The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir (Paperback)
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National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Finalist
American Library Association (ALA) 2018 Notable Books Selection
“Gives powerful context to refugees everywhere.” —New York Times Book Review
“A book to break your heart and heal it.” ―Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize–winning author, The Sympathizer
An intimate and poignant debut graphic novel portraying one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam, from Thi Bui.
This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.
At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through.
With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home. The Best We Could Do brings to life, with words and images, Bui’s journey of understanding and provides inspiration to all those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past. It is a powerful look at one woman’s life and a war fought decades ago, but her story and the book’s message resonate remarkably today.
About the Author
Thi Bui was born in Việt Nam three months before the end of the American War, and came to the United States in 1978 as part of the “boat people” wave of refugees from Southeast Asia. Her debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do (Abrams ComicArts, 2017), has been selected as UCLA’s Common Book for 2017, a National Book Critics Circle finalist in autobiography, an Eisner Award finalist in Reality Based Comics, and made several Best of 2017 book lists, including Bill Gates’s top five picks. Bui is also the Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator of A Different Pond, a picture book by the poet Bao Phi (Capstone, 2017). Her short comics can be found online at The Nib, Reveal News, PEN America, and BOOM California. She is currently researching and drawing a work of graphic nonfiction about how Asian Americans are impacted by incarceration and deportation, to be published by One World, Random House. Bui taught high school in New York City and was a founding teacher of Oakland International High School, the first public high school in California for recent immigrants and English learners. Since 2015, she has been a faculty member of the MFA in Comics program at the California College of the Arts. Thi Bui lives in the Bay Area.
"A powerful and intimate look at the modern immigrant experience in America."
Thi Bui’s stark, compelling memoir is about an ordinary family, but her story delivers the painful truth that most Vietnamese of the 20th century know in an utterly personal fashion—that history is found in the marrow of one’s bones, ready to be passed on through blood, through generations, through feelings. A book to break your heart and heal it.
— Viet Thanh Nguyen
“The Best We Could Do lands with the force of a blow and the strength of a mountain. Thi Bui offers an all-too-rarely-seen Vietnamese perspective on our war there, and a view of Vietnamese history that makes this book essential reading for anyone who seeks to go deep into this subject. At once intimate and sweeping in its portrayal of human experience, The Best We Could Do made me weep.”
— Leela Corman
“The Best We Could Do burns back the dead skin of public War memory. Underneath is the raw flesh of another kind of war story—of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brutally intimate and intimately brutal. This book is a must-read.”
— Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis
“Devastating and luminous.”
— Tom Hart
“This bold, brutal book is the new calligraphy—an exquisite marriage of alphabet and imagery. Each sentence, each scene, and each story breaks down a country, a family, and a father. Then, frame by frame, with artistic vigor and monastic devotion, Thi Bui rebuilds a world in which guilt conquers grief and gratitude becomes not only a guide, but our new Deity. The Best We Could Do teaches us how to say no to fear and yes to truth.”
— Fae Myenne Ng
“Thi Bui’s book took my breath away. In a time of continuing refugee crisis, its message is necessary. The Best We Could Do expands one family’s personal story into a global, historic context, while condensing generations of war in Vietnam to intimate and human proportions. Beautiful and powerful.”
— Craig Thompson
“By knowing our parents’ story we come to a better understanding of who we are; by living our own version of their story, that understanding is even deeper and more illuminating. In The Best We Could Do, Thi’s exploration of becoming a mother in the shadow of her own parents’ history is Thi drawing her past to write her future. It’s a story that I—as a child turned parent myself—found emotional, introspective, and a cautionary tale of what we pass to our next generation.”
— GB Tran
“Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do is a nuanced, multilayered tribute to a family that has lost as much as it has gained. Bui interprets her family’s demons with generosity and compassion, and she is keen to understand how the roots of trauma and conflict can grow decades later, thousands of miles away. Infused with Vietnam’s tumultuous history, Bui’s memoir reflects her family’s experience against the larger context of war, poverty, and dislocation, and then pulls back, showing how these heavy matters affect life at home in the quieter days that follow. The Best We Could Do is a beautiful, affecting union of memoir and illustration.”
— Cecily Wong
“The Best We Could Do is a story of massive, sweeping scale told through quiet moments of complex emotion and intimacy. Thi Bui paints the portrait of a single family across three generations, as many continents, and thousands of panels without one false stroke of the brush. Her penetrating examination of family and identity is at once unsentimental and deeply felt, familiar and unlike any other graphic novel you have read. Comics don't get much better than The Best We could Do.”
— Jake Wyatt
“With great mastery of writing and drawing, Thi Bui shows the consequences of war lasting from generation to generation. The Best We Could Do honors Vietnam the way Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis honors Iran. And it’s fun to read too.”
— Maxine Hong Kingston
"Be prepared to take your heart on an emotional roller-coaster journey with this thought-provoking account that completely satisfies as the story comes full circle. Highly recommended for teens and adults; an excellent choice for book clubs."
— Library Journal online (starred review)
"She does not spare her loved ones criticism or linger needlessly on their flaws. Likewise she refuses to flatten the twists and turns of their histories into neat, linear narratives. She embraces the whole of it… In this mélange of comedy and tragedy, family love and brokenness, she finds beauty."
— Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"One of the most anticipated graphic memoirs of 2017 is debut author Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do, an illustrated memoir about her family’s journey from South Vietnam in the 1970s, her experience of first-time motherhood, and how places really do shape one’s identity."
"Bonus: The entire memoir is illustrated."
— The Huffington Post
"In creatively telling a complicated story with the kind of feeling words alone rarely relay, The Best We Could Do does the very best that comics can do. This is a necessary, ever-timely story to share far and wide.”
— Booklist, starred review
“Timely and poignant…”
— Entertainment Weekly
“…a cinematic epic, following several generations through the travails of immigration and emotional dislocation.”
— PBS NewsHour
“When Bui began work on The Best We Could Do in 2005, she couldn’t have predicted the significance it would hold when it was released in 2017, but now that it’s here, it feels like one of the first great works of socially relevant comics art of the Trump era…Bui presents that saga in a way that is narratively intricate, intellectually fastidious, and visually stunning.“
“Bui worked on the book for years, but it’s arrival feels urgent amid today’s travel bans and growing refugee crisis.”
— The Boston Globe
“Gorgeously illustrated… “
— Teen Vogue
“It’s a deeply personal tale, but universal in so many ways, filled with familiar struggles and joys that so many of us will relate to. You need to read this book.”
— PEN America
“A moving, visually stimulating account of the author's personal story and an insightful look at the refugee experience, juxtaposed against Vietnam's turbulent history. “
— Shelf Awareness, starred review
“Like Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece, “Maus,” Bui’s memoir elicits complex emotions from understated pen-and-ink drawings.”
— The San Francisco Chronicle
“…a nuanced and heartfelt immigrant tale, brought to true life through beautiful and brilliant illustration. On top of that, it's an especially poignant read from the vantage point of 2017.”
“The story, both deeply personal and historically illuminating, will devastate and inspire you on many levels.”
— The Mary Sue
“Bui's minimalist approach ensures readers can't gloss over the harsh realities of her family's immigrant experience, but it also forces us to recognize the universal struggles and triumphs that all families experience. Fans of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis will not want to miss this incredibly relevant work.”
“This book is beautiful. It is personally meditative while also deeply informative, telling the history that lives in one family’s bones while spanning multiple nations, borders, and generations.”
— Boing Boing
“…a crucial exploration of the refugee experience in this era of expressly unconstitutional efforts to halt immigration into the United States.”
“Thi Bui’s debut graphic novel — a memoir about her family’s immigration from Vietnam to the United States during the Vietnam War — had me weeping openly on the New York City subway."
— The Cut
“Following in the footsteps of landmark graphic memoirs by Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel and Roz Chast, this powerful and essential book tells the story of the author’s family’s journey from Vietnam to the United States.“
“….her story offers readers a particular insight into the life of a family fleeing violence and fear in a time of political upheaval—a reminder of the micro consequences of macro political actions.”
— Paste Magazine
"It has all the hallmarks of a book that will be regarded as a pioneer in both form and content.”
"In this graphic novel, every image looks like the characters are being gently blown away, or else in perfect stillness… It’s a touching memoir.”
— The Coveteur
“Beautiful in both form and content...”
— The Awl
“The Best We Could Do is a moving memoir and corrective to Trump-era xenophobia.”
— The Comics Bulletin
“…the storytelling of Thi Bui is very strong.”
“…haunting writing and breathtaking art…”
— Gambit Weekly
"Thematically rich and complex, melding together grief and hope, the personal and the political, the familial and the national, The Best We Could Do is an important, wise, and loving book.”
— The Comics Journal
"The Best We Could Do is a deeply American story, tapping into the national myth, however illusory, of freedom in new beginnings.”
— Hyphen Magazine
“…a cinematic epic that poignantly tracks several generations through immigration and emotional dislocation. At its best, this memoir feels not just created but also deeply lived.”
— Michael Cavna
“The memoir is a detailed family history and an accurate representation of Vietnamese people during the Vietnam war and the realities of finding a better life and a new land.”
“The Best We Could Do has been compared to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis for its heart-wrenchingly honest, sometimes humorous, and deeply personal account of what it means to rescue life from the debris of loss.”