Bookmakers: Trung Lê Nguyễn’s The Magic Fish

Trung Lê Nguyễn’s debut graphic novel, The Magic Fish, tells of Tiến and his mother, Helen, a Vietnamese immigrant who struggles with her English. As she comes to terms with losing her homeland and he searches for a way to overcome their language barrier and tell her that he’s gay, they are brought together by the power of storytelling. In this interview, Nguyễn discusses his book’s inspirations and prevalent themes.

BKL: Tiến and Helen bridge their communication gap by reading each other fairy tales. What inspired this dynamic?

Nguyễn: This part was lifted from my life. I’m a first-and-a-half generation immigrant. I grew up in the U.S., but I was born in a refugee camp and came over with my parents when I was very little. We learned English alongside each other, and I have very fond memories of my parents taking me to the library to pick out books that we could read together. We got to share quality time, and it made me feel like I was helpful. I think reading together and actively building a common set of shared stories is such a uniquely potent act of intergenerational love for immigrant families living in between languages and cultures. I wanted that to be the foundation of this book.

BKL: You’ve so eloquently written that, with this story, you hoped to “decenter the gravity of marginalization to tell a story about one of the little pieces that orbit around it.” How did you approach balancing the characters’ marginalized identities with the small story you wanted to tell?

Nguyễn: I did my best to place the issues of immigration and queerness where the characters find themselves in their lives instead of where I am right now. A lot of us, with the resources and education available to us, slip into discussing systemic issues with a certain amount of ease. There’s comfort in believing our intellectualization will help us solve systemic issues, and that’s good and valuable, of course, but what can we do in the meantime? How do we better the lives of the people right in front of us who live in the margins, who might not share our access to education, our language skills, or our cultural savvy? Academic language will not meet people where they are, but storytelling can. I wanted the story to prioritize the immediate material concerns of the characters. Those issues at the intersection of queerness and immigration are met as personal, day-to-day challenges for Tiến and Helen, so that’s the space from where the story needed to be told.

BKL: Fashion seems to play a significant role in your storytelling and visual aesthetic. In what ways has it influenced your work?

Nguyễn: Clothing is a valuable storytelling tool. It’s an efficient visual marker of time, place, class, and personal taste. There’s an older sentiment in single-issue comics that distinctive day clothing will visually date your comics faster, like there’s some secret shame in admitting that people exist in the context of time. Ironically, drawing every character in T-shirts and jeans makes the work more readily forgettable instead of timeless. I personally think of comic books like stage productions, and that includes costuming. Some of my favorite illustrators came from theater and costuming backgrounds, like Kay Nielsen and Léon Bakst, and I love what they add to the stories they went on to illustrate. Fashion is a detail that’s often taken for granted in visual media, but I think that makes it a valuable, quiet strength.

BKL: One of the core ideas in The Magic Fish is that our collective stories—such as fairy tales—may evolve over generations, each version belonging to its own time and place. What can young readers take away from this?

Nguyễn: My hope is that young readers will develop a curiosity for old stories that we might take for granted. Knowing where our stories come from really enriches the way we engage with new stories we come across. It gives everything we hear, read, or watch new and engrossing dimensions. Stories are like people that way. The more we understand about where people come from, the more we appreciate the ways they navigate the world alongside us.

Posted in: Books and Authors

About the Author:

Ronny Khuri is an associate editor for Books for Youth at Booklist. He has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University. His dæmon is a Siamese cat named Tiger Lily.

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