In my last post, I looked at the role of photographs in Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at the ways that Thi Bui depicts and deploys photographs in The Best We Could Do, a graphic memoir about her family’s escape from South Vietnam and immigration to the United States in 1970s. On the surface, Gharib’s and Bui’s visual style differ dramatically. Gharib’s is more cartoony while Bui’s is more photorealistic and abstract, even though it is not as photorealistic as Kristen Radtke’s style in Imagine Wanting Only This. Even with these differences in visual style, Bui’s use of photographs plays a similar role in the narrative structure of The Best We Could Do.
Recollecting when her father, Bố, lives with her mother and siblings, Bui thinks back to an “orange apartment building in San Diego, California.” In this sequence, we see what appear to be photographs as Bui describes the apartment. The two-page, six-panel (with inserted panels) sequence follows Bui and the family as they drive up to the apartment, walk up the stairs, go inside, and as Bui looks over the railing into the parking lot.
The initial panel has two images. On the left, a panel inserted into the larger panel depicts Bui as a child. This insert looks like a photograph, a representation of Bui in that moment, as a young girl moving with her family to the orange apartment in San Diego, the photograph takes stage, bringing the discussion of truth and constructed memories to the forefront. Bui begins this panel by narrating, Was Bố so terrible? It’s hard to remember. My memories of him live in an orange apartment building in San Diego, California.” From the outset, Bui foregrounds the slipperiness of memory, the ways that the past changes and evolves, always reflecting not just the past but also the present and the influences that inform it.
The next panel shows a side view of the family car parking at the apartment complex. This view is not as detailed as the rest of Bui’s text. Instead, it is black and white, sparsely detailed with shading. It looks like a sketch, in many ways. Bui’s inserted photograph in the first panel is detailed, and the larger image, of the outside of the apartment complex, looks less detailed in many ways, as if the move to the past strips away certain aspects of the memory. That is what happens in the second panel with the family parking outside the apartment complex. Bui visually represents that slipperiness of memory, and as the sequence progresses, the detail returns only to slip and crack near the end.
Bui recalls specific aspects of the building, the concrete, “the rectangular shapes,” the plants, the stairs, and more. When she mentions the stairs, we see her looking up at the stairs as her family carries their belongings up the steps into their apartment. Here, she is positioned as if she is looking at a photograph, at a memory of that moment. In the inserted panel, she stares at the plants as she holds a doll. In each moment, she looks at the past, contemplating it, recalling it, filling in the information that has returned to her as she thinks about her past.
The final two panels are split in two, with a gutter in between them. Here, Bui narrates, “I remember the streets named after states and schools named after presidents, and imagine each block, each day turned us a little more American.” Three images interplay over the course of these two panels. The background is a map, without labels. It depicts the layout of the streets, highlighting Bui’s memories of the neighborhood where she lived. The next image is one that is split between the two panels. It looks, again, like a photograph. The top part, in the first panel, shows the outside of the apartment complex, painted orange. The bottom part, in the second panel, shows a black and white, sketch-like again, image of the parking lot with cars parked in some of the spots. To the left of the bottom image, we see Bui looking over the railing into the parking lot, the railing moving down towards the bottom right of the panel.
This interplay, with the colors or lack of colors and almost, at least in regard to the street grid, abstract nature of the images, highlights the ways that memory works. If the image of the apartment complex and the parking lot is a photograph, as it appears to be, then shouldn’t the whole thing have consistent detail? The key, of course, is that Bui remembers the orange? While she remembers the plants, “blinding concrete,” the steps, and more, the focal point of her memory resides in the color of the complex, and this is what comes through. The rest does not get filled in like the façade of the complex, and this aspect highlights, again, the ways that we remember. In this manner, Bui does not recall every aspect; instead, she recalls certain things. The photograph shows her every aspect, but her thoughts still remember specific things, not everything. Thus, the photograph does not show the “truth” in every aspect. It shows what we remember, which shifts and moves as we live our lives.
Like I said from the outset, it is unclear if the inserted panel of Bui at the start of this sequence is a photograph or if the one of the apartment complex and parking lot at the end is one. However, they certainly look like it, and considering Bui’s discussion of her memories, I think we need to look at these two images as photographs, ones that situate, in connection with Bui’s narration, this sequence, and the text itself, as memory. We need to look at them in conjunction with the other panels to help us see the ways that memory changes, brightening certain aspects while muting others, causing us to recall and also forget. We must realize that our memoires ebb and flow, influenced by a myriad of forces that cause that shifting. Bui and Gharib highlight this very fact in their works.
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