The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen is not a common immigration story. In most of the immigration novels I have read so far, immigration was looked at through the lens of first generation immigrants and we saw their stories as they happened, or as a retelling of some sort, but The Magic Fish had a unique protagonist; A second generation son of a Vietnamese refugee family who also happened to be queer.
Before I get into the details about the graphic novel, I’d like to take a quick look at the artist. Trung Le Nguyen, also known as Trungles, is a Vietnamese-American cartoonist, artist and writer who is best known for his graphic novel The Magic Fish, which was published by Random House Graphic in 2020. Trung was born in a Vietnamese refugee camp in the Philippines and moved to the United States when he was two years old. Also, It was very interesting to learn that Trung is gay and non-binary, and the story of The Magic Fish was heavily inspired by his own upbringing and real life.
Now on to the comic itself; The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen is a graphic novel about a young boy named Tiến, the second generation son of Vietnamese refugee parents. Tiến’s dilemma is that he’s a closeted gay young man, who’s in love with his friend, and seems to be having issues coming out to his family because he can’t find the right words for it in Vietnamese to talk about his sexuality with his family. From the very beginning of the novel, we see that there is a language barrier between him and his mother, and in order for his mother to practice her English, she suggests that Tiến reads them a fairytale book that they’ve gotten from the library.
Through the reading of this fairytale, we’re introduced to a lot more than just the plot of the fantasy book. The fairytale story itself is a work of fiction that seems to be a mix of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Aside from that, we also get to learn about Helen’s (Tiến’s mom) background and how she married Tiến’s dad and left Vietnam together. The fairytale is very unique because it brings Tiến and Helen together in the way that it seems to work like a bridge between the two, trumping their language barrier and other gaps. Through reading the book, Helen seems to be reliving some of her memories from her life when she was young, and her marriage to her husband and how they left their homeland, and for Tiến, too, he seems to be daydreaming about and imagining his in-real crush to be the prince from the fairytale.
When asked by The Hollywood Reporter about the reason why he took the fairytale approach in his storytelling, Trung explained:
“I think fairy tales are such a great touchstone for how to find common experiences among people who have grown up in totally different places, because they’re very formal and they’re oftentimes very personal and told in very intimate settings. They kind of are these really nice blank slates to bring our differences to the fore, and also navigate how those differences can be tied together.”
The interviewer then asked a follow-up question concerning the three narratives and which one was easier for Trung to connect to and write about, and what Trung said in response was something that I found quite interesting, and a point of view that I’d never considered before.
“I think the last story, the one that’s based on The Little Mermaid, was something that I was really comfortable with. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Hans Christian Andersen and the notion that Hans Christian Andersen wrote the story from a place of unrequited longing and clear love that never really comes to fruition was such a fascination for me for such a long time. And then, explaining to my family and my parents why that story was such a fascinating thing for me, and having them explain back that this is an immigrant story, she gives up something, she gave up her tongue, her language, to live someplace new so that she could be with someone that she loved. That’s an immigrant story. I loved that so much.”
The fairytale itself aside, one other thing that I found to be quite interesting was the queer elements of The Magic Fish. Firstly, we have a (mostly) closeted young protagonist who’s struggling with the topic of coming out to his parents due to a language barrier and also probably cultural gaps that exist between him as a young boy raised in the United States and his Vietnamese refugee parents; a situation that is definitely very relatable to other queer children of refugee and immigrant families. Other than that, there was a part in the fairytale where the prince refers to Alera using they/them pronouns, and as a non-binary person myself and considering how rare it is for non-binary people to appear in most works of fiction, it was very delightful to have that small bit of representation and it definitely caught my attention.
The Magic Fish is a very special and extremely stunning novel. The way the fairytale somewhat reflects the characters’ real lives is extremely unique and beautifully done, making it easily accessible to all readers due to its retelling of the popular classics that we’re all familiar with. It reveals so much about the characters with so few words and tells us about Tiến’s personal struggles, Helen’s history and her escape from post-war Vietnam, and so much more, and ties it all together using fairytales. All in all, a very good introduction to Trung’s brilliant works, immigration novels, and a worthwhile read.