The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen, 256 pp, RL
The Magic Fish
Review Copy from RH Graphic
Review Copy from RH Graphic
Le Nguyen's debut is a stunning instance of words and pictures working together equally to tell a story. Or, as Le Ngyuen says in "Between Words and Pictures," back matter that adds depth to an already profound work, "comic books speak a hybrid language between orthography and iconography." Hybrid languages, be it words and pictures, Vietnamese and English, real life and fairy tales, is a theme in The Magic Fish, the story of a boy struggling to find a way to tell his parents, immigrants from Vietnam, that his is gay when there is no word for it in the Vietnamese language.
Set in 1998, Tiến and his mother, a seamstress who works at a costume store, practice their English in the evenings by reading out loud to each other. As Hiền, or Helen, sews patches onto Tiến's coat so they can get one more year out of it, he reads "Tattercoats," one of the many variations on Cinderella. [[My favorite picture book version of "Tattercoats," (also known as 'Catskin' and "Thousand Furs') is Princess Furball, adapted by Charlotte Huck and illustrated by Anita Lobel]] Helen shares that there is a Vietnamese version she grew up with, telling Tiến, "fairy tales . . . can change, almost like costumes. I've rented out medieval outfits, space suites, and even animal costumes to different productions of Hamlet. I imagine the script stays the same, but the context always shifts." These words prove prophetic as, over the course of the story and three fairy tales, Tiến and his mother work through loss, grief, fear and ultimately understanding and connection.
Nguyen shifts colors in his panels as the stories shift from present day to fairy tale to the past, also presenting different styles, both in clothing and setting, for each of the three fairy tales retold in The Magic Fish.* Tiến's present is red, while the past is yellow and fairy tales are blue. As Tiến reads, his mother becomes lost in memories of her flight from Vietnam, all three colors and story threads coming together in a powerful moment. Fairy Tales have long been a fascination of mine. I am intrigued by the way that, through magical means, they tap into our primal human experiences with stories that can be told in so many different ways. With The Magic Fish, Le Nguyen has crafted a story that shows the ways that fairy tales can carry us through difficult times while connecting us to those we love in the present and the past. As Tiến searches for the words to tell his parents he is gay, he struggles, knowing that his mother is grieving the loss of her own mother, making her first trip back to Vietnam since she left. Tiến "doesn't want to trouble anybody," feeling like everyone else's problems are so much bigger than his. In Vietnam, Hiền's aunt retells her the story of "Tấm Cám," a Cinderella story rich with the gruesome aspects that the Brothers Grimm (and Disney) removed from traditional tales. Yet, nothing in "Tấm Cám," not the stepmother biting the head off a bird or unknowingly eating her own daughter, sent chills through me the way Le Nguyen's reminders of the intolerance of and discrimination against homosexuality in the 1990s that make their way into Tiến's story in the form of the death of Matthew Shepard and conversion therapy at Tiến's parochial school. In one extraordinary moment that felt like all of the threads of the story coming together in one painful knot, the school priest, upon learning that Tiến has not told his parents that he is gay, in part because there is not a word for it in Vietnamese, exclaims, "What a blessing. All the parents I've counseled described that heartbreak of their children coming out the same way. It always feels like a death in the family."
Le Nguyen delivers a happily-ever-after for Tiến and his family. After returning from Vietnam and meeting with Tiến's teacher, Helen finishes reading "The Little Mermaid," the fairy tale Tiến started, altering the ending in a way that signals to Tiến that she knows, accepts and loves him for who he is. The Magic Fish is immediately engaging, deeply rewarding, and a book, like the best fairy tales, I will read over and over.
*Le Nguyen's author's note and back matter are superb, giving readers a more detailed glimpse into the world he created and the influences that shaped it.