Over the last two posts, I have looked at the ways that Thi Bui deploys photographs in her graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, exploring how these photographs function not only in relation to the narrative but also in relation to the construction of memory within in the text. Today, I want to finish my examination of photographs and memory in Bui’s graphic memoir by looking at a couple of sections from chapter six, “The Chessboard.” Specifically, I want to focus on the home where Bui lived in Viêt Nam and on her research into the neighborhood.
On a trip to Viêt Nam in 2001, Bui visits the house where her father lived as a teenager and where she would eventually live as a young child. Before leaving for Viêt Nam, Bui asks her father about the house, what he remembers, and asks him to sketch it for her. One panel shows Bố, pen in hand, drawing the house from the street. He asks his daughter, “Do you remember it?” Bui replies, “No. I was too little.” In the next panel, we see Bui in profile as she looks at the sketch, holding it in front of her, as she says, “My first home.”
When they find the house, the colors in the panels move back and forth with some having color and others appearing black and white, like sketches, with some color. These panels are like the ones at the apartment, and they indicate the ways that memory works. One panel, which depicts Bui, her husband, her siblings, and her mother walking down the street, has color, and she narrates, “The street has changed beyond recognition.” Here, she looks at the street in the moment, being able to fill in the sight, even if the colors are similar throughout the whole panel. However, when the panels shift to Bui’s mother talking to an “old neighbor,” they become more sketch like. The slippery nature of memory arises in this moment.
The neighbor recognizes Bui’s mother, and he points to their old house. Bui’s mother interjects, saying, “Oh, I thought it was that one,” as she points in the opposite direction. In this panel, only the neighbor and Bui’s mother appear. The neighbor has no color, and the only color, apart from black and white, in the panel is Bui’s mother’s shirt. The next two panels are similar. The third shows Bui’s mother and the neighbor looking at the building as they talk about who lived in each house. The neighbor, again, has to correct her. In the last small panel, Bích (Bui’ sister) tells her mother, “He’s right Má.” Here, we look at Bích and her mother from behind. It’s a plain white background, and we only see color in their shirts.
The final panel outside of the house, before they go off and look at other places in the neighborhood, shows the family looking out of the panel. One of Bui’s sisters already looking towards the next thing, Bích and her mother smiling at the building, and Bui and her brother Tâm standing to the right with cameras. Bui narrates, “Me and Tâm, documenting in lieu of remembering.” The photograph and the movie that Tâm takes serve as the memory, and they place the weight of that moment on what they document through the lens, pointing out that even in this manner Bui and Tâm construct the memory.
After returning home, Bui begins to think back to her time in the neighborhood, but she doesn’t remember much. A panel shows her, camera to her eye, as she takes a picture. She says, “Lacking memories of my own, I do research.” Photographs, as they do with her mother, serve as her memory and reference for the neighborhood and home in Viêt Nam. She goes to the library and reads, her father gives her a film, and she looks at a report from George Syvertsen. Bui draws two images from Syversten’s report: one showing abstract people in the street with houses on either side and another showing a family standing in front of a house.
Her narration quotes from Syversten, “This neighborhood is called Bàn Cờ, or the chessboard because of the maze of alleys and passageways. Its residents are mostly poor working people, and its slums are a refuge for Sài Gởn’s hoodlums and criminal element. A Southeast Asian version of the Lower East Side or the Algerian Casbah.” Bui looks at the report, knowing that Syversten is characterizing and presenting the neighborhood in a stereotypical, colonial manner. However, she also stares at the screen as narrates, “but lacking memories of my own, I’ve come to depend on people’s stories.” Even though Syversten present a “caricature,” Bui incorporates it into her memories of the neighborhood.
The final panel in the sequence shows Bui, pen in her mouth, at a desk with her sketch paper. She thinks, “The Lower East Side. I’ll draw it like that.” Bui knows New York. The chapter opens with a full-page panel that shows her on the left looking at the Brooklyn Bridge in New York for the first time and on the right Bố arriving in Sài Gởn for the first time, looking at the city. Within this panel, Bui shows the similarities between her and her father’s experiences in new places, but she also sets up the ways that her memories of the neighborhood in Viêt Nam exist as an amalgamation of the memories that her parents and siblings share with her, Syversten, and even Bui’s references to New York and the Lower East Side.
All of this works to construct Bui’s depiction of Bàn Cờ in The Best We Could Do, and through this, Bui highlights the ways that we formulate our memories. They do not return to us as pristine, untouched images that play inside our minds. Rather, they become constructions, a melding of real experiences, stories from others, research we conduct, photographs we take or look at, and more. They do not exist as a “truthful” representation; however, they exist as our truthful representation, what we remember and what we constructed. As I’ve pointed out countless times, memory is slippery, and a George Takei puts it, “memory is a wily keeper of the past.”
There’s more that could be said, but what are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.