Page 45 Review by Stephen
So often the best route to true understanding lies in the lives of others.
And no one lives solely in their present.
Every individual is coloured by their experiences which have informed their decisions which have in turn brought them to where they are today. It is in these histories that lies the context, and context is everything.
It is not enough to be aware of the bigger picture if you cannot comprehend it, and the best key to comprehension is through the eyes of those individuals who are living it or have lived through it or have died during it.
So it is with those of us looking in from outside; and so it is within families themselves.
"Travis and I moved to California in 2006 to raise our son near family, trading the life we had built and loved in New York for a notion I had in my head of becoming closer to my parents as an adult.
"I don't know exactly what it looks like, but I recognise what it is not, and now I understand...
"Proximity and closeness are not the same."
This is a story of parenthood, of childhood, of a generation gap which seemed like a chasm, and if you thought Belle Yang's search for understanding in FORGET SORROW doubled as a fascinating account of one life in early 20th Century, this is an even more involving and personable account of two separate lives in mid 20th Century Vietnam which eventually and improbably converge. Through this Thi Bui begins to know her parents for who they are in greater depth, and so come to terms with her own strange childhood after the family's terrifying escape in 1978 from Vietnam via Malaysia to America, then feel far more at ease with her own place within it all.
It is rich in detail and extraordinarily articulate, partly because it is so well structured.
It begins with the excruciatingly difficult birth of her own son which her mother flew all the way from New York to attend but then kept her agonised distance. The following hours in hospital aren't easy, either, the practicalities of motherhood not coming naturally to Bui. She bonds with her mother over the pain of childbirth, then...
"Ma leaves me, but I'm not alone and a terrifying thought creeps into my head.
"Family is now something I have created, and not just something I was born into.
"The responsibility is immense.
"A wave of empathy for my mother washes over me."
Bui will return to her own motherhood only towards the end because this is not about that, but all which led up to it.
"My father always said he had no parents. In my twenties, I learned that my grandfather was alive in Vietnam and wanted to meet us."
Her father refuses to join them. He is adamant. He does not want to see his own father again, but he won't explain why.
"Soon after that trip back to Vietnam (our first since we escaped in 1978) I began to record our family history, thinking that if I bridged the gap between the past and the present I could fill the void between my parents and me. And that if I could see Vietnam as a real place and not a symbol of something lost, I would see my parents as real people and learn to love them better."
We will all see her parents as very real people and understand precisely why her father or "Bo" will not return and will have nothing to do with his own father. It is extraordinary, I promise you. You cannot begin to imagine.
Before we delve fully into the structure, I want to talk about the art which is soft and tender, and full of lyrical flourishes like a boat on the sea behind a quiet conversation, lush landscapes and so much more swirling water at one point doubling as a birth. The page just quoted also depicts the tumultuous oceanic crossing, while beneath it a young Thi stands naked, with her back to us, a map of Vietnam carved out of her body where her heart should be, bleeding out of her, up towards the sea or perhaps bleeding down into her to fill that void with fresh understanding.
"How did we get to such a lonely place?
"We live so close to each other and yet feel so far apart.
"I keep looking toward the past...
"Tracing out journey in reverse... over the ocean... through the war, seeking an origin story that will set everything right."
The first part of this story - her mother's six baby births - is indeed told in reverse. None of them are easy. The most recent was in the coastal Malaysian refugee camp, another during war; her mother's firstborn wasn't stillborn but she didn't last long, the first parental shadow falling over the proceedings in the form of her own aloof mother's advice not to breastfeed. Is that where it all began?
"How does one recover from the loss of a child?" she asks as we stroll down a leafy lane. "How do the others compare to the memory of the lost one?"
This triggers memories of Thi's early childhood in a dark apartment in California, left with her younger brother in the care of her father while her sisters go to school and her mother takes the only job they can get because their degrees aren't recognised - assembly-line work on minimum wage - which her father refuses.
"That sounds terrible."
Instead he just sits there smoking, occasionally erupting, while forbidding them to answer the door. Her brother cowers in the closet when anyone comes knocking.
But what happened to her father when he was their age? There will be cowering there too. Cowering on an almost unimaginably dark scale; also our first history lesson, post-WWII - of France's return to Vietnam to take back what they saw as colonially theirs (perhaps out of pride after being occupied by Germany) - after Ho Chi Minh had declared independence on behalf of the Viet Minh. So begins the geographical divide and the first atrocities...
It is there that we leave him for now, aged seven, with few or no prospects.
"And in the dark apartment in San Diego, I grew up with the terrified boy who became my father."
This is what I mean by structure: each particular element informs a specific other.
So it is with her mother's story, which could not be more different and which is brought to bear on Bui's low self-esteem in comparison to her mother's beauty. Hers was a much more exotic upbringing, as the youngest daughter of an affluent family and a daddy who doted on her, educated and thriving in French schools. She made friends with an older servant girl who took her to live with her family during the school holidays, sleeping under the moon in the countryside. But when the servant is married off and so leaves the household, marriage as a trap begins to form in her mind while education represented freedom instead. She aspired to be a doctor. Evidently that didn't happen, but why? How did she end up married to Thi's father? Through education, ironically. It wasn't supposed to be permanent...
Again, the structure is so well judged, Thi Bui seeking to understand her parents thoroughly and independently, before they even met let alone got married and had children. You will see all those births again, this time in the order they occurred, fleshed out as so many dots are joined and - oh! - there was a brief moment before those children when, against all odds, it all seemed so idyllic: teachers with two incomes in a beautiful small town in the deep southern part of the Mekong Delta.
They'd survived the First Indochina War, the Land Reforms - both with catastrophic casualties - but then came the Americans in 1965, destroying Vietnam's agriculture with their defoliants and its economy with their imports, the descent of cities into police states, and thirteen more years, fully fleshed out for us all to comprehend just how unlikely they were ever to have escaped, and the toll that mere survival took on both of them. You can even spot almost the exact moment of Bui's father's collapse from provider to withdrawn brooder while her mother desperately, indefatigably soldiers on, for what other choice is there for a mother?
That's not the end of the story, obviously, even after the refugee camp and the flight to America.
Once more there's the question of provision, assimilation, finding your own place in a strange country and foreign climate, re-education after those degrees aren't recognised, and the painstaking accumulation of fresh documentation both for the family and each of their children separately. It is so very impressive, yet it is humbly titled THE BEST WE COULD DO.
Along with Francesca Sanna's THE JOURNEY, Sean Tan's THE ARRIVAL and Sarah Glidden's ROLLING BLACKOUTS, this is another book with which to bang on the head of anyone tempted to think for even one second that seeking asylum is easy or believe the hate-mongering lies of the right-wing press and politicians that refugees are idle, disrespectful, sponging drains on our resources. In rebuttal Thi Bui could offer you the nightmare of random raids in a police state and the fear of being disbelieved, the horror of a sea crossing when you could be caught at any second, the generosity of Malaysian villagers with so little to give, the values instilled into their children by Thi Bui's parents and the sheer hard graft of the mother in order to build something from nothing and set her children up to be educated at length, thrive in peace, and so that one of them could be in a position to write and draw this extraordinary graphic memoir over many years - while teaching in a high school for immigrants in Oakland which she helped create - in order to pass it all on to us for a greater understanding of others.
But, of course, this isn't a rebuttal. This isn't a polemic.
This is one woman seeking to gain understanding of herself and her relationship with her parents, in order to relax into parenthood herself.
We're just lucky enough to be privy to this personal story, and so benefit from it ourselves.