By Zeb Larson
I grew up with Vietnam stories, but on the American side. My grandfather lived in Bien Hoa during the war, and when he left the country on April 29, 1975 he smuggled several people out of the country in his car; one of them was adopted into the family and became my aunt. He went into the war a true believer in the United States, and by its end was far more pessimistic about the country’s goals and intentions. He loved the country and kept going back there for the rest of his life; he even took me in 2006. He also passed on a love of American and Vietnamese literature about the war: The Quiet American, A Bright and Shining Lie, Memories of a Pure Spring, The Destiny of Love, or more recently The Sympathizer…
So it was with not inconsiderable excitement that I picked up Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do. The fact that it carried an endorsement from Viet Thanh Nguyen only doubled my excitement. And I’m happy to report that it lives up to its lofty endorsements, and then some. We’ve already established that graphic novels are a legitimate art form, but this is just one more reminder how much you can do with the medium. One gets a sense of this enormously complicated war, what it did to the family, and maybe most importantly, how we try and make sense of our own history. This is how you write a memoir.
This project grew out of an oral history with her family that Bui started working on over a decade ago. Her family fled Vietnam in 1978, eventually settling on the United States as their new home. Trying to make sense of her own strained relationships with her parents, Bui begins working backwards to see how her family came to the United States and what they endured during the war. It’s not exactly a path to forgiveness for Bui, but it’s a way to acknowledge that her parents, as flawed as they might have been, had to overcome immense challenges just to survive.
The book shares some thematic overlap with Maus in the difficulty of an American (more or less) child trying to understand a refugee parent coming out of a profoundly different context. Bui’s memories of life in Vietnam are limited, and complicating this is her parents’ conception of Vietnam as a lost place, a homeland they can never go back to. How do you bridge that gap? The solution is the experience itself: Bui needs to understand Vietnam and her family’s history to try to understand her parents. Otherwise, she’s simply left with the memories of a bitter father who created a frightening home and a mother who was impossible to live up to.
Historian that I am, I love the steady tracing of the family’s history, back from a refugee camp in 1978 to the 1940s and before. The stories themselves are fascinating because one can see how much the currents of the 20th century swept this family along, but are also useful in breaking down the myths and preconceptions about the war. She tackles the famous Eddie Adams photo “Saigon Execution” by noting, correctly, that the man who was shot had just participated in the killing of policemen’s families. This doesn’t necessarily absolve Nguyen Ngoc Loan, but he’s not exactly a clear-cut villain, and Nguyen Van Lem wasn’t exactly a clear-cut victim.
That particular moment is instructive because it points to how complicated this war was. Bui acknowledges it by noting that her father’s opinions about the war are virtually impossible to pin down because there are a mass of contradictions. He’s bitterly critical of the communists, who targeted his landlord family from the beginning, but by the late 1960s he was equally critical of Nguyen Van Thieu’s government. Whose side was he on? That concept of sides isn’t really useful here, or for most people who lived through the war.
Can we escape our own history? Yes and no. Bui doesn’t think she’ll really be able to escape her own parents, because nobody can, and maybe our memories are too powerful to escape. She’s spent her whole life looking back at what her family lost, what her parents had to give up, and perhaps most painfully, what her parents didn’t tell them. Again like Maus, the silence of these survivor families is incredible: just enough is said that the children know they’re different, and just enough is omitted that they can’t quite understand why. Her inheritance, as she puts it in perhaps my favorite passage, is “the inexplicable need and extraordinary ability to RUN when the shit hits the fan. My Refugee Reflex.”
But she emerges from this undertaking concluding that the war and the family’s exile from Vietnam isn’t necessarily her identity. By starting in the 1930s and working forward, she can see that the mythologized Vietnam never really existed: it was in flux from the moment her parents were born, and she could never lay claim to it. We aren’t really where we’re from, and even our families are a kind of coincidence we inherit. That’s a liberating feeling, in a sense, because our family can only be responsible for so much. We aren’t born destined to be one thing.
Separate from the broad themes of this story, I love Bui’s artwork. It’s hazy and deliberately experimental, but it consistently works with her narration. Everything feels like a memory; indistinct in some moments but then clear-cut and painful in others. There’s so much ground to cover in this story, but she knows how to let the artwork serve as one kind of narration and not spell out every detail of the war, abstracting certain moments, certain feelings and certain events. The most concrete moments are with the family, in a certain sense where they should be.
When I’m teaching History of the Vietnam War in coming years, this is a text I’d like to keep in mind for students to try and understand what the aftermath of the war looked like. It belongs with the other classics.
Writer/Artist: Thi Bui