APAture2015: Interview with Artist Thi Bui

Kearny Street Workshop, one of the oldest and well-known arts organization in the Asian Pacific American community, proudly presents APAture2015: Future Tense, a series of showcases featuring emerging artists from the San Francisco Bay Area.

On Saturday, October 10, the Comics & Illustration Showcase will feature a number of comic book artists. Below is a brief Q&A with  Thi Bui, who is the featured artist at this year’s showcase.


How does it feel to be a featured artist in APAture’s Comics & Illustration showcase? Will you be taking part in a Q&A or other events in addition to showing your work?

I feel so honored to be featured! And a little freaked out. I’m used to being behind the scenes supporting others’ work, not at the front table talking about myself. On Saturday there will be a Q&A, as well as some informal stuff like a comics jam and hopefully some interactive drawing at my table.

What do you plan to show at the showcase? How do you decide what to share?

You are going to see a hermit cartoonist in the middle of finishing a graphic novel come out for air and human contact for a day! I’ll bring a sneak peak of my book in the form of original inked pages (sans text). I’ll also have the last printed copies of Chapters 1-3 (early versions) for sale. Some mini comics and prints… and an empty seat in which I’m hoping to entice visitors to sit and tell me a bit about themselves while I draw their portrait. Think Humans of New York in comics form.

Graphic novels are such powerful mediums for personal stories — I think of Maus and Persepolis as some standout family histories. Tell me about your upcoming graphic novel, The Best We Could Do.

Those two books definitely sealed my love for graphic novels and inspired me to try to tell my family’s stories in this form. It’s been a journey of about ten years. I started creating the book when I was expecting my son. It’s been a way for me to record my parents’ histories and better understand Vietnam’s crazy history and our immigration here. It’s also been a way for me to work out my anxieties around family and home, responsibility vs. the desire to be free. It has taken a few turns I didn’t expect.

Source: https://instagram.com/p/7JdBCDh5rw/
Source: Instagram

I loved seeing some of your sketches in pencil and ink for The Best We Could Do on your tumblr. What stage are you in now with the writing/drawing of your novel?

Thank you! After many, many revisions and drafts, I am now inking the final draft and fine tuning the layout and color of the book! It’s scheduled to be published by Abrams next fall. 

Describe your creative process. Do you start with the manuscript first or do sketches and images from your memory inform the direction of your story?

I started with transcripts of interviews I did with my parents. It was a little tricky to translate them from Vietnamese and keep their voice. I also did a ton of what I call “input” drawings — visual research into what things looked like — everything from local flora and architecture in the places I was drawing to clothing and hairstyles from different time periods in Vietnam. I was only three years old when we left Vietnam, and many of the stories took place before I was born. I had to reconstruct everything. Even after I started drawing the book, there was a lot going back and forth with my parents, adding or changing things as they came up.

Source: https://instagram.com/p/7qT6CeB5uA/
Source: Instagram

What are some aspects of your personal story that you want to capture visually that you wouldn’t be able to express in text only?

Maybe it’s harder to project onto a character that has been drawn? That’s my hope. It was really important to me to draw my Vietnamese protagonists as three dimensional human beings who don’t all look alike.

You are a founding teacher of Oakland International High School, the first public high school in California for recent immigrants and English learners. How does teaching inform your art?

It keeps me humble and connected to what’s happening in the world right now. My family’s experience with war and as boat people is certainly not unique. I always feel a thousand stories floating around whenever I walk through the courtyard of the school at lunch, or drive through Oakland to visit students and their families.

Source: tumblr

Teaching teenagers who are recent immigrants, what are some universal themes from the immigrant experience transitioning to life in the United States you discovered (or are there any)?

The shock of displacement and the difficulty of being understood without context. When you immigrate, it’s like starting over at zero — or sometimes worse, especially when people think of you only in terms of your deficiencies — can’t speak English, doesn’t read well enough to understand the school work, doesn’t have a job, etc.

In 2012 you edited a collection of immigration stories from Oakland International students, We Are Oakland. Why is it important that immigrants and communities of color tell their own stories and document their histories?

Because others will try to do if for them, and often do a bad job of it. Or leave them out entirely. There’s also something about the process of taking the jumble that is your own experience and trying to make sense of it. You figure out who you are by telling your own story. It’s hard but it’s infinitely less frustrating than trying to explain how you do or don’t fit into someone else’s story of you.

Source: https://instagram.com/p/7WS9gEh5pV/
Source: Instagram

Do you think it’s a good time for Asian American comic book writers and artists? What do you see in the future for better representation and diversity in graphic novels?

I wouldn’t say it’s a golden age yet, but it does feel great to see Asian American creators get widely recognized for amazing graphic novels, like Gene Yang with Boxers and Saints, and Mariko and Jillian Tamaki with This One Summer.

Thi Bui was born in Vietnam three months before the end of the Vietnam War, and immigrated to the United States. with her family in 1978. She studied art and legal studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and received an M.F.A. in sculpture from Bard College and a master’s degree in art education from New York University. At one point she wanted to be a civil rights lawyer, but she got her head on straight and became a public school teacher instead. She is a founding teacher of Oakland International High School, the first public high school in California for recent immigrants and English learners. She also mentors students in the M.F.A. in comics program at the California College of the Arts. The Best We Could Do is her first graphic novel. She lives in Berkeley with her son, her husband, and her mother. Follow her on Twitter: .

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