We live in an age when our long familiar culture is undergoing reinterpretation. Much is hopeful, as we more fully recognize our fellow citizens as equals regardless of racial and cultural differences; much is alarming, as we realize how dangerous and foolish has been our belated understanding of human communities, of the nature of other species, and of impending changes to our planet. Everywhere now, we encounter literature and media much more attuned to raising our awareness of our commonality across the world. The near universal response to the Ukrainian crisis and the Russian president's refusal to let the world keep moving forward together demonstrate the difficulty in achieving long overdue humane resolutions to such conflicts.
One influence prompting reinterpretation, more inadvertent than intentional, comes from reading recent multicultural literature. Not long ago I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, a historical novel focused on a Korean family in mid-20th century Japan, and two powerful graphic memoirs, Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's depiction of life in politically oppressive Iran, and They Called Us Enemy, George Takei's account of the confinement of Japanese Americans during World War II. For me, those books set the stage for a stronger engagement with reinterpretation when I recently read The Best We Could Do, a graphic memoir by Vietnamese author/illustrator Thi Bui. One of the strengths of the graphic memoir in recent years has been its ability to offer an almost cinematic representation of its author's history. Like those books by Satrapi and Takei, as well as Art Spiegelman's Maus and Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Are You My Mother? and The Secret to Superhuman Strength, The Best We Could Do manages to simulstaneously present an insightful and intelligent family memoir and a suspenseful and moving account of troubling periods of political history. It helped alter what I took for granted about the history I had lived through.
Bui's memoir includes a brief illustrated timeline covering Vietnamese history from the beginning of Chinese rule in 111 BC to its eventual liberation in 1975, but the graphic narrative centers on 20th Century history, covering the country's inclusion in French Indochina, the Japanese occupation in World War II, the post-war return of the French and subsequent conflict with the Communist Viet Minh, the internecine warfare between North and South Vietnam elevated by the military presence and eventual retreat of American forces, and the final liberation and unification of Vietnam. Throughout this history, generations of the Bui family continue to adjust to military events and political changes, until finally, as refugees, they make a harrowing emigration by secretly sailing to Malaysia and eventually resettling in the United States.
The narrative moves both forward and backward in the lives of the characters. In early chapters set in the present Bui establishes family relationships and the various tensions that make her need to explore family history back to the period of her parents' birth and upbringing. She establishes the nature of the culture in which they lived and the conflicts that affected family decisions about their own lives and their children's lives. The movement back and forth in time gets the reader close to the characters, watching them interact with each other and with the culture they inhabit, and charts the impact of historical events upon them. Thi Bui is the essential narrator of the memoir but her parents each tell their own stories, allowing us to understand central characters across generations and sense the challenges of growing up in the times and the culture they did. The immersion in their private lives keeps readers absorbed in highly dramatic and sensitively intimate moments they all experience. The memoir makes it clear that, whatever the family complications may be, the challenge of adjusting to the world outside the family is unavoidable and stressful.
The way we react to what we read depends upon what we bring to the reading and the degree to which the text sets off reverberations in our consciousness, whether remote or intimate. Bui's book reverberated with my memories of the eras she portrays. I was, in every way, a distanced bystander to that history, my opposition to American engagement in Vietnam irrelevant and ineffectual, my attention focused primarily on American military, on literary and cinematic dramatizations of American perspectives. Bui presented a community perspective, a citizen perspective, a family perspective, an internal depiction of people trying to get on with their lives in the midst of politically imposed chaos and destruction. I didn't see events from their perspective 50 years ago.
This is an age of reinterpretation and I appreciate having my perspective widened, my understanding broadened. Still a bystander, my understanding of how all our lives are universally connected has been strengthened and given greater range by reading this book. I know I still have further to go.
Note: Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2018.