By Sam Le
Northwest Asian Weekly
An audience of 200 gathered to hear insights from storyteller and author Thi Bui on her graphic novel, “The Best We Could Do.” The event was facilitated by local Seattleite and Vietnamese community member Julie Pham.
As an illustrated memoir capturing Bui and her family’s experiences of finding refuge in America, “The Best We Could Do” serves as an instrument connecting those with similar experiences, especially other Vietnamese refugees.
In partnership with the Wing Luke Museum, the Vietnamese Friendship Association, the Northwest African American Museum, Friends of Little Saigon, Book-It Repertory Theatre, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, and hosted by the Seattle Public Library, the discussion with Bui was accompanied by a staged reading by local Vietnamese American performer Susan Lieu and directed by Kathy Hsieh.
Audience members heard Bui reflect on the journey of writing “The Best We Could Do.” They heard her explain whether the book helped fill the void created by intergenerational trauma between her and her parents.
“There was a need to write this book because it’s focused on the stories of the Vietnam ‘we’ lost,” shared Bui, referring to the Vietnamese in the room, many of whom were refugees or the children of refugees who escaped Vietnam following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. “My parents never really shared about their full experiences.”
When asked by Pham and Bui to do so, many in the audience raised their hands showing their Vietnamese heritage — and nearly just as many showed their roots as refugees in the United States.
One of the significant challenges within the Vietnamese refugee community is intergenerational trauma, which is trauma that is passed down from one generation to the next. Many of the first generation refugees experienced severe trauma before the end of the war, and those who fled Vietnam after the 1975 fall continued to carry post traumatic stress disorder as they navigated through a foreign new country, as a marginalized and vulnerable population.
“Many South Vietnamese can’t heal from their experiences as their stories are never heard,” said Bui. “In American literature, the Americans become the main character of the story. In the current Vietnamese society, the South Vietnamese become the villains of the story. They [the South Vietnamese refugees] can’t heal if their stories are not heard.”
Following Bui’s comment, Pham quoted in both English and Vietnamese, from a poem, “Home” by Warsan Shire, which is often recited by many refugees:
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
Pham shared that refugees are often portrayed negatively without their intentions and situation taken into consideration.
Three scenes from “The Best We Could Do” were portrayed by actors from the Book-It Repertory Theatre. The scenes performed by Lieu provided the audience a glimpse of the actions, thoughts, and emotions written by Bui.
When asked on why there hasn’t been a movie adaptation yet, Bui shared, “I don’t have enough trust in Hollywood to portray the stories. I don’t want this to be another bad Vietnamese refugee movie.”
The depiction of the Vietnam War from the point of view of South Vietnamese has been a continuing effort from this country’s South Vietnamese refugee community, with “The Best We Could Do” being a significant piece in bridging the gaps of knowledge in history and individual stories, because when there is a lack of emphasis on the Vietnam War from the South Vietnamese perspective, many descendants of these refugees are left with a void as they search for answers on their own family histories.
“When I started this, I told my parents this was for school, just to get them to start sharing their stories,” said Bui. When transitioning from her class project to the beginning of the graphic novel, Bui expressed that her parents’ trust in her was a key cornerstone during the writing, drafting, and publishing of the book.
One of the final questions asked was if writing the book has closed the void between her and her parents.
“When you start this, you need to have low expectations and understand that it takes a lot of time and effort,” said Bui.
“The Best We Could Do” is a graphic novel that captures the stories of a refugee family from South Vietnam transitioning to a new life in the United States. Thi Bui, the author, is currently on book tours sharing her insights and journey.
Sam Le can be reached at email@example.com.