UCSB Reads 2019: “The Best We Could Do,” an Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui

Image Courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures

Minh Hua
Campus Beat Reporter

Thi Bui, author of the 2019 UCSB Reads book “The Best We Could Do,” visited Campbell Hall last Thursday, April 25, to talk about her memoir and to interact with UCSB students, faculty, and fans.

Speaking on her motivations and writing process behind the memoir, Bui weaved a compelling narrative about her family’s immigrant experience to address the common issues facing Vietnamese immigrants.

According to the UCSB Library website, UCSB Reads started in 2007 with the intention of bringing “the campus and Santa Barbara communities together to read a common book that explores important issues of our time.”

This year’s book “The Best We Could Dowas the first graphic narrative to be selected, chronicling generations of Bui’s family history in Vietnam, including her birth during the final months of the Vietnam War and her parents’ escape to, as well as their early years in, the United States.

Campbell Hall was completely packed when the lecture started at around 7:35 p.m. with Gauchos (current and alumni), faculty, and members of the Santa Barbara community waiting for Bui’s talk.

According to University Librarian Kristin Antelman who opened the event, Bui was born three months before the end of the Vietnam war in 1975 and emigrated from Vietnam in 1978 as part of the boat people, refugees who fled Vietnam by boat and ship following the end of the Vietnam War. Offering praise for “The Best We Could Do,” Antelman commented on the book’s exploration of the power of origin stories and alternative forms of memoir writing.

After a brief introduction from Antelman, Bui took to the stage amidst waves of applause from the audience. “I just want to say thank you so much for coming here tonight,” said Bui, “and I’m sorry if my book was required reading for one of your classes.”

The first half of Bui’s talk was a live reading of her book. As a former high school teacher for 10 years in New York and Oakland, “participation was highly important” to Bui. Consequently, a few Gauchos, some alumni, and a little girl in the audience stood in as voices for the book’s characters, helping Bui bring to life her family’s harrowing journey to the United States.

After 40 minutes of reading, Bui shifted her lecture to a Q&A section, taking questions from 10 or so audience members. The first audience member asked Bui her motivation on choosing a comic book narrative.

Bui’s background in art played a key factor. “I nearly flunked out of my MFA sculpture program … I went back to drawing with comics because I wanted to tell a story,” said Bui.

“Not everybody can afford an expensive sculpture but almost everyone can afford a book,” continued Bui.

According to Bui, although the book takes an average of two hours to read, its completion took 12 years of hard work, careful consideration, and learning.

Next, an audience member reflected on how Bui’s portrayal of her stressed relationship with her father in the book reflected their own relationship with their father.

“Working on the book was a form of therapy for both of us,” said Bui. “Mental health is an issue for the Asian American community but it isn’t talked about; it is considered shameful to have a doctor for your mind. As a result, we did our own therapy by talking to each other.” Since “The Best We Could Dois a memoir, the bulk of the narrative relied on Bui’s interviews with her parents.

In response to her motivation for tackling the 12-year-long project, Bui said that she wanted to correct misrepresentations of Viet people during the Vietnam war. For example, she referenced growing up with movies  like Full Metal Jacket, a film that follows a platoon of U.S. Marines from their training to them fighting in the Vietnam War, where the only Vietnamese character in the movie was a prostitute.

“This book is my revenge,” said Bui.

In addition, addressing an audience member’s concern that the younger generation is losing touch with their Vietnamese culture, Bui offered, “The younger generation is not missing anything — they are the custodians of Vietnamese culture. Whether or not they can speak Vietnamese does not matter because they are carrying on the Vietnamese tradition in their DNA.”

After the conclusion of the Q&A section, audience members got a chance to meet Bui up close and have her sign their books. Currently, Bui is engaged in “Nowhereland,her next graphic novel narrative about Southeast Asian Americans and the United States’ deportation regime.

Interested Gauchos can find more about her work at her website, https://www.thibui.com/.