Coming to America

Thi Bui combines political and personal history in her new graphic memoir

When asked how it feels to have published an illustrated memoir about you and your family’s experience as refugees in the U.S., Thi Bui apologizes. 

“I just want to apologize for it being required reading,” Bui says with a laugh. “I hope that no one thinks it’s a drag because they have to read it.” 

Bui’s memoir, The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir, was required this year for the University of Oregon’s first-year students in its Common Reading program. Bui’s book brings together historical research as well as her family’s experiences as they built new lives in the U.S. after escaping the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s. 

Putting together the book took about 10 years because she worked on it during summer vacations and whenever she could while working as a high school teacher, she says.

Once she got a publishing contract, she took a leap of faith that it would work out and quit teaching full time. 

To gather stories about what life in Vietnam was like, Bui interviewed her parents. This meant, for example, asking her parents what it was like hiding from French soldiers during the First Indochina War, from 1946 to 1954. 

“There were times where I wanted to stop drawing because it was too heavy,” she says.  

In fact, when reconstructing one of her father’s memories of the violence soldiers did to villagers during the war, she had to put down her pencil.  

“He had some graphic descriptions [of people] doing horrific things,” she says. “When I was drawing, I just didn’t want to continue. So I stopped.”

To put together a complete story about life in South Vietnam, Bui also asked her parents about pleasant memories. 

“Childhood is full of other things, like learning how to swim or fond memories of where you went,” she says. “I think remembering those things was nice for them and nice for them to share with me, and also kind of necessary for me to stay with the story.”  

Her illustrated memoir bears some resemblance to such famous graphic novels as Maus and Persepolis in the sense that it presents a family story set against an historical event. 

Bui recalls what she calls “low-brow” comics being just as influential to her. She says she wasn’t into collecting or reading comics in the correct order as a child. However, she remembers when her parents brought home a stack of women-centered Marvel comics for her from a garage sale. Within that stack, she remembers “a trashy romance” in a future when Amazon warrior women have male slaves. 

Don’t expect her to use that childhood memory as a launching pad to Marvel, though. 

“I’m not sure Marvel wants me,” she says, laughing. 

But she is looking at the future for her upcoming projects. She is toying with the idea of writing about climate change and refugees through the idiom of science fiction. 

Thi Bui will have a live reading 11 am to noon Friday, Feb. 1, at Prince Lucien Campbell Hall, rm. 180. Bui will also have additional events at University of Oregon. Visit for the complete listings.