam War was an enormously consequential war and a pivotal moment in our country, but something abstract, like scenes from Forrest Gump or Apocalypse Now or some other moving image. I am a pacifist. When I was growing up, I protested the Iraq War. I wore anti-war and anti-Bush pins and shirts and spoke out against the military conflict. For me, and now with the war in Afghanistan 16 years in, is the war a whole generation has experienced, our Vietnam. Yet reaching back beyond my lifespan, the Vietnam War still remains something of a mystery to me. I don’t understand how it happened and why. Sure, the curriculum gives props to the American Revolutionary War with its clean-cut beginning and end, but the tragically sloppy timelines and debatable victories of our most recent military conflicts fall away. What do we teach about them? How did we “win”? Was it justified?
In that sense, The Best We Could Do was an informative and deeply moving exploration of life in an time of terror for the Vietnamese and helped me understand better how the conflict arose. Reading Bui’s memoir offered a visceral look at the war-torn country. It attempts to explain the long era of unrest and instability for the region and the residents who got caught in the crossfires of a snafu of competing international political forces and diplomatic interests. Many people died over that ground. It was a battlefield. Amidst great unrest and violence, Bui’s parents and relatives struggled to survive, whether it was finding and keeping work in a time of great turbulence or simply finding medical care and food. It’s an experience I have been privileged enough not to live through, but Bui’s memoir offers an intimate and unsparing look. For the most part, I found the structure easy to follow. However, sometimes I struggled to find a linear thread as I felt at times that I was in several memories at once, a daughter’s and a father’s and a grandfather’s and a great grandfather’s past. This challenge was not insurmountable, especially when reading Bui’s graphic memoir closely, with time and care rather than the breathless page-flipping pace some graphic narratives can be. Bui’s memoir takes your breath away, but in a slow burn rather than a marathon sprint. That said, there are some truly suspenseful sequences I read mouth open and willing my eyes to move faster.
Thematically, Bui is concerned with trauma, legacy, and heredity. Her story toys with questions of how she has inherited or rejected the quirks, neuroses, and bad habits as well as positive qualities from her parents. Reading through Bui’s memoir, I felt a melancholy mood, and not just because Bui struggles to feel like she’s related to the gorgeous and fashionable socialite her beautiful mother was once long ago. Bui’s parents had a comparatively safer life with more security and opportunity before things went bad. You get the sense that Bui’s mother and father before the war are foreign to her. It is almost as if once they made it to America and got out of the chaos, any joy they had was depleted in the immense effort to escape Vietnam and come to the United States. Somewhere in that brutal journey, the romance between them dissipated, something that had to be suppressed, compartmentalized, and ultimately flushed out to lighten the heaviness and bear the ordeal. Bui works through these feelings herself. How can she reconcile the joyless, brittle, and bitter people who raised her in America with their memories of a more glamorous, carefree, and even loving past?
While her parents grew into more hardened people, a trauma lingers on for Bui and her siblings. For instance, after the family has arrived in America, they must evacuate their apartment one night following an explosion from downstairs neighbors who accidentally start a fire. Bui calmly packs up her stuff and prepares to evacuate. She wonders, “What would a normal fourteen-year-old’s response be?” and thinks, “Some kind of freak-out maybe? All I knew is a switch flipped on in my brain, and I acted purely by reflex. EVACUATE.” (p. 303). On the streets outside, Bui watches an ambulance and fire fighters, noting that, “This—not any particular piece of Vietnamese culture—is my inheritance: the inexplicable need and extraordinary ability to RUN when shit hits the fan. My Refugee Reflex” (305). The legacy of Bui’s parents and childhood is not learning Vietnamese recipes or language but the expectation and readiness to leave at any time.
Another way this comes through is Bui’s birth of her son. As a framing device, her son’s childbirth and first days in the hospital bookend a memoir concerned with the sacrifices women still face to bring a child into the world. Bui notes that in the days after her son was born, she was driven to keep her child alive, even if that meant facing nasty weather and exhaustion and an enormous physical toll to breastfeed her son. Her mantra is to “KEEP HIM ALIVE” and echoes her parents’ devotion to escaping Vietnam (312). Even if their experience is less dangerous than some of her mother’s childbirth in wartime Vietnam, Bui steps into the hereditary instinct to protect this new life, to continue her family line. This powerful graphic memoir reminded me that at the heart of immigration, of refugees seeking a home, is a commitment to a life, to a future.
The artwork in The Best We Could Do is captivating, chilling. The watercolored scenes are primarily reds, pinks, blacks, and white shades. Bui’s style submerges you in a dreamlike world where even the strongest line work tenses with a threat of uncertainty. Gasping splashes of color capture the intensity of scenes while emotive lettering is loud and lyrical at once. Memories are not washed out but are rather experienced as vividly as more recent events. The reader never feels limited by Bui’s color scheme or style. The ever-encroaching threat of the abyss—be it an ocean, the night, or death—threatens to consume always. Though Bui’s panel and layout structure is quite consistent, she isn’t afraid to layer panel work over memories or scenes compelling a larger canvas on the page. For maximum dramatic effect, Bui utilizes stunning full-page or even double-page spreads only for moments of immense gravitas.
I am writing this review on the 6th of September, 2017, just one day after President Donald Trump formally expressed his intention to dismantle Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), effectively calling for the deportation of roughly 800,000 “Dreamers,” children whose parents arrived in America illegally but through President Obama’s DACA had a path towards citizenship. Since being inaugurated in January 2017, Trump has tried to ban Muslims from entering the country, initiated mass deportations, threatened to strip funding to sanctuary cities, attempted to force Mexico to pay for a border wall, and boasted about drastically reducing access to immigration and citizenship. There is a war in our country, and it is against people who come to America for new opportunities and a better change at life. We are living in a nation where undocumented residents avoided seeking help in Houston’s Hurricane Harvey because they were afraid they would be turned in and deported.
The Best We Could Do is a sourly relevant memoir for our modern age. Although much of the action takes place in Vietnam, The Best We Could Do is an inherently American story. From our country’s founding, America has offered a place for the persecuted to find a place of opportunity and shelter. That’s what we were built on, at least the words of our constitution and the blood shed in the Revolutionary War. In 2017, it seems at times that our government and many of our citizens want to dismantle that heritage, to put an asterisk on the Declaration of Independence to say (*Only white people). Like we all don’t walk on the same ground. The Best We Could Do confronts that hardness with its unflinching story of the enormous sacrifices refugees shoulder to make it one more month, one more day, one more minute until they can find sanctuary on our shores. The red in our flag—it’s the beating blood of our past and future, spun together like the strongest thread in our tapestry. To reach back to the beginning of this review, the pilgrims’ story of Thanksgiving is not a picture book fiction but a reality that endures in a story that’s still being written. It’s here, now. Walk long enough and you’ll find a refugee. Walk long enough and you’ll find a pilgrim. Walk long enough and you’ll find an American.
I cannot recommend this graphic novel enough. Read it, give it to someone you know, and send a copy to your local representatives.
Rating: 5/5 stars
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir
By Thi Bui
(c) March 7, 2017 by ABRAMS Books