The Best We Could Do
Author: Thi Bui
Publish Date: March 2017
Publisher: Abrams ComicArts
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1419718786
Where to buy: https://bookshop.org/lists/recently-reviewed-on-graphicmedicine-org
Author website: https://www.thibui.com/
by Saily Marrero
Thi Bui’s 2017, graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do tackles her family history and traumas caused by the Vietnam War. The book also covers topics of childbirth, miscarriage, child death, violence, and war which some readers might find distressing.
Targeted toward mature audiences interested in modern Vietnamese history, Bui’s memoir covers the First Indochina War in 1946, the Vietnam War (1955-1975) (also known as the Second Indochina War), and her family’s immigration to the U.S. in the 1980s. It’s important to note that in the U.S., the Vietnam war is often examined in the context of U.S. politics and the anti-war movement but overlooks how it impacted Vietnamese people. The Best We Could Do is written by and for Vietnamese American people in mind.
“Chapter 1: Labor” portrays her own adult experience with childbirth as a first-time mother. In these scenes she demonstrates the worry, anguish, and discomfort of labor. In one instance Bui accepts having an epidural and Pitocin after first refusing drugs during labor, the anguish and desperation is clear on her face and body language on page 7. This is one of several moments during labor where her decisions do not go according to plan. In one last ditch effort to have a say in her labor she asks the doctor “Could I… try to do this without the episiotomy?” (Page 9), however the doctor’s answer was scarier than expected.
Most of the birth scenes in the book are depicted using darker colors, plenty of red, and sharp lines, giving them a somber look rather than a happy mood most people associate with new life. In later chapters we also see the challenges of a new mother as Bui struggles with changing diapers, breastfeeding, and her newborn’s jaundice diagnosis. Like most medical terms mentioned in this graphic memoir, jaundice is not explained by the author other than it makes the skin yellow and is treated with phototherapy.
Moreover, we see the author’s mother become distant during the labor, something the reader will later realize is a trauma response to the various difficult labors she had endured. Ma, as Bui calls her mother, had a total of 6 pregnancies, 2 of which did not survive infancy. Unfortunately, most of her pregnancies were influenced negatively by the circumstances of war. In one example, Ma struggled to arrive at a hospital because a road was barricaded by soldiers (Page 50). Another child was born 2 weeks prior to the Tet Offensive (Page 48), and her last child was born in a refugee camp. Suffice to say, these were less than ideal circumstances to be a parent much less to a newborn.
Moreover, Bui’s memoir is also one about generational trauma. Although as a child Bui is unable to understand her parents and their choices in raising her and her siblings, as an adult she can learn and reflect on the events that influenced her parents. As shown in chapters 4 and 5, her parents had wildly different childhoods. While her mother came from a stable and privileged household, her father’s childhood was full of neglect and turbulence. In a group of panels on page 92, we see Bui trying to understand her father where she portrays each panel in various stages of their life: child, adult, and elderly. The understanding is that her father is still that young child who had experienced fear, neglect, and trauma. This trauma not only informs his parenting choices but also Bui’s role as a parent. It all culminates in the later chapters where Bui voices her concerns about passing trauma to her own son as she writes, “That being my father’s child I, too, was a product of war… and being my mother’s child, I could never measure up to her…What has worried me since having my own child was whether I would pass along some gene for sorrow or unintentionally inflict damage I could never undo…” (Page 325-328). By the end she comes to realize that “being their child simply means that [she] will always feel the weight of their past (Page 325),” and is comforted by hope that she feels her son will escape this legacy of “war and loss” (Page 329).
Saily Marrero, M.S.I. is the Nursing & Health Studies, Psychology, and Biology Librarian at the University of Miami. She enjoys reading Graphic Novels and Romance.
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