• The cover of "The Best We Could Do," a graphic novel following Vietnamese refugees which was chosen as the 2017-2018 UCLA Common Book.

  • Author and illustrator of the 2017-2018 UCLA common Book, Thi Bui, speaks on a panel organized by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Center for Southeast Asian Studies. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

  • Students pose with their copies of "The Best We Could Do" before Thi Bui's panel and book signing. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/UCLA.)

“The Best We Could Do”: Confronting unspoken trauma through storytelling

The author/illustrator of the UCLA 2017–18 Common Book advised students how to engage with their refugee families' heritage, stressing the importance of diversifying refugee narratives to prevent future superpowers from adopting condescending “savior” attitudes.

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, February 07, 2018
— Throughout this academic year, students across campus have been reading and discussing “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui, a graphic novel that depicts the experience of the author and her parents as refugees who came to America after the fall of South Vietnam in 1975.

The illustrated memoir was chosen as the 2017–18 Common Book by the First Year Experience office as a way to engage new undergraduate Bruins in campus-wide discussions of compelling social issues.

On January 31, the author/illustrator of “The Best We Could Do” joined the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the Center for Southeast Asian Studies for a panel discussion on Southeast Asian refugee issues. Bui in particular explored storytelling as a means of coping with unspoken trauma. She encouraged students to engage with the history of the nations their refugee parents have left and shared her hopes that diversifying refugee narratives in popular culture would lead America (and future Asian superpowers) away from savior narratives.

Reflecting on unspoken trauma

“Stories create a space to work through what you’re carrying with you,” said the author when asked about the difficulties of publishing a book centered on her own family’s history. “It was important for me to capture my own discontent between what’s happening to me internally and what’s happening politically around the world.

“We all carry histories with us containing unresolved trauma which follows us throughout our everyday lives. But everyday life doesn’t permit us much space to talk about the hardships we’ve endured,” Bui explained. “In trauma, there’s ‘before’ and there’s ‘after.’ Those two modes don’t match. There’s no space to look back or understand what we’ve been through. By creating a private space for myself, like drawing, and then turning that into something more public — a book — I created space for personal reflection,” she said.

“I really appreciate how you’ve highlighted a conversation that is often overlooked or pushed aside in [the Vietnamese refugee] community,” responded Jolie Chea, a panelist from the UCLA Asian American Studies Department. “Many students of color or students related to refugees like myself look for narratives [that] reflect their realities. I’d never read a graphic novel about refugees or seen mental health issues within the Southeast Asian refugee community depicted like this. This book is not just visual, it’s visceral,” Chea said.

The difficulties of depicting reality

“There were some violent elements of the story which I didn’t want to draw and avoided, like constant violence against women and children,” said Bui, responding to a question from the audience on the difficulty of handling such sensitive material.

“I cried a lot. It took me so long to draw the more violent panels. If I were writing,” she continued, “I would probably take just two sentences and describe these massacres quickly, but it took me days to draw each one.

“While I was researching, I also unearthed some troubling aspects of race relations of the era,” said Bui. “I didn’t realize that many French soldiers who fought in the first Indochina war were conscripts from other colonies: for example, there were Sénégalese soldiers fighting Vietnamese. I didn’t know enough about this part of Vietnam’s history and knew I couldn’t do it justice, so I didn’t include it,” she explained.

Reframing refugee narratives in a new era

“Do you think a ‘savior narrative’ like that which is prevalent in American conversations on refugees will be adopted by new superpowers like China as we enter a century that looks more Asian than American?” asked a professor from the Asian American Studies Department whose class was currently reading “The Best We Could Do.”

“I do wonder if people don’t know where their own moral compass is without these comforting narratives painting the West as a savior,” responded Bui. “Without America saving the day, people aren’t sure what the right thing is and feel lost."

“I’m empathetic to this,” she continued. “However, in both the progressive left and far right there is still a mindset which simplifies the refugee situation and condescends to immigrants.” Bui lamented that current depictions of refugees in both the news and literature often focus heavily on refugees fleeing Syria, portraying them as helpless and desperate for salvation.

“We need to reframe the conversation on refugees so that people give up the narrative of the United States as… [the] sole purveyor of freedom,” commented the author. “The future potential for refugee storytelling is great, but we need to expand beyond the state’s definition of a refugee and stop trying to sensationalize [in order] to tug at the heartstrings,” she insisted. “Without new stories grounded in diverse, lived experiences, we’ll continue down the same path of simplifying a complicated situation,” she said.

Navigating between respect and autonomy

A student whose parents, like Bui and her family, arrived in the United States as refugees from Vietnam, asked the author’s advice on how to research Vietnamese history. Refugees’ children, she said, need to process their own feelings of confusion and unresolved trauma without offending their family, who still find it difficult to talk about their painful experiences as refugees.

“I struggled with this while writing the book. I tried to do research which looked beyond the stories my parents had told me growing up,” said Bui, citing her parents’ bias and trauma as reasons to look for objective information. “If it wasn’t their direct experience, it didn’t need to come from their mouths. Reading about the situation in Vietnam on my own allowed me to ask my parents more informed questions about their journey and provide context for their narrative,” she explained.

“Remember that you’re not trying to prove that you know more than your parents,” Bui said to refugee children in the audience. “Instead, you’re allowing yourself to grow and discuss things,” the author said. “If you experience Vietnamese culture and history solely through your parents’ lens, you will have a childlike perspective. It’s important for second generation refugees to form their own opinions and engage in political activity.

“There is a middle ground somewhere in between respect and autonomy — finding it is an organic process that takes time,” said Bui. “If I’d had frank conversations with my parents about our trauma from the beginning, I honestly wouldn’t have published this book. So maybe there’s a plus side to this generational rift,” she concluded.