Trung Lê Nguyễn
October 13th 2020
Random House Graphic
Received from publisher
If you’re a child of immigrants, and English isn’t your parents’ first language, you may find it difficult to communicate with them. This is especially true for Tiến who is struggling to tell his mother his biggest secret. Besides the language barriers, there are also the cultural barriers and well as the other adults in his life who don’t make it easy for young Tiến. Because Trung Le Nguyen draws on his own experiences growing up as a young queer boy in the 90s in the American Midwest, it gives The story in The Magic Fish an incredibly personal and intimate feel.
However, this is more than just the story of Tiến’s struggling to come out to his Vietnamese mother. Trung Le Nguyen aka Trungles’ The Magic Fish has multiple other stories. There is also the story of Tiến’s mother and how she came to America and her struggle with homesickness, And of course there are the various fairy tales that Tiến reads with his mother that Trungles connects to both of their personal journeys. As someone who grew up reading fairy tales, I love how Trungles adapted popular fairy tales and added his own twist to them. The stories truly come to life as the plot and emotion of these fairy tales show their connections to the events in Tiến’s life and his mother’s life. My favourite example of this would be The Story of Tấm and Cám which is sort of a Cinderella story, I love how the story parallels Tiến’s experience of going to a school dance and dancing with his best friend/crush. I also loved how Alera the heroine of the Tattercoats story shares several similarities to Tiến mother’s as both were separated from their mothers and both were forced leave their homes behind.
As this is a graphic novel, I was amazed at how the elements of Vietnamese culture including the fashion were incorporated into the stories’ breathtakingly, gorgeous illustrations. Also, I loved how much thought and detail was given to the illustrations, the best example being how Trungles separates the different narratives. He uses different colour inks to differentiate the past from the present and to show when something is taking place within a story in the book. Pink is used to represent the present while gold shows the past and the fairy tales are shown in blue. Of course, as the stories often overlap, the colours in the illustrations follow suit.
Being of Vietnamese background, it would be remiss of me if I did not share that part of The Magic Fish that I resonated with. While I couldn’t relate to everything in this book, there were a few things that stood out to me. I liked how elements of Vietnamese culture were normalize such as the family altar and funeral rites as well packing medicine to bring back to your family when you go back to Vietnam. The other thing that I could definitely relate to were the phone conversations in Vietnamese, as my parents would do this with their siblings in Vietnam when they thought we were fast asleep. Finally, I could absolutely relate to how Tiến and his mother speak to each other in a language that combines both English and Vietnamese words as this is something that my family has always done with each other.
As The Magic Fish is just one book, it obviously can’t be everything for everyone. However, I do believe it’s an important addition to the LGBTQ literary canon, especially for those who are in middle grade and who are children of immigrants who may not be familiar with this topic. As illustrated in the scene where Tiến’s mother changes the ending to one story they’re reading, everyone is worthy of love no matter what, and it is important for queer youth to see characters like themselves get a happy ending.
Regardless of how this book came into my possession, the above review consists of my honest opinion of the book and my opinion only.