Contemporary Literature · Fantasy · Graphic/Illustrated · Young Adult

The Magic Fish

While not prolifically popular, this one came highly recommended from the couple #bookstagram reviews I saw for it. Though, in typical fashion, I didn’t save the posts about it and now totally have no idea where the recs came from. So, I’m back to sending my thanks to the universe and hoping it finds its way. Because I do owe thanks to whoever put this one my radar. I would never have picked it up on my own and I’m so glad that I read it!

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

“The space between two shores is the ocean… / …and being caught in between feels like drowning. And, really, what is the point of tears among so much salt water?”

Tiến’s lives in the Midwestern US with his parents, attending school and dealing with adolescence just like any other kid his age. He spends his evenings reading stories together with his parents, practicing English with them between their full work schedules, and learning about his family and their personal stories in Vietnam. Tiến loves his family and his friends, but feels separated from them all by a heavy secret he’s carrying. Tiến is gay, but isnt’ sure how to tell people, especially his parents, because he doesn’t even know the words in Vietnamese to explain it to them. 

Well, if you are looking for a heartwarming (and, bonus, visually stunning) coming-out story, one that will make you feel weepy and warm in all the best ways, then run, don’t walk, to pick up this graphic novel. I cannot even say how touching it was, from the support Tiến got from his friends to the sweet interactions with his parents throughout, the relationships were just such a highlight. Even with the painful realities in the communication challenges from each side, with Tiến wanting to talk to his parents but not having the words and Tiến’s mom knowing there’s something he wasn’t saying and wondering how to make a space for him to feel comfortable coming to her, the emotional impact of their yearning to be open with each other was deeply affecting. Of note here, as a content warning, I want to recognize that there were some external adult interferences (from one of Tiến’s teachers, as well as a religious leader) that were harmful, adding to Tiến’s indecision and piling further guilt onto his already present emotional trauma. It was not a highlight, nor was it drawn out, but it was tough (and infuriating) to read. 

The fairy tales themselves deserve an entire paragraph, if not more, to themselves. I’m actually not sure I can say enough about how absolutely gorgeous the illustrations are – they’re literally perfect. They fit the vibe and the stories exactly, and I loved the color tone changes to assist in indicating changes in who the “narrator” is and when we are reading a fairy tale versus Tiến/his family’s stories. Also, of course, the primary theme of this graphic novel is the power and connection of stories and fairy tales. They are central both in their own right and in Tiến’s coming out, intertwined smoothly in all aspects of his immigrant and queer “on the outside” experiences. And I know I already said it was done exactly right, but I feel like I just need to say again that the ending, Tiến’s moment with his mom, just hit all the big and most wonderful feels buttons.

One more thing I want to mention here is the myriad of Author’s Notes and additional content at the end. Nguyen talks about how stories act as both an escape from and an anchor in real life in a way that I identified with deeply. I also loved his ruminations on the changing nature of fairy tales, the way common threads span continents and cultures, universally recognizable, and yet the small details are adapted to fit within those geographical and traditional regions. You can so clearly see that happening within this graphic novel. Nguyen also mentions the way the communication combination of the words and graphics here, together telling a story with a language that wouldn’t be whole without the other piece, creating something new and original and all its own, is reminiscent of the way his own family’s mixed English and Vietnamese become unique to them, new and full in its own right. And that too is clear within these pages, as this particular illustrations/story combination is one of the most interdependent I’ve read yet. I loved that about it. Finally, I just really loved reading Nguyan’s explanations of the choices he made for alterations and style and setting of the fairy tales, making their illustrations match the experiences of the characters telling them, and the way he personally connected to it all (in particular, his look at The Little Mermaid as an immigrant story is compelling). The insight was so impactful and invaluable.

Basically, this graphic novel got a lot of “hearts face” and “star eyes” emoji reactions from me while reading. I loved it for what it was and loved it even more after reading all the author’s additional notes at the end. It was lovely in message and in visuals and it was exactly the heartwarming and magical story I didn’t even know I’d needed.

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