Task: Read a comic written or drawn by a person of color.
When I became a parent, in between the tectonic shifts in my hormonal makeup, sleep deprivation, and adjustment to having such a strange and tiny new housemate, I thought about my own parents a lot. Like me, both of my parents had a lot of life before any of their three children showed up. But they were also devoted, loving, wonderful parents – to the point that it’s hard to think of them as anyone other than Mom and Dad. Parental identity is a hell of a thing, and finding yourself in that role is an incredible empathy builder for the people in your life who took it on for you.
Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do begins with the birth of the creator’s son in 2005 while her mother waits outside her room. The first few pages cover that hallucinatory time in the hospital after the birth. After Thi’s mom leaves, Thi thinks, “A terrifying thought creeps into my head. Family is now something I have created – and not just something I was born into.”
So I was on board with this book instantly, having had a very similar and extremely frightening revelation holding my tiny daughter and truly understanding the gravity of the situation for the first time, even after nine months of prep. I was the only mom she had in the whole world, whether either one of us was ready or not. It’s intense stuff, and like Thi, it made me feel suddenly, painfully close to my own mom.
That’s about where the similarities between my and Thi’s story end though. Thi’s family fled Vietnam for the US when she was three months old in 1978. Her wonderful memoir/family history covers her own experience as a first generation immigrant interwoven with an exploration of each of her parents’ pasts. It’s not an easy task. She has a particularly difficult relationship with her father, and she and her three siblings are all caught between their parents’ expectations and those of the culture outside their home. But she gives a very compassionate and empathetic portrayal of both of them, even though she also shows her childhood scars honestly.
I also appreciated the book’s perspective on the Vietnam War. We didn’t learn much about Vietnam in school. I don’t think that was intentional – we just ran out of school year before we got to it – but most of my knowledge of the conflict is based on movie cliches. I haven’t read The Sympathizer, but I suspect it’s probably a great companion read to this. The Vietnam that Thi Bui writes and draws feels real, and the people that live there do too.
The obvious (and fair) comparison is Maus. Like Maus, the artist’s struggle to come to terms with his/her own identity is as central to the narrative as the family history behind it, and like Maus, family relationships are complex and entirely bereft of easy answers. Even the art feels similar. The Best We Could Do doesn’t use animals for its characters, but its simple, painfully expressive lines convey the same depth of trauma that Maus does. Neither Maus nor The Best We Could Do is gory, but both are frequently very difficult to look at.
I’m not suggesting that The Best We Could Do is a Maus clone at all (I’ve read that one more recently than Persepolis, but that would also make for a good side-by-side discussion). But if anyone is inexplicably still skeptical about comics’ ability to convey powerful and complex subject matter, this one is definitely high on my recommendation list.