What makes a hero? It’s a question that is often at the forefront of comics culture, dominated as it is by superhero stories. But The Magic Fish, the debut graphic novel from writer/artist Trung Le Nguyen out this week from Random House Graphic, focuses on a different kind of valor: The everyday heroism of family members trying their best to care for and understand each other across cultural differences.
The protagonist of The Magic Fish is Tiến, a young Vietnamese-American boy who is just coming to terms with his homosexuality and struggling to figure out how to communicate the truth about himself to his immigrant parents who don’t speak much English. He and his mother, Hiền, find that the best way to communicate with each other is to read fairy tales together. Despite being archetypal stories in the vein of Cinderella or The Little Mermaid, these fairy tales resonate strongly both with Hiền’s immigrant past and Tiến’s hormonal present. Nguyen beautifully employs the three primary colors to keep these stories straight: Blue for the fairy-tale segments, yellow for Hiền’s memories, and red for Tiến’s current experiences.
EW spoke with Nguyen this summer about The Magic Fish and the love and heroism that it depicts. Check out that interview below, along with colorful excerpts from the book.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you choose which three fairy tales to use in this book?
TRUNG LE NGUYEN: There are three fairy tales in the story. The first two are Cinderella stories, and then the last one is The Little Mermaid. Since fairy tales exist in a lot of different cultures with the same archetypes over and over, I thought that it would be really easy to play around with all of those details to suit the needs of the framing story. The first two were chosen so that I could highlight the differences in the imaginations between the mother character and the son character. Tiến and Hiền have very different visual imaginations and they grew up in very different places. They have different visual priorities and they have different desires and wants. One wants validation in terms of like, ‘I want to be a part of this culture that I’m living in, but I don’t feel like I have full access to it because my parents don’t understand it.’ The other one wants to work through her guilt in not being absolutely everything that she could be to her kid. She doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. It’s to highlight the fact that they are going through similar journeys, but they just come from it from different angles.
What is the role of water in this book? One of the fairy-tale characters is an ocean princess, and Hiền obviously had to cross the ocean to make it to America in the first place.
I always regard the ocean as sort of a liminal space. It’s that big thing in between land masses and it’s a thing that kind of separates cultures. Whenever water shows up, there’s always a little bit of angst, like ‘here’s this big, beautiful, deep thing that also happens to be this incredible barrier between us.’ The ocean always seems to pop up in my stories whenever there is this sense of longing and missing someone and feeling like you’re missing a part of a person, even though they’re right in front of you.
You sometimes hear this pervasive belief, especially from the entertainment industry, that boys only like stories with male characters because that’s all they can relate to, and by extension, girls only like stories with princesses or female characters. Obviously, that’s not the case, especially in The Magic Fish. What were you exploring with the way that Tiến relates to the princesses in these stories?
Often there’s the sentiment in classroom spaces where a lot of the protagonists for the stories that are chosen by the school district are usually cis white men. The thinking is girls develop faster than boys, and so they’re going to be able to relate to any character and they’re going to exercise empathy in a way that is a little bit more proactive than boys. We need to give boys a little bit more time before they can start exercising their empathy. I find that to be so strange because I feel like you want to be able to give boys the same opportunities to empathize with people and characters that are different from them. That goes for people and characters from all different backgrounds. Why don’t we tell more stories and allow all of our students and all of our readers to exercise empathy and to latch onto stories that don’t interface with their day-to-day existence in a perfect way?
I think about the way that princess stories occupy a particular place in the popular imagination, particularly in the United States. It’s this place of frivolity, it’s this idea of specialness without actually having to have responsibilities, and the characters lack a certain amount of agency. I think that in terms of creating a story that’s really relatable, a lot of younger readers are kind of out of place in their lives. They don’t have a lot of control over exactly how they go about taking the reins in their own life, they don’t have total agency over all of the decisions that they want to make in their life. It’s an experience that I really do find to be universal.
What were you exploring with translation in this story? Both the literal linguistic barriers and the larger cultural translations that make these fairy tales legible both to Tiến and his mother?
The thing that I really wanted to explore specifically with the language barriers is the notion of parents and children who are trying really hard, but they just don’t know what they don’t know. I grew up reading a lot of immigrant stories that were about the difficulty of parents coming around and understanding their children and supporting their children who grew up in a different culture. A parallel to that is that when I was a kid I read coming out stories when I was trying to figure out how to tell my parents that I was queer. I read a lot of coming out stories, and they’re always paired with trauma. There’s always sort of a ‘first principles’ conflict between the protagonist who is queer and their parents who are straight and they don’t understand, or they’re homophobic or transphobic, and they don’t really know how to support their kid. It’s always this kind of fraught thing. I think it’s important to have those stories out there.
The specific way that I wanted to tell my story was kind of based off of my parents who really did their best, but we don’t have enough of a common language to discuss the nuances of queerness and the language to discuss queerness is evolving every day, all the time. How do you support someone without feeling the pressure to keep up with the language all the time, or what are the expectations that you can have for how to care for someone when you don’t know all of the right words? The story is about finding a space of empathy and compassion for immigrant parents who don’t have the full cultural contexts to give their children everything that they want and expect from the childhoods that they can observe all around them. It also comes from a place of wanting to tell a coming out story where the queerness is not the source of the conflict. It’s more that there is a communication barrier between people who genuinely love and support each other. I want younger readers to understand that it is reasonable for them to expect their parents to protect them no matter who or what they are. If they don’t get that from their parents, that it’s okay for them to feel bereft, because that’s really not fair for them.
What do you think is interesting or rewarding about the depictions of heroism in fairy tales versus the way it’s depicted in, say, superhero culture?
I think it’s the scope. It’s one of those things where I have to draw a line between the things that I like to consume and the things that I like to make. I love to read superhero comics. I’m a really big fan, but if I sit down and think about drawing a fight sequence, and drawing all those cars and explosions and buildings, I get exhausted. It’s just something that’s not within my professional toolbox, but I do love to consume those stories. However, with fairy tales, I think the thing that I love the most is that the conflicts are often petty and small, not large and bombastic. Heroism looks different. Heroism looks like the character who is consistently kind and helps a lot of other characters along the way. They all come back at the end and rally around the character that was kind to them in a greater conflict. It’s an accessible sense of heroism. It’s not a fantasy of power. It’s more of a fantasy of growth.
I think The Magic Fish is especially interesting in the context of various cultural discourses we’ve been having for a couple of years, specifically the issue of diverse representation of characters. This flares up a lot around Disney movies in particular. While Disney has so far not really relented to depict major characters in their fairy-tale movies as outwardly gay, there are implications and things that fans can take from certain ones. That’s what I love so much about The Magic Fish and what the mom discovers over the course of it. As her aunt keeps telling her in Vietnam, these stories really aren’t unchangeable stone tablets or whatever. While staying true to them, you can change them and adjust them to fit your situation and the kind of person you are, which she finally does by the end.
Yeah. I mean, I love Disney quite a lot, and I spend a lot of time thinking about the way that it has affected how we think about princesses and female protagonists within the popular imagination. The reason why I chose The Little Mermaid instead of another Cinderella story is because I did a lot of reading on the production of The Little Mermaid at Disney and kind of realized, okay, that story was changed to suit the needs of the shareholders of Disney and like all of the people who really needed the story to make money. If they can change the story from Hans Christian Anderson’s story to suit the needs of whatever it is that they feel beholden to, then why can’t we also tell the story a different way?
Then, I did a little bit more digging on the story and it’s actually quite old. The Hans Christian Anderson version isn’t even the oldest one. It’s the one that we all happen to know, but it was written in the 1830s. Then I realized as I kept reading that it was supposed to be kind of a queer love letter that Anderson had written to a friend of his who was a straight man who got married to a woman who was also a friend of theirs. The Little Mermaid is about queer longing. It’s always been about queer longing. Taking that story and reclaiming the queerness in it, outside of the space and time in which it was created where queerness wasn’t discussed in the language that we have now, it felt like such a perfect opportunity to tackle in this space where the characters also don’t have the adequate language to discuss queerness. It’s sort of like a coming full circle on that story.