On May 11, Oakland Voices alum gathered for an inspiring talk with Oakland-based author and illustrator, Thi Bui. Bui is best known for her graphic novel, The Best We Could Do, which debuted in 2017 and received many accolades including a 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award nomination. The novel tells the story of her family’s journey from Vietnam as refugees to the United States. Bui imparted powerful lessons for Oakland Voices correspondents about accessible storytelling and navigating cultural institutions that may not value the perspectives of immigrant authors and audiences.
The Work of Illustrator and Author Thi Bui
Bui is also a children’s book illustrator, including a collaborative project between herself and her son, and Pulitzer Prize Winner author Viet Thanh Nguyen and his son, titled Chicken of the Sea. She also illustrated poet Bao Phi’s children’s book, A Different Pond. Her most recently illustrated book is Finding Papa, written by Angela Pham Krans, which was released in February.
Bui is working on her next graphic novel, focusing on immigration detention and deportation, to be published by One World, Random House.
Holding Space for Creativity
The event was held at Chapter 510, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland that focuses on youth poetry, writing, and publishing. The organization was previously located on Telegraph Avenue, and reopened in the new space in Old Oakland in 2021 during the pandemic. The event was kicked off with an introduction by Oakland Voices Co-Director Momo Chang, and then Oakland Voices alum Marabet Morales Sikahall, program and community manager at Chapter 510.
Bui was a founding teacher at Oakland International High School, serving Oakland’s newly arrived immigrants and refugees. She worked on The Best We Could Do, which she shares was a decade-long process, while raising a young child during school holidays and weekends.
Oakland Voices and the Maynard Institute purchased copies of The Best We Could Do from Eastwind Books of Berkeley, which were then given to alumni members at the event. Bui stayed to sign everyone’s books. Catering was provided by Cafe Gabriela in downtown Oakland.
Lessons from Bui’s Artistic Journey
During the event, Bui connected with alumni members on many topics, from researching a topic, to writing and storytelling. Many members were also curious about book publishing.
One rumor she wanted to clear up right away is that she had art and drawing experience previous to making The Best We Could Do. Bui has a degree in art, including being a teaching assistant in figure drawing as an undergraduate. “I drew a lot!” she told the Oakland Voices audience. She was mostly self-taught in comics drawing and sought out mentors in this field.
When sharing how her fine arts degree influenced her success as a graphic novelist, Bui was frank about the lack of support she received from some professors. She shared how her work was often critiqued as “too narrative.”
Moreover, when she tried to defend her artwork as an expression of her identity as an Asian American, her professor dismissed her by saying, “Why should I care about your Asian American identity?”
Since that time, Bui said that the fine art world has begun to embrace more accessible art forms such as graphic novels as well as voices of underrepresented communities of color.
Her story reinforced just how valuable programs like Oakland Voices are to lifting up storytellers from diverse backgrounds.
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Check back here on the Oakland Voices website for an in-depth Q&A and photo gallery from the event coming soon. A version of this post was originally published at the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education. Oakland Voices is a program of the Maynard Institute.