Tiến is a 13 year old who lives with his Vietnamese immigrant parents in the Midwest. He and his mother Helen read fairy tales together to help bridge the gap between their primary languages. Tiến grew up speaking English and Helen Vietnamese. Tiến is gay; he is out only to a classmate. He wants to come out to his mother, but he doesn’t know the right words in Vietnamese or where to find them. To make matters worse, adults at his parochial school suspect he might be gay, and the “counseling” they subject him to just leads to more fear and shame. The fairy tales Tiến and his mother read together are more than a way to help them communicate; the stories they share parallel their life experiences. For example, The Little Mermaid becomes an immigration story, where the price of moving to a new place for a different life comes at a big price — losing the ability to communicate.
When Helen has to go back to Vietnam because of a family emergency, her aunt tells her a story which Helen had heard before. This time the story has a different ending. Her aunt explained: stories change, details change, and with those changes the story becomes yours. Helen returns home and comes to understand the truth about Tiến’s sexuality in an unexpected and, for Tiến, scary way. Once again, stories provide an avenue for them to communicate what matters and, most importantly, express their love.
The art in this graphic novel is stunning. The lush line drawings are powerful and express the fantasy of the stories just as vividly as the reality of Tiến and his family’s lives. Different monochrome palettes are used to distinguish between Tiến’s current day, his mother’s memories, her time in Vietnam and the stories they tell each other. The creator, Trung Le Nguyen, includes details on the influences for the artistic styles of the settings and characters in this lovely, heartwarming, graphic novel.
Many readers will be able to relate to this moving story. Finding the right words for a difficult conversation can be hard even if language isn’t a barrier. The beautiful artwork carried me away, and I admit there may have been a tear in my eye at the end.
The Magic Fish comes out on October 13th; find it at your local independent bookstore.