QRC, VSA host ‘The Magic Fish’ author Trung Le Nguyen

Around 20 students sit on stairs and face the camera.
On April 7, Trung Le Nguyen spoke about the creative process behind his graphic novel “The Magic Fish” to a joint QRC and VSA book club. (Courtesy: Vietnamese Students Association)

A tightly-woven, lushly-illustrated, tour-de-force of a debut, “The Magic Fish” charts the emotional journey of a young boy, Tiến, struggling with his Asian American and queer identities. Written and illustrated by Trung Le Nguyen, the graphic novel draws inspiration from fairy tales which bridge both Western and Vietnamese traditions to call attention to how stories can heal intergenerational trauma and build community.

Becoming something of a social media phenomenon, “The Magic Fish” has gained a wide readership, far surpassing the novel’s intended YA audience. Its uptick in popularity helped lead to its choice as the novel for a 5C book club, hosted jointly by the Queer Resource Center and the Vietnamese Student’s Assocation.

Around 75 copies of the book were distributed to participants of the book club, who came together to discuss the book on March 5, and then again on March 26. The club culminated with an event on April 7, where Nguyen himself was present via Zoom to talk to those who had engaged with his work. 

A delightfully intelligent, warm presence, Nguyen began by talking about the circumstances that led him to write “The Magic Fish,” which is semi-autobiographical, and the intensely personal nature of the process of creation. 

“So ‘The Magic Fish,’ really, truly started as an excuse for me to just draw my favorite fairy tales,” Nguyen said. “And then … I realized that all of these things that I carried with me that I was avoiding and denying myself, like being an artist and telling stories in order to be responsible, all of those things were going to bubble up eventually… and I’m really happy that I had an opportunity to let them all come together in this story.”

He spoke about how his relationship with his parents shaped the novel, as he often drew on family archives and photographs to inform how the characters in the novel were drawn. This allowed Nguyen to immerse himself in the small details of his parents’ lives when they came to America. 

I never really got to delve into the bric-a-brac or the texture of the little details that made up the fabric of [my parents’] day-to-day lives while they were new immigrants here,” he said. “And I think that that’s kind of where the specificity and the particularities of storytelling become very special.”

After Nguyen’s presentation, the audience was invited to ask questions. Respect for Nguyen’s work was clear, as audience members asked about everything from his drawing process to his favorite Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield, for those curious). 

One audience member asked about the process of writing the story as someone from a marginalized community.

“Often, people task [those from marginalized backgrounds] with edifying the public about what our lives are like, without wondering how we feel and exist as human beings,” he said. “People just want to know [personal] information to contextualize [it] within the larger context of history. But I’m not so much interested in that as much as I am interested in figuring out what that journey was like emotionally for my parents.”

One significant aspect of the novel is how the main character, Tiến, grapples with his queer identity as a young gay man, as well as his Vietnamese American identity, and how these two aspects of his self intersect. Part of Nguyen’s challenge while writing was moving past essentialized, Western views of Vietnamese culture, to depict it in a way that felt more genuine. 

“When I visited Vietnam, I would wonder why it didn’t look like what I imagined Southeast Asia to look like, and I realized that … I just had no frame of reference outside of what was given to me in the United States,” he said. “I was looking for this essential Vietnamese experience that just didn’t really exist. ” 

Nguyen also took inspiration from his own Vietnamese heritage to write the novel, traveling to Vietnam to familiarize himself with the country’s landscapes, iconography and history. His travels illuminated the way in which Vietnamese culture is fluid, shaped by a range of historical and colonial forces. 

“True culture is something that changes and shifts in order to subsist,” he said. “We think about culture in this very calcified way. We think about it as an artifact, when it’s something that people live within, so it will shift around a lot.”  

Tiến’s coming out story was another element of the novel readers connected with. His coming out unfolds in an overwhelmingly positive way, as his friends and family come together to support him. 

“What I wanted to do was set an expectation ceiling,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to impress upon readers that it is reasonable and it is right for you as a queer person to expect that your parents will protect you and love you, no matter who you are.”

The discussion with Nguyen was equal parts enlightening and moving, allowing participants to feel even more connected to “The Magic Fish” and all that Nguyen was able to achieve within its pages. The talk allowed attendees to better grasp the myriad of influences and stories that are woven into the novel and better appreciate Nguyen’s deft hand in creating a work that addresses important issues, such as identity, family and love, in such a beautiful way. 

‘The Magic Fish’ is a story about a confluence of cultures and a story about trying to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps to access topics of queerness, through thinking about what [people’s] visual imagination looks like,” Ngyugen said. “That’s what I tried to accomplish with Tiến’s story.”

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