by Anne Schulzki
I decided to read Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish for week 5 of the class ‘Migration in Visual Narratives’, in which we talked about Migration in Digital Narratives / Vietnamese Refugee Tales in Graphic Novels.
I had been interested in this graphic novel for quite a while but never got around to, and was thankfully not let down the least in any regard! I very much enjoyed reading this, especially because I found the use of colours in the narrative rather unique. The narrative has three parts: the present storyline, the fairytale, and some glimpses into the mother’s past and her journey from Vietnam to the US. The present is coloured in red/pink/magenta, the fairytale in dark blue/purple, and the mother’s past in yellow – which are the three primary colours. The colours not only clarify which panels belong to which part of the story, but by using them it also gave the story dimension. Sometimes, some panels are not coloured ‘correctly’, as one of Tien’s dreams is also represented in blue/purple like the fairytale narrative, possibly alluding to Tien’s belief that his dream will remain a dream – a fairytale – and will not become reality.
I loved that fairytales where interwoven in the narrative, used as a way for mother and son to bond, for the mother to learn English, but also seek help, advice, and communicate feelings and personal information by crossing the boundary of languages. The fairytale parts fitted the stories of Tien’s coming-out and his mother’s identity struggle, grief, and worries, and with that they gave them hope and answers. When they did not know how to communicate, or did not want to, they always grabbed the fairytale they were reading at that moment and continued, sometimes tweaking it a bit for it to fit their mood, struggles, worries, or emotions.
Migration in The Magic Fish
Migration as such is not the main focus of this story. Of course, Tien’s parents’ language barriers are mentioned and also illustrated within the narrative, but the aspect of the actual migration is only lightly touched upon (why his parents left Vietnam), but never their journey on its own. The aspect of migration that is most heavily touched on, however, concerns the feelings regarding leaving behind loved ones when leaving one’s home and not being able to see them for a long time. Tien’s mother was not able to go back to see her family once she left Vietnam, as it took her years to get hold of an American passport (because without it she could not have entered the US again). This feeling of hopelessness and remorse gnaws at his mother, especially after she receives bad news.
The other aspect of migration touched upon in this graphic novel is that of home. For Tien’s mother, home seems to have always been Vietnam, but after she went back, she felt as though she does not belong there anymore. So much has changed over the years (in Vietnam and she herself), that she is not all that familiar with her Vietnamese hometown anymore – which affects her. The other aspect of home – which is also dealt with in one of the fairytales – is that often times home seems to be supposed to be the place you come from, but that is a difficult concept when one has never been to ‘the place one came from’. This is often the case for second-generation immigrants who have never been to their ‘home country’ like Tien, and this has also been the case for Alera in the fairytale.
And though these two aspects of migration are a big part in this story, the one that weaves through it all is Tien’s struggle to tell his parents about his sexuality – which is then again related to the struggles of migration. He does not know how to come out to his parents, as he does not know the correct words in Vietnamese, and he believes his parents will not understand him if he explains it in English. He researches at the library and talks to his friend about it, tries to find the right time to tell his parents/mother, but never succeeds. He is afraid of their reaction because of possible cultural differences, but in the end his coming-out is taken away from him. I will not go into any detail as to why and how (because of spoilers of course), but let me just say that it enraged me quite a bit.
All in all, I really enjoyed this graphic novel and its story. The art-style is beautiful, the use of colours and the interweaving of fairytales mesmerising, and it deals with many difficult topics in a very accessible and gentle way. To sum it up, it is a coming-of-age story filled with family, friendships, struggles, relationships, and fairytales.