“Between Words and Pictures”: A Review of Trung Le Nguyen’s “The Magic Fish”

“To me,” says Tiên’s mother, “language is a map to help you figure out where you are. If you can’t read the map, you’re lost.” So how can Tiên, who speaks mostly English, find his way to his mother, who speaks mostly Vietnamese? How can he come out to her when he doesn’t even have the right words?

The answer, as it turns out, is fairy tales, which Tiên’s mother asks him to read to her every evening. Though the tales Tiên reads are different from the ones his mother grew up with in Vietnam, his mother can see that their bones are the same. She sees her own experience reflected in these tales, too: the fear of fleeing her war-torn country, the hardship of working long hours to make a living, the joy to be found in marriage and in this new, relatively safe land. The familiar patterns and vocabulary of fairy tales form a comfortable middle ground for mother and son, a meeting place between cultures, between languages, and—as it sometimes seems to Tiên’s mother—between worlds.

Tiên is the first in his family in multiple ways: first to grow up in America, first to go to a school dance, first to come out as gay (as far as he knows). The timelessness of fairy tales, then, is both a comfort and a hindrance. Neither Tiên nor the librarian he consults is able to find the word for “gay” in Vietnamese; in English, Tiên doesn’t know how to get through to his mother when the only vernacular they share is fantasy. At the same time, his mother can sense that there are things Tiên doesn’t think he can tell her, and as she struggles to reach for him across the oceans and continents she cannot help but see between them.

All this, told in the sparse narration of a graphic novel—in this case, one of the most gorgeously illustrated graphic novels I’ve ever seen. I didn’t want to spoil anything by including pages from the book, so here is a page, singular, that demonstrates author and artist Trung Le Nguyen’s color-coding technique without revealing any of the sumptuous fairy tale outfits before you have the chance to find a copy of The Magic Fish for yourself.

Copyright: Trung Le Nguyen

The panels are color-coded by timeline, yellow for past, red for present, and blue for fairy tale. It’s simple, yet ingenious: In addition to keeping the timelines straight, the color-coding amplifies the divide between mother and son on the page. Tiên does not appear in the yellow panels of his mother’s past, and she does not appear in some of the red panels, when Tiên is at school or with his friends. Even the blue panels differ in their depiction of fairy-tale maidens depending on who is telling the tale. Nguyen draws from Hong Kong wuxia films, Audrey Hepburn, and the áo dài to reflect the imaginations of various characters, resulting in the kind of gowns you absolutely have to wear to your wedding, even if you’re not at all a gown- or wedding-type of person. Did you think I was kidding when I said “sumptuous fairy tale outfits”? Nguyen pulled out all the stops, and then, for good measure, also peppered in lots of stars and celestial imagery, which is always a win in my space-enthusiast book. The amount of thought and care that went into every single page of this graphic novel is evident in the addendum at the end of the book (from which this review draws its title), which details the inspirations behind the fairy tales and fashion therein.

There is something inarticulately sad and hopeful about a child seeking to convey an important message to his mother through fairy tales because it is the only lens through which he knows she understands him, when fairy tales are so often used by parents to convey important messages to their children because it is the only lens through which they know their children will understand them. Nguyen’s deft hands have crafted a beautiful narrative that will make you nostalgic for the fairy tales of your own childhood while simultaneously queering and subverting the two-dimensional, fairy tale-like trope of the immigrant success story.