REVIEW: Folktales and Family Collide in The Magic Fish

I’ve been enchanted by Trung Le Nguyen’s art since I saw his travel journal comics on Twitter in February of 2019 so I was really excited to see the announcement for his debut graphic novel, The Magic Fish.

The Magic Fish

Trung Le Nguyen
Random House Graphic
October 13, 2020

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen. The cover shows a kid looking at a book with a swirling mermaid in the background.

In The Magic Fish, Tien and his mother read fairy tales and folktales aloud to each other, their own lives and concerns blending with those of the characters in the stories. Tien is gay, and while he is supported by his friends at school, he is not supported by the school officials and is unsure about how to come out to his parents or how they might react. His mother is homesick for Vietnam, even as she is both curious and unhappy about family trauma that took place there. Meanwhile, the protagonists in the stories they read grapple with their own traumas and secrets.

While I appreciated The Magic Fish very much, I know that I am not a Trungles expert, so I asked WWAC genius and kind person Elvie Mae Parian to read it too and talk with me about how it fits into Trungles’ existing body of work.

Emily Lauer: Elvie, do you think The Magic Fish represents a significant departure from Trungles’ work so far?

Elvie Mae Parian: I don’t think so at all! Rather, I think The Magic Fish is an amazing summation of who Trungles is. It not only demonstrates how well his art can be translated into comic form, but it contains all the familiar elements that have been present in his work for a long time. His familiarity with fashion and fairy tales is perfectly combined with a story that draws from his very personal experiences as a Vietnamese American. These things have been always present in his portfolio even if they do not seem to directly address them on the surface.

Emily: That makes sense! Of course, the art is beautiful. I found it stylized and swirling in a style I associate with illustrators like Trina Schart Hyman, appropriate to fairy and folktales. I was also impressed with the afterword, “Between Words and Pictures,” in which Nguyen explains some of his design choices, especially the way he has clothed the fairy tale characters. It was extremely clear that each choice was informed and intentional.

For instance, Nguyen notes that Tien’s imagination “probably hews closely to Western sensibilities about princess stories. The visual vocabulary he brings into the story is cobbled together from decontextualized European visual tropes associated with fairy tales, so many of the details are highly anachronistic” in the aesthetic choices for this section of the book. Elvie, how do you think Nguyen’s existing fans will receive this book?

Elvie: As a big follower of his work myself, I was truly touched by The Magic Fish! I think newcomers would also benefit from what is a strong thesis of Nguyen’s work and what it embodies. Suffice to say, I think many other fans will come out of it with these same positive feelings I had.the magic fish

Emily: That’s great to hear. I can imagine that it would be satisfying. As a first time reader of Nguyen’s work, I was enormously impressed. The book feels quiet, and its dominant scene is one of a child reading folktales aloud to his mother, who sews. A homey and fairly sedentary image. However, Tien and his mother each have their own stories, and they are interwoven with the stories they read in an organic and lyrical way.

Elvie: The Magic Fish does an impeccable job when it comes to treating the fairy tales as allegorical representations of what’s going on between past and present. The stories are different takes on what we all may commonly know from Western canon—like The Little Mermaid or Cinderella— so there may be a Vietnamese interpretation of the said tale, but meanwhile there are also elements to them completely originally conceived by Tien’s mother as a way to find answers to her own narrative and Tien’s.

These fairy tales are used as a platform to convey the hardships of the immigrant experience when it comes to leaving your home country behind and carrying the weight to ensure that your culture continues to be passed down to the later generations. Tien’s mother experiences grief as she recollects her past, so far away from Vietnam, but her son Tien feels this disconnect because he knows little of his own extended family and that history. That distance is stretched even longer because he does not know how to confront his mother when it comes to addressing his sexuality. They’re both experiencing alienation in some manner just as the characters in the fairy tales are.

It is also really difficult to be able to describe how beautiful the visuals truly are in writing! Nguyen’s style can be described as similar to late-nineteenth-century Symbolism merged with Art Nouveau, all sprinkled with conventional style choices often seen in shoujo manga —but a little part of me has to stop and ask, “Is that even accurate?” One has to just see the work to fully absorb it, and only then can Nguyen’s apparent love for drawing detailed linework for hair and long, flowing gowns be comprehended. There is so much thought and research put into every artistic choice made. The Magic Fish makes that most apparent, especially when it comes to designing the subtle connections in the fairy tales with the very real histories that they have to allude to.

Emily: Thank you for your expertise, Elvie! I think both the detailed attention to the design choices and the interwoven stories themselves will make The Magic Fish richly reward rereading. And it delivers a warm fairytale happy ending of its own.

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie Mae Parian

Elvie somehow finds bliss in purposefully complicating the art of storytelling and undertaking the painful practice of animation. If you see her on Twitter at @lvmaeparian, she is doing neither of those things.