THE MAGIC FISH is a graphic novel that resonated so keenly with my entire being, it felt like it was created just for me. And it some ways, it was – in the way that it’s a labour of love which speaks specifically to the Vietnamese immigration experience. It ponders on the barrier and connections between the languages of first and generation immigrants, a relationship that are not restricted to mere words but to encapsulate our entire identity. Tiến and his family uses the framing of various fairy tales to communicate their truths, and the result is a nuanced, heartfelt story that rises above the trappings of fairy tale archetypes. If you can’t tell, I love this book with my whole heart, and I hope you’ll pick it up – marvel in the exquisite artwork, and let yourself be transported in Tiến’s world.
To me, language is a map to figure out where you are. If you can’t read the map, you’re lost.
As someone who grew up with two languages, feeling that I had to discard one to earn another when I immigrated to New Zealand – the weight of this quote, which appears at the beginning of The Magic Fish, absolutely gutted me. Helen, Tiến’s mother, spoke from similar experiences – her ‘past and present selves speak two different languages.’ She is irrevocably transformed ever since a little boat took her away from the shores of Vietnam, to the promised dreams of a foreign land. Helen’s is a woman separated from her past, rarely speaking about it to Tiến. The void of words in between them are filled by the spaces of fairy tales – a tool this book revisits time and again to contextualize feelings that are too complicated, even for people who speak multiple languages.
The first fairy tale depicted is Tattercoats, and here Trung Le Nguyen’s skills at visualizing beautiful costumes is showcased, alongside with his ability to seamlessly weave between multiple narratives. Both Alera and Helen are haunted by the image of a cruel and unforgiving sea, nostalgic for the voice of their mother – whether projected through a magic ring or a phone call. Tiến’s own story also takes form here, as we see him with his friends Claire and Julian, and the tentative crush that he has on the latter. He goes on to tell us that he struggled to find a Vietnamese term for who he is, a boy who loves other boys. All of this unfold between the panels illustrating Princess Alera, the various disguise and celestial dresses that she dons.
And Tien would finally know we came from the same stories.
The next fairy tale we visit is a Vietnamese classic, Tấm and Cám. A Cinderella fairy tale of our very own, which Trung infused with even more character by portraying it through the lens of colonial-era clothing and buildings. Where the retelling of Tattercoats was filled with wistful longing and half-realised dreams – the version we got of Tấm and Cám was one with teeth. We revisit the theme of death and life anew time and again, a story that continues where you would expect a clean cut ending. The Magic Fish remind its readers of a tale’s ability to transform, whether it’s through the metamorphosis of memories, or the magic of retelling. It also gently warns of the expectation of happy endings, when lives are infinitely complex and has a way of persisting through generations – like Vietnam and her children, a country moulded by the hands of colonisation, yet refuses to fit anyone else’s narratives.
It’s an old, old story. Details change. Things change. And now this story is ours. Yours and mine.
Finally, The Magic Fish ends with a rendition of The Little Mermaid. In the Author’s Note, Trung states that he’s always viewed this Hans Christian Andersen tale as a story of immigration – and I could not agree more. A girl who gives up her ability to communicate at a chance of fulfilling dreams in a distant land, who chafes and suffer with every step she takes. It is my favourite of the tales, beautifully drawn using inspiration of Hong Kong fantasy aesthetic and the imageries of ballet. It’s a tale that encourages the rewriting of our own endings, illustrate how love overcome barriers, and the beauty of a mother and a son learning to speak in one another’s language. It’s a heartfelt and victorious culmination of the narrative threads that this graphic novel is working towards. I’ve never felt more satisfied and joyous on the completion of a graphic novel, and I will treasure this book like a well-loved fairy tale for years to come.
It’s almost unfair how this graphic novel is both beautifully illustrated and poignantly written. As a child who grew up in a family of refugees, who have witnessed the silent sacrifices of my elder, who have learned to love a language and culture I once tried to discard – this book felt like a key to invisible shackles. I know I’ll be putting this into the hand of every Viet person I come across, first and foremost my own mother – who also raised me with the words of fairy tales.
There are a lot of excellent books releasing this October, but please make sure this one make its way onto your bookshelf!