From Refugee to Graphic Novelist — A Story Four Decades in the Making - OZY | A Modern Media Company

From Refugee to Graphic Novelist — A Story Four Decades in the Making

From Refugee to Graphic Novelist — A Story Four Decades in the Making

By Fiona Zublin


Because as America turns away from the immigrants who created it, it’s time to embrace their stories.

By Fiona Zublin

Think about the person you were 12 years ago. Close your eyes: What did you want? Who did you think you were? What story did you want to tell? Would your answers be the same today?

For Thi Bui, 12 years is how long it took to get the story she wanted to tell where it needed to be. And now, at 42, she’s published her first graphic novel, The Best We Could Do, a far-ranging illustration of her family’s life in Vietnam, their refugee journey to the United States, and her life building her own Vietnamese-American family. 


Reviewing Thi Bui’s graphic novel, author Leela Corman wrote: “At once intimate and sweeping in its portrayal of human experience, The Best We Could Do made me weep.”

Source Courtesy of Thi Bui

“It was like working on a submarine,” she says of the decade-plus she spent on her first book. “It was really liberating because no one knew me. There was no pressure of making something really good other than my own pressure on myself.” In 2010, Bui’s creative project — begun five years earlier as a graphic novel despite zero training in the art form — caught a break in the form of a comics residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. Bui was one of eight writers working on long-form projects who received feedback from celebrated comic artist Craig Thompson (award-winning author of Blankets and Habibi). By 2014 she took a leave of absence from her day job as a public high school teacher to focus on her novel, and today she’s fully on the author train: She illustrated a children’s book by Vietnamese-American artist and activist Bao Phi — whose family came over from Vietnam around the same time hers did — and has already started conceptualizing her next book. 

As she finished up the manuscript ahead of its spring 2017 publication, Bui thought she’d be drawing parallels between the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis and that which brought her family to the States. But now, she says, immigrant stories have taken on a different cast, with the politics of migration retreating 30 years. “I didn’t realize we were going to go back to the early 1980s, where immigrants are being demonized and treated as something we need to be afraid of,” she says.

I think she needed to live those four full decades to experience — I’d even say EARN — such a deeply resonating story.

Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Like its ideological predecessors Maus and Persepolis, graphic novels that also tell autobiographical, multigenerational stories of migration in times of disaster, The Best We Could Do delves into the relationship between parents and children, how it shifts over time and across cultures. In fact, Bui says her self-training started with reading both books, exposing herself to the artistic style bit by bit, redrawing pages again and again as the structure and story became more articulated and streamlined. She began printing out chapters of what would become The Best We Could Do one at a time and shopping them at zine fests.


Reading the book as a whole, it’s hard to imagine meting it out chapter by chapter. The story rambles and sweeps over decades as it traces her family’s history in Vietnam, amid shifting loyalties and the hardships of poverty and violence, and then their difficult transition to America — and the process, familiar to everyone, of becoming an adult and renegotiating your relationship with your parents. Terry Hong, who created Smithsonian BookDragon, a blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, attributes some of the book’s insight and intelligence to the time it took Bui to write it. “I think she needed to live those four full decades to experience — I’d even say EARN — such a deeply resonating story,” Hong says. “If she’d written the book in her 20s, or even early 30s, the depth of her relationship with her parents — as parents and as individuals with lives beyond being her mother and father and even beyond being husband and wife — couldn’t possibly have been there since those experiences hadn’t yet happened.”

Bui’s teaching background means she knows how little focus is given to Vietnam in American high schools, that it often gets glossed over in history classes as students come up on end-of-the-year exams. But Kenneth Carano, a professor at Western Oregon University who’s researched graphic novels in the classroom, says his data indicates that books like The Best We Could Do may be a singularly effective way to introduce students to that history. “Graphic novels have potential for a very humanizing effect for students if it’s taught and used properly,” Carano says. “It’s the visuals, the facial expressions, the thought bubbles. If you combine this with other sources, secondary sources, it has a profound effect.”

To be sure, Bui’s not the first person to tell a story of being a refugee from Vietnam. In fact, through the book, she’s found a new community of Vietnamese-American authors. Their work is varied, their stories unique, but in July a group that gathered for the first Asian American Literature Festival at the Smithsonian found themselves unexpectedly sharing a dorm room with five beds squeezed into it. “It was amazing to meet them this way because it was like we were all reliving our refugee pasts,” she says. “We all spent the third night telling ghost stories.”

While Bui insists she’s finished with memoir forever, her next project will also be about Vietnam. Still drawn to nonfiction — and inspired by Vietnamese podcasts she listened to for hours while finishing The Best We Could Do — she began to consider a project about climate change in the Mekong Delta. Stories of environmental devastation, like refugee stories, don’t come with tidy endings, meaning it’s inherently difficult to satisfy the reader — without lying. But Thi Bui, a novelist decades in the making, has some storytelling experiments in mind. Not every comic book has to have a happily ever after. 

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