Iris-Aya Laemmerhirt

“How Much of Me Is My Own”: Imagining the Ocean in Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do 

Oceans play a significant role in many cultures as they are experienced in many different, often contradictory ways: they can connect as well as divide, provide food and pose serious threats. Literary representations mirror these manifold, juxtaposing experiences of humans with the sea. The explicit link between colonialism and different patterns of migration turn oceans into significant sites where power relations are exercised in the context of both voluntary as well as forced migration.

Drawing on Edward Said’s concept of imagined geographies, this paper will critically analyze Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir The Best We Could Do (2017), focusing on the role of oceans in this refugee narrative. Within a postcolonial framework, the text is of great significance as it remembers the history of the Vietnam War and Vietnamese refugees from a Vietnamese point of view – a perspective that has been neglected for too long. Tracing the (hi)story of her parents, who had to flee Vietnam, images of the ocean as well as the boat on which her parents sought refuge ripple across the pages of the narrative, hence connecting the past of her parents to the present life of the narrator. Searching for her own identity, the narrator resurfaces both her family history as well as the colonial history of Vietnam. Like in many postcolonial texts, crossing the ocean in the text signifies also the crossing between the Old and New World and consequently the division from the country of origin. As an element of connection and disruption, the ocean in general and the images of waves in particular reflect how the narrator imagines and re-imagines Vietnam, a country that she is somehow connected to, yet can barely remember, while constantly feeling lost. By literally imagining and redrawing pre- as well as post-war Vietnam, the graphic novel reimagines and represents Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective, hence turning the tide in Asian American literary writing.