There’s been a lot of talk these days about how we live in a new era. In our new era, works of creative art that didn’t have any political aspects are suddenly seen in a different light. What once was noncontroversial is now at the center of political discussion and is suddenly relevant to our unique American experience in 2017.
Thu Bui’s new graphic novel memoir The Best We Could Do is a perfect example of where we are today. It’s a fascinating and heartfelt story of her family’s experiences in Viet Nam. It chronicles in detail the way her family made its way in America as immigrants. Her memoir doesn’t stint on memorable details, with incidents that ring in the reader’s mind long after the read is complete.
More than anything, though, The Best We Can Do provides perspective. It shows the complexity of the immigrant experience. It shows that many of the things we often think are true about the Vietnam War are false. It shows (and frankly shames) the reader into understanding that the war affected Vietnamese people as well as Americans, that our adventure was in their country and it had an incredibly transformative effect on every level of Vietnamese life. It shows what it was like to be one of the “boat people” fleeing from the war, and it shows the complexities of the class structure in that country.
In most times, we welcome perspective. Perspective provides empathy. Perspective shakes us up Perspective provides readers with deeper understanding of people around us and the world we live in. Perspective provides caring, makes friends of neighbors, and destroys stereotypes in favor of truly understanding common ground.
But America in February 2017 is no longer about perspective. It’s about blanket bans on people who are not like us. It’s about animus rather than empathy. It’s about America first. It’s about closing our borders, about closing our minds, and about living in fear of the unknown. Extreme vetting is the term of the day, and that idea makes this country a much colder place than it was when Thi Bui’s family emigrated to our great country.
Thi Bui’s wonderful book helps provide a corrective to that xenophobia. With Bui’s unwavering eye and empathetic linework, her family comes alive on the page in all their complexity. We read the fascinating and complex story of her parents’ lives, the unlikely way that they meet and their incredible luck surviving the end of World War II. We live with them as the American war in Vietnam rages, and watch with ever-mounting fear and stress as Bui’s family escape from Vietnam on a rickety boat – with her mother nine months pregnant.
It’s an incredible story, one that occasionally left me slackjawed at the incredible privations and problems her family went through. Best of all, this is very much the story of one particular family with one particular set of problems. Bui isn’t writing for all Vietnamese people. She’s writing her own family’s story, and there are many moments of pain and stress and anger and worry that are part of their very real story.
The Best We Could Do is no more a political story than other similar memoirs such as Maus and Persepolis. Each of those works tell the story of one family’s life in their native country and in America and only paints a wider picture as part of the larger story. But in this era of Trumpist foreign policy and fear of the unknown, Thi Bui’s book feels radical somehow. It’s a sad testament of our world today that that is true, but it also means we have an obligation to celebrate these sorts of works. Bit by bit, day by day and mind by mind, wonderful books like this can change the world.