I had grand plans of writing this review in fairy tale style, inspired as I was by Trung Le Nguyen’s adaptations of classical fairy tales to share this beautiful story. But, alas, I’m not the wordsmith Nguyen is, and definitely not the artist! So, please accept humble words filled with rapturous praise for The Magic Fish, which was one of my Top 10 favorite reads in 2020.
To begin, when I read graphic novels I’m usually more drawn to either the story or the artwork. There are plenty where I think the two work very well together, even complement each other, but this might be the first time I’ve read a graphic novel where I equally enjoy and appreciate both elements to the same degree. The story itself follows a young boy of Vietnamese descent who is being raised in the United States. It is very similar to the author’s own life story. Nguyen, growing up in the American Midwest, learned Vietnamese and English at the same time, Vietnamese at home and English in school and with his friends. As a boy, he and his parents would visit the library once per week and spend time reading to each other. Nguyen’s favorite stories were fairy tales and he soon learned that some of the English-language fairy tales, those most of us growing up in the United States would know, were very similar to ones that his parents learned as children in Vietnam. They had wonderful conversations about the similarities and differences between western/English-language fairy tales and those from Vietnam, and in doing so, began to communicate with one another in two languages, sometimes switching back and forth to use the words most appropriate or familiar in the given moment. It was a kind of hybrid language that is perfectly embodied in this graphic novel. It’s a fascinating, beautiful personal narrative that informs this fascinating, beautiful graphic novel.
The protagonist, young Tiến, uses the fairy tales that he and his family know and love, across the two cultures, to bridge a personal gap between them: to explain to his parents that he is gay. Nguyen explains that, while writing the story, he imagined that each character had a different vocabulary informed by their life experiences. These vocabularies were navigated through shared cultural stories, fairy tales. And Nguyen brings this richly to life not just in his words and images, both of which are stunningly crafted, but in the truly seamless presentation of the two as a single narrative. This is not a story told through two devices; it is an experience gifted to the reader through a cohesive vision, expertly executed.
The heart of this graphic novel are three fairy tales, including two versions of Cinderella (the German and the Vietnamese) and The Little Mermaid. Also incorporated into the plot, though, are concepts such as traditional coming out and coming of age in America, the immigrant experience, issues of colonization and empire, post-war identity, and so much more. What on the surface might look like another wonderfully illustrated children’s story is in fact a powerful, delicate, and uniquely rendered story about a queer, Asian American boy’s life, his family, and their heritage, not to mention language itself.
I was utterly captivated by this one. At a time when I’m donating bags and bags of books to libraries and charities in a fit of “winter cleaning” and pandemic stir-craziness, The Magic Fish has found its place on my forever shelf.
Real life isn’t a fairytale.
But Tiến still enjoys reading his favorite stories with his parents from the books he borrows from the local library. It’s hard enough trying to communicate with your parents as a kid, but for Tiến, he doesn’t even have the right words because his parents are struggling with their English. Is there a Vietnamese word for what he’s going through?
Is there a way to tell them he’s gay?
A beautifully illustrated story by Trung Le Nguyen that follows a young boy as he tries to navigate life through fairytales, an instant classic that shows us how we are all connected. The Magic Fish tackles tough subjects in a way that accessible with readers of all ages, and teaches us that no matter what–we can all have our own happy endings.
About the Author: Trung Le Nguyen, also known as Trungles, is a comic book artist and illustrator working out of Minnesota. He received his BA from Hamline University, majoring in studio art with a concentration in oil painting and minor in art history. He is particularly fond of fairy tales, kids’ cartoons, and rom-coms of all stripes. The Magic Fish is his debut graphic novel.