Colour in Thi Bui’s “The Best We Could Do”

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The endpapers of Thi Buy’s The Best We Could Do are coloured in a wash of a sky blue hue, and depict a beach scene: shells of several sizes are scattered about, along with a pair of sandals. The effect of the opening endpapers, to which the reader turns from the cover image of a cable-stayed bridge that is possibly San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate is an overall affect of stillness and calm. Turn the page, and you’ll find that even on the “preface” page the tone of the text has been greatly altered: here, the page has been washed in a rusty tone, and given a water-color effect that gives the impression of drops of colour that have dissipated by spreading outward as they’ve soaked into the page. Or, aside from the endpapers, the single-colour wash looks an eerie amount like blood, to the point that I was sometimes made uncomfortable by it[1].

Golden Gate Bridge, Cover

Single-color washes of the sort that Bui employs (generally, not in the sense of resembling blood) are currently a common trend in graphic memoir. I’ve written about how Alison Bechdel uses a single-colour wash to add depth of field in her first memoir, Fun Home, and how Nicole Georges move between scenes with and without the single-color wash effect to establish a relationship between two timelines in her memoir, Calling Dr. Laura[2]. Here, I’m interested in how the single-color wash effect can also be used to further the story. The Best We Could Do is a beautiful example through which to explore this topic, as Thi Bui uses her blood-coloured wash to explore a particular set of complexities around stories of immigration that involve blood, both literally (the Vietnam war, the blood present at the scene of birth) and figuratively (family lines, ethnicity, ethnic cleansings, racism). Of course, these seemingly disparate facts of life (war and birth, for instance) are shown to be intimately linked together, and the blood-metaphor that underpins the entire story, that we might say haunts the text, is one of the main mechanisms through which Bui shows this connection. Though this connection is present throughout the text, I am going to focus on two spots in the text where the color-wash seemed to be an especially important element of storytelling.

Near the center of the text, Bui explores the backstory of her father; doing so helps to flesh out her father’s character, and to contextualize his otherwise harsh, verging on tyrannical moments. Bui’s father goes through perhaps the most severe set of changes throughout his life: as a child he lives in extreme poverty, and in a dysfunctional family: “when [he]was five … [his]father fell in love with the pretty neighbor at the end of the street” (109), and in response to his mother asking “why do you always leave us?” (109), his father “beat his mother badly and threw her out. That was the last time Bô ever saw his mother” (110).

Eventually, Bô narrowly escapes murder by the French army by hiding in an underground cave, and then marching to the French controlled city of Hâi Phòng (122,128), where he lived with his grandparents. Bô’s relationships with Vietnam, with war, and with the French are complex, and informed by major moments of change in his life. Though it is the French army that forces this relocation by making his village a target after “a Viêt Minh in hiding had shot a French soldier” (120), it is also because of French influence that his is “westernized, citified,” and goes from “going barefoot, to wearing sandals, trousers, chemise. [To] eating bread and butter, ham, chocolate ice cream. [To] seeing cars, [and]riding a bicycle” (153). It is because of French colonization, too, that he is allowed to have the particular education that he is given[3]: he attends “Henri Riviére … an elite school, reserved for the French and the wealthy Vietnamese” where he “studied literature [and]read French books. It was, compared to [his]earlier life, a PARADISE” (154).

Ironically, it is partially his elite education that informs his later ideas about the world, and eventually comes to side with the communists: “a few people owned all the land, and too many people had nothing at all. [He] read calls for change in the newspapers, and was influenced” (155). It is this same scope of influence that both causes a rift with his grandparents (“you sleep under MY ROOF- EAT MY FOOD, and you want to call yourself a communist!?” (155)), and influences his view on war, which is equal parts sophisticated and deeply troubling. For example, he is able to say that “every casualty in war is someone’s grandmother, grandfather, brother, sister, child, lover” (157), an arguably abstracted statement in which “war casualty” and various familial and relational positions are made to stand in for one another, and to point out that this equation for his is not abstracted: “a new regime that was both NATIONALIST and COMMUNIST, they had to KILL all of those people who were friends of the French. The communists, they called those things SACRIFICES. And [I] called them Grandmother and Grandfather” (156).

The pages over which this information is revealed mark a change in colouring in the text: the background color-wash changes from washed-out to fairly saturated here, and in the pages following remains quite dark. Different features in the text take on the same deep hue: in the image provided here, the landscape itself is painted in a deep, blood red, but so too are both the French and Communist flags. After this moment, Bô himself wears a blood red shirt until the family decides to immigrate.

I want to end with the beginning- Bui’s opening page, which is possibly the page on which the single-colour wash is most pale, most washed out, further links together ideas about generation, immigration, and water metaphors. Though the background wash is so light on this page, the connections remain, I think, abundantly clear: the title of the chapter- Labor, a title emblematic of the contents that follow, sits atop an image of Bui’s own pregnant belly, her legs raised up around her hips and fists clenched suggesting quite decidedly that the chapter title is, again, both figurative and literal. The accompanying text reads: “New York Methodist hospital November 28, 2005 / I’m in labor. / The pain comes in twenty-foot waves and Má has disappeared” (1). While pain does, characteristically, come in what is called “waves,” twenty-foot waves are a clear reference to a body of water that is, by definition, large and rough: Bui is linking the process of labor to the journey that her family takes across the South China sea to Pulau Besar, a refugee camp on the coast of Malaysia. If you’re not convinced that this is what she’s doing by the above image, consider that in the second chapter the text leaves the present moment of 2005 to trace her family history before returning to the New York Methodist hospital in the final chapter, titled Ebb and Flow, which also includes a splash page in which Bui’s current moment, her mother’s experience of giving birth in the refugee camp, and her father’s role as ersatz captain of the leaky little boat that ferries the family from one danger to the next all blend into one single moment, their shared significance thus made poignant.

Symbolic Colour

The language and image of the opening page work together in profound ways as well. I am especially struck by the rich color of the hospital gown, and how it pairs with that phrasing “and Má has disappeared” (1). In this moment, the reader’s eye is focused on the pregnant belly, with virtually no other detail to introduce us to Bui herself; while the text announces that “Má has disappeared,” the image register also suggests that Bui is herself at risk of disappearing, too. This is part of the complexity of her text, and the irony of the way that the various threads fit together through the central symbol of blood: the full saturation of color on Bui’s hospital gown suggests that it is labor- the bearing of children- that sutures generations together, but which also threatens to make mothers disappear. Like the journey that Bui and her family have taken from Vietnam to Malaysia to America, the bloodline enacts a double-pull: a desire for growth or movement- to labor for the next generation, to move on to a safer place-, that meets up with a desire for stillness and stagnancy- to keep from displacing one’s own mother, to retain some tie to one’s homeland.

Thi Buy’s The Best We Could Do, Abrams Books, March 2017

[1] I mean this in a really positive way: clearly Bui spent a long time getting her color washes just exactly right for her intended effect, and sometimes that effect is discomfort.

[2] In a brief survey of my own comics collection, I found this trend to be present primarily in graphic memoirs written by women identified folks. However, my collection is pretty limited, and my results aren’t very scientific. I’d love to hear about -and see examples of!- this phenomenon in texts outside of those I’m familiar with.

[3] I don’t mean to suggest that he wouldn’t have access to education absent French colonization, but rather mean to point out a particular irony in Bô’s life.

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Jocelyn lives in Hamilton (Ontario), and teaches writing in the Southern Ontario region. If she isn't reading comics or writing about them, she's probably snuggling her dog.

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