The Best We Could Do

The Best We Could Do


Thi Bui

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The Best We Could Do Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Thi Bui's The Best We Could Do. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Thi Bui

As she recounts in The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui was born in Sài Gòn, South Việt Nam, in early 1975, shortly before the end of the Vietnam War. Three years later, she and her family escaped Việt Nam by boat to Malaysia and then to the United States, where she grew up in California. She went on to study art and law as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, then trained as a sculptor in New York and received an MFA. from Bard College. Although she began exhibiting her work around the city, she soon changed paths and decided to become a public school teacher. While studying art education at New York University, she began to interview her family for a final project on Việt Nam, and she realized that comics would be the most appropriate medium for telling their story. She began learning to draw them and, over more than a decade, wrote The Best We Could Do while slowly working through her family’s history. Meanwhile, she taught high school art in New York and then in Oakland, California, in an alternative school for recent immigrants. She taught her students to write their own stories as graphic novels and, after several years, published an anthology of them as the book We Are Oakland International. During this time period, she also exhibited art and published academic writing in various galleries, magazines, and journals. Since 2015, she has taught graduate students in comics at the California College of the Arts. But she has only become a prominent name in the comic book world since 2017, when she published The Best We Could Do to critical acclaim after more than a decade of work. Her book won an American Book Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography and the Eisner Award (the most important award for comic books), and was selected as mandatory reading for first-year students in at least a dozen colleges and universities around the United States. In 2018, Bui contributed to her friend (and acclaimed Vietnamese American novelist) Việt Thanh Nguyễn’s anthology The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives and illustrated the Vietnamese American poet Bao Phi’s children’s book A Different Pond. In 2019, as though to combine these two projects, she and her son Hiển collaborated with Nguyễn and Nguyễn’s son Ellison to create another children’s book, Chicken of the Sea. She has also published many of her political comics on the website The Nib. She has emphatically declared that The Best We Could Do will be her only memoir, and she is now turning her energy to conducting journalism through comic books. In her next project, she seeks to document the projected effects of climate change on farmers in southern Việt Nam’s Mekong Delta.
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Historical Context of The Best We Could Do

The Best We Could Do interweaves the story of Bui’s family in Việt Nam with that country’s history during the 20th century, and particularly during the 1955-1975 civil war between the Communist North and American-backed South, which is called the Vietnam War in the United States and the “American War” in Việt Nam. Although she presents a brief timeline of the events at the beginning of her book and continually references important historical context, it can be difficult to keep up with the immense range of invasions, wars, leaders, and oppressive laws that have ruled Việt Nam in recent memory. According to folklore, northern Việt Nam’s earliest emperors date back to nearly 3000 BCE, and it was ruled by a variety of dynasties until 111 BCE, when the Chinese invaded and took control of Việt Nam. The Chinese essentially ruled for a millennium, until the year 938, and then Việt Nam was run by a centralized native monarchy until the French invasion in 1858, which is where the nation’s history becomes connected to Bui’s work. Although revolutionary efforts to reclaim Việt Nam’s independence were continuous throughout the next century, the French maintained control until World War II, when the German invasion of France in 1940 cleared way for Japan to invade Việt Nam. After its successful invasion, however, Japan allowed the French government to formally continue operating. Bui’s parents were born around this time and lived their earliest years under the Japanese occupation; notably, her father distinctly remembers the famine of 1944-1945. Near the end of World War II, knowing they would lose, the Japanese overturned the French colonial government and installed a native emperor named Bảo Đại as the ruler of all Việt Nam. But when the Japanese were finally defeated, Hồ Chí Minh persuaded the weak and unpopular Bảo Đại to hand power over to his Việt Minh nationalist revolutionaries, who had already taken control over most of Việt Nam’s smaller towns and cities. Việt Nam, in its current territorial extension, was united for the first time under Hồ Chí Minh’s government. But, while World War II had already ended, in Việt Nam, three decades of nearly uninterrupted war were only beginning. First, the British, the French, and their unlikely ally the Japanese invaded French Indochina (the colony that included Việt Nam, Laos, and Cambodia) in order to reestablish French colonial sovereignty. After eight years of fighting between the French and the Việt Minh, in the 1954 Geneva Conference, it was agreed that France would withdraw and Việt Nam would be split: the North half would be governed by the Việt Minh and the South half by the old emperor Bảo Đại—who promptly left and moved to Paris. The Accords also established that an election in 1956 would reunify Việt Nam. However, the absent Bảo Đại’s prime minister Ngô Đình Diệm seized control of the South Vietnamese government through a fraudulent referendum and then cancelled the 1956 elections, all with support from the United States. Diệm began executing communists and expropriating land from peasants to return it to landlords. These policies won him at most 5% support in rural Việt Nam, where a communist guerilla army called the Việt Cộng began organizing against him. Conflict between the Việt Cộng and the Southern Vietnamese government escalated until the United States launched an invasion in 1964, which it justified by publicly lying about the so-called “Gulf of Tonkin incident,” a military confrontation between the United States and the North Vietnamese in Vietnamese territorial waters. Northern Vietnamese involvement in the war escalated in response to the United States’ invasion, turning the small-scale guerrilla war into a large-scale formal conflict for the first time. After the North and Việt Cộng’s Tết Offensive in 1968, the American public’s political opposition to the war and decreasing willingness to serve in it began weakening the South Vietnamese position. The United States fully withdrew in 1973, and despite a technical ceasefire, the war continued. The North handily defeated the South and took the Southern capital of Sài Gòn in 1975, then set about reintegrating the country. During this process, it persecuted people who were formerly involved in the South Vietnamese government, supported the American war effort, and those who were otherwise considered a threat to the new Communist government. This included Bui’s family, which waited in fear in Sài Gòn throughout most of the war. Like many Sài Gòn residents at the time, however, Bui’s father migrated from the North after the country’s partition. Thousands of families, mostly those under threat from the regime, fled the country by boat. Bui’s family was one of these, and this mass exodus of refugees created an international humanitarian crisis, as the neighboring Southeast Asian countries in which these refugees landed largely refused to accept them. Nearly 1,000,000 Vietnamese refugees were resettled, mostly in the United States, Canada, Australia, and France. Today, these refugees and their descendants are the principal constituents of the Vietnamese diaspora.

Other Books Related to The Best We Could Do

The Best We Could Do is most often described as a graphic memoir, or autobiography told in a comic book form. The most prominent exemplars of this genre are Alison Bechdel’s award-winning story of her childhood Fun Home (and its sequel Are You My Mother?); Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (Vols. I and II), the tales of her childhood during Iran’s Islamic Revolution and coming-of-age between Iran and Europe; and Art Spiegelman’s Maus (Vols. I and II), which retell the Holocaust and its aftermath, as experienced through the author’s father’s perspective, through the uncanny metaphor of cats implementing a genocide against mice. Other bestselling graphic memoirs include acclaimed Japanese artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life, Vanessa Davis’s Make Me a Woman, Tom Hart’s Rosalie Lightning (about his young daughter’s death), Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future (Vols. I, II, and III), and Civil Rights Movement icon John Lewis’s March (Vols. I, II, and III). G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica is another graphic memoir about a young Vietnamese American uncovering his family’s refugee history. Vietnamese American literature has also emerged recently as a genre but is increasingly important in the contemporary world of English-language literature; since the principal Vietnamese migration to the United States occurred after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, the first generation of Vietnamese immigrant writers to grow up in the United States began publishing in the early 2000s. The most prominent of this group is Việt Thanh Nguyễn, best-known for his 2016 novel The Sympathizer, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well as numerous other awards. In addition, Nguyễn is Thi Bui’s friend and sometime collaborator, and won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant and Guggenheim Fellowship for his work. He has also produced the collection of short stories The Refugees, two academic monographs, and various edited anthologies. Other prominent Vietnamese American writers include Monique Truong (best known for her novel The Book of Salt, about a Vietnamese chef working in a Paris home), Ocean Vuong (acclaimed for his poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds and his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous), Lan Cao (famous for Monkey Bridge), and the poet Bao Phi (who has also collaborated with Thi Bui).
Key Facts about The Best We Could Do
  • Full Title: The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir
  • When Written: 2002-2017
  • Where Written: New York City and Berkeley, California
  • When Published: 2017
  • Literary Period: Contemporary American Literature
  • Genre: Graphic Memoir; Nonfiction Comic
  • Setting: Việt Nam, the United States
  • Climax: After the Vietnam War ends in 1975, Thi Bui and her family are persecuted by the government of reunified Việt Nam and escape to Malaysia on a boat.
  • Antagonist: Trauma, North Việt Nam, South Việt Nam, the French colonial government, the war, the police, assimilation to American culture, Má and Bố
  • Point of View: First-person comic book

Extra Credit for The Best We Could Do

Frenemies with G.B. Tran. Thi Bui was reportedly devastated upon the release of G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica in 2010, because she felt it would make her own book seem redundant. She later realized that this was a reaction to growing up unaccustomed to seeing people like her represented in the American media; she assumed that each minority group could only ever get one story. But, after challenging this belief, she befriended and collaborated with Tran—they published a joint cartoon about their “rivalry” in Hyphen magazine. In the joint interview that was published with the cartoon, Bui joked, “I’ve gotten over my initial jealous rage at you, and I don’t want to kill you anymore. In fact, I think we could be friends. What do you think?”

Vietnam or Việt Nam? Bui intentionally left place and character names in the original Vietnamese, with diacritics that are often confusing to English speakers, because (as she put it in an interview) “I was always writing for us [Vietnamese people]. The existence of Vietnamese words being spelled in Vietnamese [with] the proper diacritics—people like me can read them.”