On stage, it was apparent that cartoonist Thi Bui felt at home. Bui, whose book The Best We Could Do was chosen as this year’s UCSB Reads pick, held a free lecture and book signing at UCSB Thursday evening. A memoir told through graphic art, her book depicts the overlapping origin stories of her family’s journey from Vietnam to America, during and after the Vietnam War.
UCSB Reads is an annual, campus-wide program that chooses one recently published book to distribute to students for free. The story and themes of the book are then incorporated it into student curricula and a series of public events. In the 13 years of the program, The Best We Could Do marks the first time a graphic novel has been chosen.
With the goal of selecting “intellectually stimulating, interdisciplinary” books, previous picks have included Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison by Piper Kerman and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Bui’s book weaves together personal narrative, American and Vietnamese history, explorations of intergenerational trauma, and of course graphic art.
Bui’s presentation Thursday evening was as unconventional as her innovative book. In lieu of reading an excerpt, Bui asked members of the audience to voice characters from her book, creating a collaborative, spontaneous reading environment for the audience. The book’s content is heavy and serious, yet Bui encouraged laughter. “I think that life is so hard that you should laugh as much as possible,” she said.
According to Bui, her motivation to create the book came from her experience as an “angry” grad student, hoping to correct the bad representations of Vietnamese people in popular films. Films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket are beautiful, she admitted, but have left behind problematic stereotypes. Her book was written with “revenge” in mind, but she claimed to have had a change of heart as she wrote the book, wanting to instead consider wider representations of life and death.
The Best We Could Do is Thi Bui’s debut graphic memoir. She also illustrated the children’s book A Different Pond by Bao Phi. She currently teaches at the California College of the Arts in the MFA in Comics Program. She lives in Berkeley, California, with her family.