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?”
Thirteen-year-old Tien doesn’t know how to come out to his mom and dad. It’s more than just the fear of rejection; he literally does not know the Vietnamese words to explain what he’s feeling to his immigrant parents. But if there’s one way Tien has always been able to connect with him mom, it’s through fiction, and the many books they borrow from the library, particularly fairy tales. Through the power of stories, Tien and his mother find a way to bridge the language gap, and communicate the things that have been allowed to go unspoken for too long.
The Magic Fish is set in 1998, when Tien is thirteen. He is out to his best friend Claire, but not to their other best friend, Julian, in part because Tien is harbouring feelings for him. He has contemplated coming out to his parents, but he doesn’t know the word for “gay” in Vietnamese, rendering his truth inexpressible. Nor is the American cultural milieu particularly welcoming. News of the murder of Matthew Shepherd plays in the background of one scene, and when Tien and Julian dance together at a school dance, Tien is called in for counseling with the school priest, who advises him against coming out to his parents. “All the parents I’ve counseled described the heartbreak of their children coming out the same way. It feels like a death in the family,” the priest warns, even as Tien’s mother has returned to Vietnam to attend an actual funeral.
Blended with Tien’s coming-of-age story are three fairy tales that weave through The Magic Fish. The first one is read aloud by Tien to his mother as she works on her sewing in the evenings. The second is told to Tien’s mother by her aunt back in Vietnam when she returns home for the first time in many years. The final fairy tale is one she reads to her son, modifying the narrative to convey things that have gone unspoken between them for too long. Each tale has its own unique visual aesthetic, reflecting the imaginations of Tien and his mother. They are stories that are familiar in various versions across cultures, but known in English as Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Trung Le Nguyen uses three types of colour panels to emphasize the different aspects of this interwoven tale. Blue for the fairy tales Tien and his mother read together, red for their real life, and yellow for his mother’s past in Vietnam. Nguyen does amazing work within the confines of these limited colour palettes, employing shading and texture to great effect, alongside his beautiful line work.
Communication is a theme throughout The Magic Fish, specifically in the struggles Tien faces to communicate with his parents, who do not speak much English. In Vietnamese, Tien lacks the specific vocabulary he needs to come out to his parents, making this already challenging difference feel like an even more unbridgeable gap. However, we also see this theme in Tien’s hesitation to come out to Julian, with whom he does share a language, but whose rejection he fears. Meanwhile, Tien’s mother Hien is also struggling to keep in contact with her family back in Vietnam, to remain connected to them across time and distance. The story she chooses to tell Tien is that of The Little Mermaid, who gives up her voice when she goes to her new home above the sea, just as Hien lost much of her ability to communicate when she moved to a new country where she did not know the language. In the United States, she turns to stories both to improve her English vocabulary and pronunciation, and to find common ground with American-born son. In this way she is finally able to convey her unconditional love and acceptance. The Magic Fish combines striking art with a moving family story for an unforgettable read.