How a Cartoonist Found Inspiration for 'The Magic Fish'

The Magic Fish - Publicity Still - H 2020
Trung Le Nguyen/Random House Graphic
Trung Le Nguyen talks about the creation of his debut graphic novel, centering on a young Vietnamese immigrant who struggles to tell his parents that he's gay.

The Magic Fish, one of the first year titles from Random House Graphic, is a graphic novel about the ways in which stories bring people together and help them tell their own story to others.

Telling three stories at once, the core relationship at the book’s heart is between Tien, a young Vietnamese immigrant, and his parents, and the relationship they share through fairy-tale books used to learn English — but the transformative quality of the stories has a deeper meaning for Tien, who struggles with a way to tell his parents that he’s gay.

Told with subtlety, The Magic Fish is the graphic novel debut of Trung Le Nguyen. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to the creator about the story behind the story, and shares exclusive preview pages from the book itself ahead of its release later this year.

I’m curious about the origins of this book, because it feels like a story that's very personal. It feels like a story that you’ve lived, for want of a better way of putting it.

A lot of it is kind of based on experiences that I've had. It's definitely a work of fiction, but a lot of it is sort of inspired by my upbringing — my parents were immigrants when I was very little, and I wasn't born in the United States either, and so we kind of learned English side by side. One of the strongest and most precious memories I have is learning how to navigate the English language with my parents through checking out library books and reading them together.

And so, storytelling and learning how to read has kind of always been incredibly important in the way that I envision my relationship with my parents, and I thought that I would give them a really sweet sendoff with this first graphic novel. I felt that it was kind of appropriate, because I feel like a lot of first works are oftentimes very confessional.

The book is something that values story a lot — the power of narrative and sharing stories, as you say, but also the way that stories can illuminate our own lives.

Yeah, that's certainly true. It was definitely one of those things where I thought long and hard about whether I wanted a story about a story. I felt that, as a new storyteller, I didn't really have the bona fides to go in and talk about how story can change somebody's life just yet, but I also felt that maybe it would be really interesting to look at the way that stories change and transition depending on where the story finds itself, and where readers find themselves and their relationships to them. I thought that was a nice, kind of new, angle for it.

I'm familiar with your illustrations more than your comics work, but one of the things that I really enjoyed and was surprised by was how confident the parts I read of this were.

I should be honest — I kind of felt like I didn't really know what I was doing, and so I relied on the feedback of my editors very strongly, and they give me really wonderful feedback. I knew early on that color is not my strong suit — I didn't go to art school and I never learned how a lot of my colleagues make comics, so I'm kind of learning how to do this on the fly. So we decided early on that I was going to do a full graphic novel, but I was going to do it in a very limited palette.

And then, when I figured out that there were going to be several different story universes within the overarching story, I needed to figure out a way to make it clear that there are different timelines, and different visual imaginations, being presented. I got a lot of really great feedback from Gina [Gagliano, publishing director of Random House Graphic] and from Whitney [Leopard, senior editor] about how to communicate that elegantly to the reader.

It's funny that you say that you weren't feeling confident because this reads like a fully formed book; it doesn't feel like someone’s first graphic novel. Looking back at it now that it’s finished, is it something that you feel more confident in, retroactively?

(Laughs.) I'm still a little apprehensive about going through and looking back through the book, so I'm still at that phase where I've just finished a large project and I haven't reread it more than once. I was like, "OK, this actually does what I was trying to do." Maybe I'll keep some distance and I'll r-read it a month from now and I'll feel much better about it. I'm still feeling a little self-conscious about it, but I'm very proud of the work that I've done. I think it's just creative jitters. (Laughs.) I'm very happy that it feels so fully formed and that it seems like a confident not-first graphic novel!

What are the influences of the book? It feels like it's taken from multiple different sources at once — there are some folk tales, but I also feel like there's some Studio Ghibli in there.... What are you drawing from in the creation of this?

It’s a lot of influences. One of the things that I tried to be very intentional about is, how would someone's imagination look depending on who's telling the story.

There are three different stories within the larger story, being told by three different characters. The first story has a very kind of a European [look], what Americans think European fairy tales look like. The middle story is told from the perspective of an older Vietnamese woman, so I had to think really hard about what those colonial Vietnam [elements] look like, and what are the influences of French culture in Vietnamese culture from a time where the influences might be a little bit more fresh.

And then the last story is influenced by a kind of aspirational vision of what the United States might look like to an immigrant. So a lot of different kinds of visual nods to the things that I'm familiar with and things that I love, just on the surface.

I want to talk for a second about the story — as you said, there's three stories in there, and by pulling them together and cross-referencing them, you're creating something that is at once a very personal, specific story, but giving it a universal appeal, and also a mythological appeal. Was this your intent, to open the story up in that manner?

I don't know that that was something that I did consciously. I think I was prioritizing other things in my storytelling at the time. I think a lot about how stories, I guess, change clothes depending on where they come from and where they are, and how stories can travel. They're kind of like people that way, that they can adapt in new places and show new values and priorities, and wear different clothes depending on where they are.

The way that I conflated them was more about trying to find the middle spaces between the way that we imagined very old stories, and I think fairy tales are such a great touchstone for how to find common experiences among people who have grown up in totally different places, because they're very formal and they're oftentimes very personal and told in very intimate settings. They kind of are these really nice blank slates to bring our differences to the fore, and also navigate how those differences can be tied together.

Was there one of the three threads that you felt more comfortable as a storyteller? What was the one that felt maybe not personal, but something that you felt that you knew you understood immediately in a way that the other two may have required more, more effort?

I think the last story, the one that's based on The Little Mermaid, was something that I was really comfortable with. I've spent a lot of time reading about Hans Christian Andersen and the notion that Hans Christian Andersen wrote the story from a place of unrequited longing and clear love that never really comes to fruition was such a fascination for me for such a long time. And then, explaining to my family and my parents why that story was such a fascinating thing for me, and having them explain back that this is an immigrant story, she gives up something, she gave up her tongue, her language, to live someplace new so that she could be with someone that she loved. That's an immigrant story. I loved that so much.

You talked about how you're still somewhat distanced from the work, you're not necessarily comfortable with revisiting it yet — are you ready for other people to read this? Are you ready for people to have an emotional response to this?

I think so. I think mostly at this point, I'm really curious about it because I wrote it with very much just me in mind, so it was a very indulgent exercise. But yeah, I'm excited to see how other people receive it. If it's going to be a story about how people's perception shifts with stories changed, depending on the story and the people, I want to know, how did you feel about my story?

The Magic Fish will be released in October 2020.