By: Sam Inshassi
Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2017.
Sam Inshassi, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Thi Bui about her book, The Best We Could Do (Abrams), which is among the final five selections in the category of Autobiography for the 2017 NBCC Awards.
I first met Thi Bui at a panel discussing the graphic novel form at BookCon last year. I didn’t know who she was, but I was compelled by her narrative and bought her illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do, which tells the story of one family’s journey growing up in war-torn Vietnam and starting a new life in America, focusing on the relationships that form between parents and children. When I crack the spine of my book, I see the message she wrote me when she signed it: “Best of luck with your religion + sex story!” I had a feeling even then we would be kindred spirits, and I couldn’t have been more right. Bui’s memoir is raw, emotional, complicated, and so real. And upon speaking with her, I was reaffirmed in my belief that certain human experiences, like being an immigrant, a refugee, or just Other, are universal.
Bui’s next project will be about climate change through the lens of farmers in Vietnam. And in May, you can find her comic journalism piece on Southeast Asian deportation at TheNib.com.
Sam Inshassi: I was wondering where you would go next after your wonderful memoir, The Best We Could Do? I hope it won’t be another 10 years before we get to see it!
Thi Bui: I hope not! First off, I will never do another memoir again. And two, that’s my goal, not to take so long. Trying to do journalism is like a deliberate push to work faster. But it’s kind of an oxymoron when you do comic journalism because comics take so long to produce, but they’re not actually very good at communicating information that needs to go out quickly—and trying to figure out how you do long-form journalism that really goes into a subject and uses comics to help.
SI: I would say that the comic form is really conducive to that because you have the imagery that can really compliment your message so you can say less and somehow get more across. One of the things I actually wanted to talk about was that, in your memoir you give me such good education around Vietnam, like I actually now have a history about Vietnam and the Vietnam War that I never properly got at school, and in a way that’s resonant, that I understand.
TB: Cool! Good. That’s the high school teacher in me.
SI: What I liked was that it was a perfect marriage, that it didn’t get in the way of your parent’s narrative, but it also wasn’t hiding in the background either. From a craft perspective, as a writer myself, I really thought that came together quite beautifully and made your book a valuable resource in that sense. I wonder how you thought about putting those piece together and laying it out in the way you did?
TB: My brain is very abstract and full of, I don’t know, symbols, like water. My outline for myself for the book was like, I have a very abstract idea about water for every chapter, so my book was really not so much about plot but how each chapter was going to feel. In retrospect, I don’t know how my publisher ever agreed to do the book. I guess I had to do a lot of explaining. There was a lot of back and forth with the editor. I had a lot of material from interviews with my parents. And I’ve always thought about people giving oral history. But I guess, securing feedback from American readers early on, in the early chapters—they’d get confused about who was who, and is this Bo, or was it his grandfather, or was it his father? Just confusion about so many different characters made me realize that, just storytelling-wise, there needed to be a central protagonist that could anchor the story and help the readers through. That I had to anchor myself. And that’s how it became more of a memoir. I’m always so embarrassed about the idea that it’s a memoir.
SI: You said you’re embarrassed about it?
TB: Yeah, yeah. Just because there’s a notion that a memoir is you sitting down to write about all the great things you did, and that is so not this story at all! It’s just me scratching my head for 10 years over the questions that I had.
SI: In your preface, and in interviews I’ve heard you speak, you talk about the many years and iterations this book has passed through before becoming what it is now. What made you start the project to begin with? What first compelled you to track your family history? I know you talk in the book about your first trip back to Vietnam. Was that the main impetus?
TB: Well, actually, I took the opportunity to start it when I was doing my Master’s final project at NYU. It was about breaking down what I saw as really bad representations of Vietnamese people and narratives about the Vietnam War, so looking at specifically American narratives. There were all the bad Vietnam War movies that I’d grown up with, and then even looking further into scholarship about the Vietnam War, what I was finding a lot of was just very American-centric perspectives. And then even the ones that tried to not be American-centric did a very naive thing, which was to then go talk to the enemy, and then that was what people thought of as the Vietnamese experience. And I was like, hello! There’s a whole diaspora of Vietnamese people who were on another side of that war, so you might, you know, talk to us! And it was just so frustrating that something so simple to me would seem so out of reach for so many American scholars. So I did a whole master’s project around that, and then I also wanted to create something, so I did an oral history with the primary sources that were the closest to me, that I had access to, which meant my family. And my family’s reaction to reading the transcripts of my interviews with them, it got me thinking, you know there’s something to this.
They were so excited, to read their own words in writing and also to read each other’s stories, and to compare stories. They were more excited than they’d been about any kind of art project I’ve ever done before. I felt like this is something worth looking into, something like a book! And I knew that I wanted it to be accessible. I didn’t want to produce a book for academia only. So I thought about comics as a more accessible medium that I had seen done, reading Maus and Persepolis, but I think that it’s probably arrogant for me to think that I could just do that. Because comics are a very, very different thing than writing and drawing, and I had to teach myself to do them very slowly over time.
SI: An interesting thing I observed is that pregnancy plays such a prominent role in this story. You bookend it with the birth or your son, and you also vividly depict each of your mother’s pregnancies. Was this meant to convey a deeper message around birth and rebirth? New life and how it so often seems to be a close cousin to death?
TB: Yeah, I guess. It’s kind of heavy with meanings in there. For me, it was also very physical. Physical experiences have always been very good, for me, as humbling experiences that put you back in your body and also help you connect with other people. And especially when you’re dealing with history and politics and immigrant experience, there’s a lot of academic discourse that can be quite “other-ing” and abstract, so it was important for me to bookend this story with a very typical experience, pretty universal and archetypal, and very physical.
SI: Physical is such an interesting way to think about it. I would never have thought of that. Like I said, my first reaction was this idea of rebirth. Going to a new country and restarting their lives. And in the case of your father, it feels like restarting his life over and over again.
TB: Yeah. Absolutely.
SI: I love the page with the identification pictures. I think I stared at it for probably the longest time of the entire book; it made it so real for me. Was that your intention in placing those photos?
TB: The refugee camp photo is a thing that a lot of people have, still, like it’s a memento of that time. And it’s very, very real. The thing is, I didn’t want to introduce us with those photos. It was important for me to figure out the exact moment to reveal it. And I think that’s actually what makes it emotional for people—they spent the greater part of the book not seeing refugee photos. That was me thinking about how we encounter refugees today. We see the refugee photos first. We see them on a boat escaping from Syria or looking very impoverished in a refugee camp, and I think while those photos are meant to pull at our heartstrings, they also can divorce the person from their entire history. So you only see that person as a refugee and not the person that they were their whole lives up until that moment.
SI: Yes, that is exactly right. I think about that a lot as well. Similar to that idea, you made a conclusion at the end, which actually kind of jarred me a little bit, and I’d love to hear little more about your take on it. At the end you conclude that with the tumultuous history of Vietnam as it is, you couldn’t really call the country your homeland. Now, I’m of Palestinian heritage and that was very jarring for me because Palestinians will always call historic Palestine home, no matter how messy it is, and it’s incredibly messy! So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about what brought you to that conclusion. What does that mean to you when you say that?
TB: You know, I think if the history of Vietnam had just been the history of Vietnamese people fighting against colonizers, then I’d definitely still call it my homeland even if I’d moved away for whatever reason, but because it was a civil war that ultimately tore it apart—a civil war that was made a lot worse by the Cold War and a proxy war, of course—but the fact that it was my own people who butchered each other really tears me up. And there’s a reconciliation that I yearn for, between both sides, and that includes the people who were really not about hiding at all but just trying to survive living in a country that was torn apart by civil war. I don’t know, I’m interested in healing. I’m interested in the diaspora being able to connect with Vietnam as it currently is rather than living in a forever fantasy world based on nostalgia.
SI: Yeah that makes sense. So then I wonder what would you call home now?
TB: Well yeah, I don’t know. I’ve worked so hard at fighting for my right to be an American. I’ve always invested a lot in community organizing and being a public school teacher, and just trying to make my immediate community better and being involved in social justice work here in the U.S. I really do feel like an American in all those ways. Culturally, I’m more complicated than that. But I think that maybe a good move into the future, we need more Americans who are culturally really complicated and have personal motivations to understand world politics, because there are lots of problems coming our way that don’t affect borders, like climate change for example. So I suppose I’m leaning towards the idea of being a sort of global citizen.
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. A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui, was named a 2018 Caldecott Honor Book. The Best We Could Do is her debut graphic novel.
Sam Inshassi is a fiction writer currently pursuing her MFA at the New School. Her work focuses on cultural and identity politics, both in the home and beyond, tapping into her own identity as a first-generation Palestinian Arab-American Muslim female. She’s a passionate advocate for the Palestinian cause and immigrant and refugee rights. You can find her on Twitter @saminshassi.