In my previous post, I started writing about photographs and constructions of memory in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do. Over the past year, I’ve been drawn to the ways that graphic memoirists use actual photographs within their work. Occasionally, they use actual copies of the photographs, but for the majority of the texts that I have looked at, creators reproduce the photographs, using the conventions of sequential art to both remember and comment on the past. They take the photographs and the “truth” they display and highlight that the “truth” that we attribute to photographs is not necessarily “truth”; rather, it is merely a constructed moment that shifts meanings each time we return to it, similar to rereading a book years after you first read it. Today, I want to focus on two more sequences in Bui’s graphic memoir where photographs do exactly this.
The first instance occurs in chapter five where Bui talks about seeing pictures of her mother as a younger woman and a child and wanting to learn more about her past. The chapter’s title, “Either, Or”, plays into the ways, as well, that our reflections of the past, even through photographs which depict the “actual” past fluctuate as we move further and further away from the “actual” moment where someone took the photograph, cementing a visual representation for posterity. Bui opens chapter five with a full page panel depicting her sitting at her sketching table, one foot propped up, leaning back in her chair, as she looks at a photograph in her hand. Her narration reads, “Writing about my mother is harder for me, maybe because my image of her is too tied up with my opinion of myself.” Bui looks through photos of her mother in Việt Nam, reflecting on the ways that her view of herself is entangled with the ways that she views her mother.
Following the opening panel, she focuses on herself holding a picture of her mother, as a child, lying on the ground on a beach with plants behind her. As she holds the image, she says, “People always say I look just like her.” Bui next takes us to Việt Nam when her and her mother went back. She details an encounter with one her mother’s former students who, upon seeing Bui in the doorway, looks back to Bui’s mother, with a smile on her face, points to the door, and says, “She looks like you, but not as pretty.” Bui uses the initial picture to move from her sketch table to the trip to Việt Nam, highlighting the ways that the image or herself is enwrapped with the image she has of her mother but also highlighting that she does not know as much about her mother as she thinks she does. The photographs provide the glimpses into her mother’s past.
After the flashback to Việt Nam, Bui has a four panel page where she mixes old photographs or her mother, sketches that Bui, when she was younger, did of her mother, then a panel that fits the narrative of the novel depicting her brother and herself as children on the couch as her mother peels their fruit for them. This movement incorporates photographs, sketches, and illustrations, showing different modes of representing reality, and Bui’s narration points out how the first two modes function in the ways we think about the past.
The initial panel on this page shows four photographs of Bui’s mother. She depicts each one in a more realistic manner than she does the action in the graphic memoir. They become as “realistic” as possible within the context of the book. Each picture shows her mother looking into the camera, smiling, and posing. The images make Bui think about the comment her mother’s student made, and she narrates, “I never looked this good. To be honest Má didn’t look that good by the time I was aware of things like good looks.” The pictures that Bui sees of her mother did not match her own observations, observations which arose from a different perspective, as her mother’s child, not as her lover, friend, or student. For Bui, the photographs present a new image on her mother, one that she has not thought about before, one that she didn’t necessarily imagine.
For Bui, her mother usually appeared in “in work clothes, frowning and rushing to get dinner for six on the table.” Bui’s illustration for this panel is a sketch she did of her mother wen she was ten. It’s not clear if this is the actual sketch that Bui did or a representation of the sketch, but the sketch differs from the photographs in the previous panel. Here, Bui’s depicts her mother from the side, standing over the counter as she chops vegetables for dinner. Unlike the photographs, there isn’t much “realistic” detail; instead, it is a sketch, black and white with shading and some details here and there. It does not show the full picture as the photographs are meant to do.
The next panel shows another one of Bui’s sketches, dated about three hours after the first one. Here, she depicts her mother in profile sitting on the couch, feet up, with her hand on her chin as she watches television. Bui narrates, “When Má relaxed, which was less common, she looked like this to me. She was soft and smelled like Oil of Olay.” Again, the sketch lacks the detail of the photographs throughout the chapter, highlighting the fact that Bui’s perception of her mother did not include the full picture, it included only certain aspects. The photographs prompt her to talk with her mother to fill in the rest.
In the final panel, we look at Bui and her brother as kids, lounging on the couch as their mother peels their fruit for them. Here, we see Bui’s mother not through the photographs or the sketches she did as a ten year old. We see her mother as she remembers her during that time. We see her and her mother together, sitting together, preparing to eat fruit. Within this four panel page, Bui moves us from images of her mother that cause her to question the ways she perceives her mother, sketches of how Bui saw her mother when she was young, and concluding with how Bui sees her mother at this moment, the moment where she wrote and drew the illustrations for The Best We Could Do.
These panels, along with the pages that follow where Bui looks at a box full of photos that her mother receives from Việt Nam, displays the shifting nature of memory. They display the ways that we construct memory and the past, and ultimately the ways that we construct reality. It does not occur all at once. It happens with bits and pieces, taken from different perspectives and molded into a memory. Memories are not always secure, and they move, depending on what we know, what we experience, what others tell us, and more. Graphic memoirs show us this fact. They show us that no matter how hard we try, we can never truly replicate or remember the past because it keeps morphing into something new.
In the next post, I will finish up my discussion of photographs and memory in Bui’s The Best We Could Do. Until then, what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.