An Interview with Thi Bui
by Jess Boyd
Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do is a story that moved me, my family and my community. It gave voice to feelings and frustrations that I had yet to articulate and acted as a medium to bridge generations and countries.
The story is a multigenerational saga told through Bui’s past and present selves. Bui generously shares herself at different moments throughout her life, as a child, as a sibling, as a new mother, allowing us to see the far reaching ripples of war, and the way that those ripples can become waves that carry people across oceans.
Jess Boyd: Where was the birthplace of your creativity?
Thi Bui: I have to take a moment to allow myself to accept the compliment embedded in this question. “Ya not creative!” shouts my inner Viet.
Okay, it’s good now. I remember making things and daydreaming when I was a kid as a form of escape. Whether I was escaping my drab physical environment or tense emotional environment, I’m not sure … maybe both? It’s not like that anymore but that was how being creative started — first as an escape and then as a rebellion.
Why is it important to remember and reflect on the past?
We apes learn slow and we keep having to learn the same lessons over and over again. History keeps us humble and it also lends us perspective.
What is the relationship between your son and the book?
The book is a family album that holds his history for him, and which he can revisit as he gets older and understand a bit differently each time.
How did your relationship with your younger self change over the course of creating TBWCD?
Drawing anyone as a child is an incredibly healing process of loving and forgiving them. I didn’t realize until drawing myself as a child or a younger person over and over that that could work for oneself as well.
What did you learn about your younger self whilst writing TBWCD?
I learned that I have a macho and stoic persona that comes out in the face of danger or stress. I had to draw expressions on people and when I thought about my own facial expressions during specific moments and tried to re-embody them, I remembered only blank face.
How did you deal with revisiting moments of childhood fear as an adult?
Very methodically, actually. To get myself in the headspace to explore Chapter 3, which is about my childhood with my father and used to be called TERROR, I rewatched as many horror movies as I could remember were influential to me at that age. I hate horror movies.
But what I found was that most of them are not scary to me anymore. The jump scares and startling music don’t have the same effect they used to. The one film that still terrified me was Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and I rewatched it a few times to study why and how it did that so that I could incorporate it into my art.
What was it like navigating the mediation of memory transmission between generations?
It is important to be aware of your subject’s biases and do supplementary research to fact check and contextualize their recollections and opinions. When I was younger and interviewing my parents, I was an open blank page onto which they could write anything. As I accumulated more knowledge about Vietnamese history, I could ask more specific and challenging questions and fill in the areas of assumption with more specific details that they remembered.
A lot of your book wrestles with the inheritance of traumas and healing, what do you think collective healing looks like for the Vietnamese American community?
To me knowledge is an important part of healing. You cannot forgive what you have not really examined and tried to understand. Facing the uncomfortable, the ugly, and the embarrassing parts of our personal and political history is part of the work of healing.
How did writing The Best We Could Do affect your relationship with Viet Nam?
I have a much more objective relationship with Viet Nam now that I am no longer searching for my origin story in it. It is a complex, beautiful country of 95 million people who are not me. I carry some part of it in me, but I am not necessarily a part of it.
My attempts to find a publisher in VN have not been successful and that is disappointing. I would love to see healing happen between VN and the Vietnamese diaspora, but as long as there is suppression of uncomfortable parts of our history, on any side, the healing cannot be complete.
How does this story transcend the Vietnamese American community?
Civil wars have unfortunately torn apart many countries and sent people across the world. People who were living in America in the 1960s have their own memories of the war. Parents everywhere understand the anguish of being responsible for another human’s life. Children understand frustration and resentment and guilt.
Did your relationship to the notion of home change over the course of writing TBWCD?
I have become more comfortable with the notion of being American in name and all practical ways, and transnational or international in spirit. Nationalism and patriotism are alarming to me because they tend to precede war and mass destruction of life.
What is the name of your next book and what is it about?
The next book is called Nowhereland and it is about Southeast Asians who came to the US as refugees, like me, but ended up in the prison and deportation system.
How is it connected to The Best We Could Do?
My family’s story, even with warts and all, falls in many ways into a model minority narrative and I am conscious of the shadow that I cast when the spotlight is on me. This next book allows me to stretch my own imagination about what Vietnamese American or Southeast Asian experience is.
In some ways, is Nowhereland the untold chapter of TBWCD and/or the war in Viet Nam?
An untold chapter maybe. Certainly the war created many wounds greater than those my family carries, and I have been learning what they look like in other families and how much that can change the course of a person’s life.
Why are these stories that we rarely hear about?
From what I have come to understand, one cannot underestimate the damage caused by the genocide in Cambodia that followed the years of American bombing and destabilization. A generation of artists was destroyed. Who will tell the stories is a question that seems ever present in the surviving diaspora.
There is also the issue of resources and access to education, books, media, and the people who help you become a creator of those things. Our poorest and our least represented are often the same people.
Thi Bui will be in Seattle April 13 through 16 to meet with readers and talk about The Best We Could Do. Find the schedule of appearances and related Seattle Reads events here.
Jess Boyd is a Vietnamese Jewish Londoner who moved to Seattle to build family and invest in the Vietnamese American community. She is a storyteller, editor, magazine founder, organizer, board member, nonprofit professional and intersectional feminist. In her free time, she’s passionate about offering culturally competent birth support to Asian birthing parents and using Muay Thai to support API womxn step into their physical, emotional and ancestral resilience.