Author: Trung Le Nguyen
Publish Date: October 2020
Publisher: RH Graphic (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-1984851598
Author website: http://www.trungles.com/
Book Review by Scott Nass, MD
Named for a character central to one of the fairy tales told as stories within the main narrative, The Magic Fish by Vietnamese-American cartoonist Trung Le Nguyen is a semi-autobiographical work that adeptly weaves these fairy tales around the story of young Tiến and his mother Hiến (Helen). Nguyen’s use of two distinct color palettes to differentiate the real from the fantastical enables the reader to follow the parallel arcs easily as Tiến and Helen take turns reading the stories aloud during their evenings together. We experience a slice of Helen’s life as an immigrant in the United States dealing with the lasting effects of war trauma, as well as Tiến’s coming of age and the inherent mental health strain of reconciling his sexual orientation with societal and cultural expectations.
Published in 2020, The Magic Fish contains themes of identity that led to its inclusion on multiple banned book lists around the country in 2021, along with scores of other young adult-focused novels. One such list in Texas claimed that the graphic novel and its peer works “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” In reality, many readers will likely see shades of their past or current selves through a more positive lens, as Tiến ably processes his own discomfort throughout the novel.
As a thirteen-year-old, Tiến faces the same challenges as most of his classmates: managing friendships, wanting to please his parents, navigating school crushes. But like young fairytale “Al” who escapes to the countryside to avoid a bad marriage, Tiến also hides a portion of himself from all but his closest friend Claire. Attending a religious school with Christian symbols on his uniform shirt and hovering over the lunch room, listening to details of the death of Matthew Shepard on the nightly news, and failing to find the right Vietnamese words despite the aid of a helpful librarian, Tiến can never find the right time to tell his parents that he likes other boys. Tiến’s pain will be especially familiar to readers who followed the horrific beating and resultant death of gay University of Wyoming student Shepard in October 1998, when he was left to a fence post by his assailants outside of Laramie to succumb eventually to his injuries.
His father works nights, and his mother has her own worries, working as a seamstress and learning English during the day, while concerned about her own mother back in Vietnam, whom she hasn’t seen since fleeing many years ago. Both parents when depicted are engaged quite frequently in their respective jobs, perhaps their outlet for processing lasting trauma after fleeing their homeland many years earlier. Speaking mostly English (Tiến) or mostly Vietnamese (Helen), son and mother both embrace the language they share completely – that of fairy tales – as a way of coping with their individual and shared stresses.
For Helen, these stories, older than anything she knows, tie her to her homeland, where she first heard of magic and princesses so long ago. For Tiến, they point the way toward hope, to happy ever afters where singing birds appear to fly a would-be princess to the royal ball. When grieving the loss of a family member or enduring the good intentions of school officials “concerned” with his apparent sexuality, Tiến and Helen always circle back to fairy tales.
As Helen learns from time with family back in Vietnam, stories are meant to evolve and change in order to suit their purpose in a particular moment. Like our personal identities, they evolve over time, becoming what we want them to be.
Through their shared language of fairy tales, Tiến and Helen ultimately realize that they don’t always need the right words to find happiness in the end, and that the sacrifices we make do not have to stab like daggers to our feet with every step. In their story, love is enough.
Scott Nass is a family physician in California and has been reading and teaching with graphic medicine for years. He is a regional medical director for Aledade, Inc., and chief medical officer for the Transgender Health and Wellness Center in Southern California, as well as a Global Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity and past president of GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality.