I've recently finished reading The Best We Could Do, a graphic novel by Thi Bui. In this book, Bui writes about the story of her family, originally from Vietnam, who came to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon.
When I started it, my knowledge of the history of Vietnam and Vietnamese people was, to my embarrassment, quite limited. And yet from the first pages this book felt so personal and intimate. For the most part, Thi Bui focuses about her own experiences, and those of her family. However, in doing so, she also manages to introduce the readers to the complex history of Vietnam of the 20th century, and gives us a glimpse into how much it affected its people.
What also struck me is how similar the story Thi Bui tells is to the stories I grew up hearing and learning about from my own family and others around me: the complex and often sad history of the Jews in Eastern Europe, the rocky history of the Russians under the communist rule, and so many others. Most of us probably have the stories of their own they grew up hearing and find it easy to emphasize with. One doesn't need to know anything about the history of Vietnam to see the reflection of her own stories in the one Bui tells us in The Best We Could Do. And once you recognize that, it becomes so much harder to remain blind and unmoved by the struggles of others, no matter where they come from, what cultures they belong to, or what languages they speak.
I really wish we'd focus more on telling those personal stories - there is a tremendous power in the idea of personification of history - something that can never be achieved if we treat the history of the living people just as collections of facts and numbers.