Refugee Fairytales: The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

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In Trung Le Nguyen’s queer coming-of-age Vietnamese American graphic novel The Magic Fish, Tien and his mother talk to each other each evening through fairy tales. The story is told through a modified palette of primary colors: the present is portrayed via coral, the fairy tales via ultramarine, and his mother Helen’s memories of Vietnam via amber. Nguyen weaves among these colors in a manner which is dream-like, intuitive, and bold. The red of the now fluctuates between a lightness of mood and the heaviness of what remains unspoken, blues and purples imbue the imaginative realm with a sense of the epic and fantastical, and the past is punctuated with mournful flashes of yellow. The novel’s fairy tales, bridging Western and Vietnamese traditions, allow mother and son to dive into repressed memories of the past and resurface with new ways of expressing care for one another.

With Magic Fish, Trung Le Nguyen joins not only a wave of graphic novelists who narrate the Vietnamese diaspora through comics (GB Tran, Thi Bui, Marcelino Truong, Matt Huynh, Clément Baloup) but also the many writers and artists who have latched onto the possibilities of nước (which means both “water” and “country” in Vietnamese) as a motif for portraying the Vietnamese refugee experience. The first story which Tien and his mother read is “Allerleirauh,” a variant of the Cinderella story in which Princess Alera becomes separated from her mother, the sea princess. Each night after Helen reads that story with Tien, she tries to call her own mother to check in on her health. At the end of “Allerleirauh,” the princess is happily wedded to a prince, while Helen learns that her mother had just died. Helen’s life presents itself as an alternative ending for the fairy tale: “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?

When Helen returns to Vietnam to attend her mother’s funeral, she tells her aunt, “My happy ending never came.” Her aunt comforts her by telling her a Vietnamese version of the Cinderella story, “Tấm Cám.” In this telling, Tấm is tormented by her stepmother but befriends a magic fish who helps her find love. Jealous of Tấm’s newfound happiness, her stepmother kills the fish as well as Tấm. It is at this point that her aunt intervenes with her own ending: “They’re only stories. They’ll change when they need to.” The stepmother learns that it is her own daughter who had died in Tấm’s place. Helen learns that there is the possibility of life after death. She learns the wisdom in the words of Tấm’s creaturely friends who whisper in the ears of the living that they must “unbury the bones.”

When Helen returns to the States, she can see that her son Tien has been struggling with his own difficulties. He has been trying to come out to his parents: “I tried looking up how to tell them at the library. The librarian and I couldn’t find the word for it in Vietnamese.” The commonly used word for “gay” in Vietnamese is “bê đê,” a slur which originates from the French “pédé,” or “pederaste.” While there has been an effort to reclaim the word in the Vietnamese LGBTQ community, some simply prefer to identify themselves with the English word. The problem for Tien is that there is no adequate translation for “gay” in Vietnamese. 

He and his mother, therefore, turn to fairytales instead. The novel presents us with a hybridized retelling of “The Little Mermaid” in which the mermaid’s underwater kingdom is modeled upon the Chinese dynasty. As with the other fairy tales in The Magic Fish, the characters are designed with textured and flowing hair, dewy eyes, and intricate dresses; the background is fleshed out with flowers, stars, and drapes, intermingling with speech bubbles which spiral like smoke. When the mermaid makes a deal with the Oracle in order to live and walk on land, she loses her speech and each step of her newly acquired feet feels like daggers. Like the mermaid, Helen had found herself in the strange new world of America, but separated from her family, stumbling over her words, and struggling to walk on her own. As Nguyen states, “I’ve always thought of ‘The Little Mermaid’ as a story about immigration.” The mermaid enters into the world of 1980s San Francisco, where the man she fell in love with and his female colleague Bertie are putting on a production of Ondine, a German ballet about a sea nymph. 

But the mermaid realizes that the man for whom she had risked everything does not love her back. As her aunt had done for her, Helen now does for Tien: she changes the ending to better suit their circumstances. It is Bertie who has fallen in love with the mermaid instead. As with Suzanne Walker and Wendy Xu’s Mooncakes or Molly Knox Ostertag’s The Girl from the Sea, Nguyen mobilizes supernatural themes in order to contest assumptions about “natural” sexual orientations. Magic Fish ends with a heartfelt embrace between mother and son. Helen had originally felt that, “My past and present selves speak two different languages. It feels like I died on that boat. And I’m still stuck in the middle of the ocean.” But through fairy tales, she returns to the water and finds a strategy for reconciling the barriers of language. She tells Tien, “I don’t know how to talk about this stuff . . . but I love everything you are.” 

As Nguyen states in the afterword, “Immigrants seem to take on the flatness of fairy tale archetypes, as interchangeable pieces in recurring stories of upheaval and diaspora . . . I set out to tell a very small story about a boy and his mother figuring out how to express love without the benefit of an appropriate vernacular.” Magic Fish is a wondrous story about the construction of makeshift bridges even when feeling as if we are lacking the adequate materials: the ocean as that dangerous terrain between the shores of two countries, the visual imagination as that between two languages, the fairy tale existing between two storytelling traditions, and the wordless love which bridges the space between these two characters.


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Sydney To is an English PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, with research interests in Asian American literature and critical refugee studies. His work has appeared in diaCRITICS and Asian Review of Books.

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