Sweet Revenge: An Interview with Thi Bui

“A book to break your heart and heal it,” described Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen about cartoonist Thi Bui’s memoir The Best We Could Do, published on Abrams ComicArts earlier this year. Bui’s first book, The Best We Could Do has earned acclaim from comics and literary journals as well as Entertainment Weekly andTeen Vogue, and was featured alongside new works by Roxane Gay and Joan Didion in Huffington Post’s list of this year’s essential nonfiction books by women. Mother Jones called it a “devastating — and wholly human — exploration of the wounds of war.”

Twelve years in the making, the narrative of The Best We Could Do starts in actual labor — specifically, Bui’s delivery of her first child at New York’s Methodist Hospital in 2005. Bui writes that when she first sees her son she notices, perhaps prophetically, a “faraway face with old man eyes.” A realization hits her: “FAMILY is now something I have created — and not just something I was born into.”

This begins Bui’s search for the stories of her family’s escape from 1970s Viet Nam (this interview will use the two-word spelling that is closer to the Vietnamese spelling, which Bui prefers) and how they built new lives in the United States. It is a timely story given this country’s renewed debate over immigration. In fact, Bui herself worked as a founding teacher of the Oakland International High School, which was the first public high school in California created for recently arrived immigrant students. She also writes and draws overtly political work, such as her post-election comic “Fear is a Great Motivator for Political Action,” which she published on The Nib, and “Precious Time,” commissioned by PEN America. “There’s nothing like losing your country when you’re little to help you see nationalism as the strange and unnatural thing that it is,” she writes in “Precious Time.”

Bui has also collaborated with other Vietnamese American cartoonists and writers, including a graphic essay with cartoonist GB Tran for Hyphen. This fall, she teamed with Minnesota poet Bao Phi for the children’s book A Different Pond. Despite being marketed as a children’s picture book, it is a tale for all ages. Said Kirkus Reviews: “Spare and simple, a must-read for our times.”

For her own writing in The Best We Could Do, Bui has noted that she avoids words like “trauma” or “PTSD,” figuring her job was to “show it, and not tell it.” Here, she talks about the twelve-year process of teaching herself just how to show her family’s immigrant experience, and reveals some of the help and inspiration she received along the book’s own journey.

Michael Tisserand: The Best We Could Do is an act of memory, both your memory and the memories of family members that you spent years interviewing. Much of how we remember is in images. Did the act of drawing aid you in remembering details, or did your drawings prompt any memories for your parents?

Thi Bui: The act of drawing was surprisingly joyful when I was reconstructing my own memories from childhood, more difficult when I was reconstructing my parents' memories because I wanted to base them on real details like what the layout of the home was like, what clothes they would have worn, what the flora and architecture would have felt like. Showing my parents the rough drafts of each chapter was helpful because it jogged their memories, and they often remembered more based on what I had drawn.

The book includes a couple autobiographical moments that hint at your development as an artist. What were your beginnings as an artist and a cartoonist? How did you develop the style we see in this book?

As a kid, I drew a lot, as most kids do. I had a knack for imitation and for observational drawing, so my parents bought me some sketchbooks and nice pencils. I took a couple art classes in school, but I went to public school in California during budget cuts, you know? They weren't great experiences. I dropped out of the really boring art class in high school and took drama instead. I found an amazing drawing teacher in college — the sculptor Jane Rosen — and studied with her for years and became one of her teaching assistants. But the Renaissance drawing techniques I learned through her were more drawing than I needed for comics, so I had to learn the hard way to draw more simply. To develop a shorthand, since drawing for comics is about getting the idea of the thing across, more than drawing a very observed study of the thing. 

As you were learning in this hard way, were there certain cartoonists' work that influenced your developing style? Also, given the topic you were addressing, were there any ideas in traditional or contemporary art from Viet Nam that you've seen entering into your cartooning?

Craig Thompson was my first comics mentor, and convinced me to try moving in the direction of sequential comics when I was doing more of an illustrated journal in the beginning. Jake Wyatt and Pat Grant, who were in the same comics residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2010, have been good peers to work next to, and friends whom I email or call when I need a bit of Photoshop advice in a hurry. I've spent a lot of time looking at Paul Pope's brush work, Aristophane's brush work, Taiyo Matsumoto's figures and composition, Gipi's washes and use of space. I love Eleanor Davis and Jillian Tamaki's work.

It's a lot harder to interact with contemporary Viet Nam from the U.S. There are two amazing cartoonists that I started following online recently, Nguyen Thanh Phong and My Anh Ng. To order their book, Long Thần Tướng, was complicated because shipping was too expensive for them to do. I had it sent to a cousin in Ho Chi Minh City, then waited for one aunt to visit to pick it up, bring it back to the U.S. and leave it with another aunt in Los Angeles, then finally my mom brought it home after a visit to L.A.!

Hillary Chute describes how disaster is foundational to comics, whether we’re talking about Superman or Batman or Maus. You've called Maus an influence and like Maus, The Best We Could Do covers personal history as well as the history of a culture and of a war. How did Maus speak to you, as a reader or as a writer?

Maus spoke to me with its understanding of history as the lived experiences of ordinary people, which continue to affect them and their relationships long after events have passed. 

Were there parts of Maus, or any other comic, that came to your mind or offered any specific ideas as you were working on your book? 

Tom Hart's graphic memoir, Rosalie Lightning, inspired a scene in Chapter 6 of my parents grieving the loss of their first child. The idea of grieving and walking, or walking as grieving, spoke to me as a very true representation of grief, one that is located in the body. Because so much of my story takes place in my head, as memory, as rumination, I loved when there was an embodied experience I could draw that conveyed more than words could.

I read all kinds of comics to expand my imagination. I love that we are all working with a fairly limited range of formal elements, and it still feels like there is so much more potential to become sensitive to, just in the medium itself. And then there is the potential for growth in the diversity of voices we could be hearing, and the kinds of stories that get told. I'm excited for comics.

At any point did you encounter resistance to your decision to tell your story in a comic, due to old ideas about comics not being serious?

Sure, but I didn't listen to it. I kind of like the low-brow reputation that comics have. It's not unlike the experience of being underestimated because I'm a woman, a minority, a short person, or I look younger than my age. I enjoy the sweet revenge of surprising people. I have to, or else I would walk around in a rage all the time. 

With the Ken Burns’ documentary The Vietnam War recently concluded on PBS, I’m wondering what are the primary misconceptions that you feel Americans have about Viet Nam, its history, and our involvement there? How have popular movies or books led to misperceptions, and did you consciously consider how your work was countering these misperceptions?

The primary problem with American narratives about the war is the need to center American experiences in a conflict that was not all about America. So even when Americans go in with the intention of critically examining the United States' involvement in Viet Nam, they continue to keep the focus on themselves — look how bad we were, the damage we did — not realizing that in continuing to talk over the voices of those who have been heard from less, they continue the damage and prevent people from healing. I was surprised and sad at how easily the Ken Burns documentary overshadowed the work of so many Vietnamese and Vietnamese American writers, filmmakers, and scholars. 

Images we pick up from movies stick around for a long time. If your idea of what Vietnamese people look and sound like comes from movies like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon, then I have a lot of work to do to replace those caricatures with carefully observed characterizations of real Vietnamese people. Some people are able to do this entirely in prose; for me, drawing was in my arsenal, so I used it. My hope is that my images will stick around and influence people's ideas of Vietnamese people for the better — not because I portrayed them all as model minorities, but because I showed them as fully formed human beings who can be wonderful, average, or total assholes, just like everybody else.

I'd like to hear from and help amplify voices even less heard than the Vietnamese. My family's story doesn't touch on the experiences of ethnic minorities in Viet Nam, or people in neighboring Laos and Cambodia who were impacted by the war.

Viet Thanh Nguyen has said that “All wars are fought twice, once on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” Do you see comics as having a special role in that second fighting? 

Comics do have a unique ability to cross over into pop culture and kids' literature, transcend language barriers, and be seen as fun reading, even when they're pretty serious. They can't carry the whole fight, but they can maybe go places other kinds of literature and art can't.

This book was published at a time when issues of immigration have yet again ignited in this country. What do you hope your work might bring to that conversation? 

While I resent having to constantly prove my own humanity and the humanity of people who are refugees or immigrants, I know that it must be done because treating each other as subhuman is something we humans do very well. I'd like to add to the chorus of people calling on wealthier nations to do their part in sheltering the world's refugees, and to revisit policies that create refugee crises in the first place.

In a time of so much anxiety and quickly moving bad news, I hope to bring a slower kind of thinking to the table. If you can give yourself a little time and headspace to filter away the 24-hour news and its effects on your psyche, the divisiveness of politics, and the way hurt triggers more hurt in a vicious cycle, you can more clearly see what matters, at the end of it all. And then you know what you have to fight for. 

Your original title was “Refugee Reflex,” and there is a vivid scene from your childhood in which, as a fourteen-year-old, a fire prompted you to grab important documents for what you thought would be a certain evacuation. You write that part of your inheritance is an extraordinarily ability to run when the shit hits the fan. It almost seems like a superhero origin story as you write it. Do you still feel this need and this power?

I suppose it's the fight-or-flight instinct that I'm talking about, but easily triggered in people who have had to flee danger before. I don't think constantly being ready to run is a particularly healthy way to live long term, and I'm interested in putting down roots and asserting my right to be here in America. So I have to consciously choose fight over flight. And go down swinging if I have to. 

Shortly after the election, you wrote a comic for The Nib, titled “Fear is a Great Motivator for Political Action.” For those who feel as if our country is becoming unrecognizable, what lessons can you offer from your family’s experience? 

Countries can change dramatically in a very short time, and rapid upheavals always have a heavy toll. War is an awful, awful thing. Civil war is not worth it.  

Your story opens with the birth of your son in 2005, and it closes with an intimate reflection of how being a parent has changed the way you view your own life. Your son would be twelve years old now. Has he read portions of this book? How does he react to your work? And what did you like to read with your son as he was growing up, especially comics?

My son has read portions of the book while growing up and the whole book in its finished form. I think he's happy to know so much about his family history and heritage, and even though much of it is painful, I think he's actually proud to own that knowledge. We have the whole Showa series by Shigeru Mizuki, Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Modern World, Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales, and Osamu Tezuka's Buddha series, all of which my son has read multiple times. Comics have helped him become something of a history buff.

What’s your next project? And as you have called yourself America’s slowest cartoonist, when can we expect to see it?

Bui: Ha! I'm starting work on a book about climate change and how people are or need to be adapting to it, looking at Viet Nam as a case study for how this global issue plays out for the poorer half of the world. I have the pressure of this book being about the present and near future, not the past, so hopefully that will push me to get it done faster.