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The Magic Fish author Trung Le Nguyen on representation, breaking barriers through storytelling

The Magic Fish author Trung Le Nguyen on representation, breaking barriers through storytelling

Writer and illustrator Trung Le Nguyen’s debut graphic novel The Magic Fish is a deeply moving book about a young boy as he tries to navigate life through fairytales–a touching work that tackles tough subjects in a way that accessible with readers of all ages, and teaches us that no matter what—we can all have our own happy endings.

Read through below for a snippet from the recently-held Fully Booked Chats with Trung Le Nguyen. Watch the full video on the Fully Booked Youtube channel or Facebook page.

Could you share with us what the book is about?

The Magic Fish is about an immigrant family that was a lot like mine growing up. So it's about a young boy who is in middle school named Tien and his mother and father are very busy first generation immigrants. They have a lot of things on their plate. They have very practical priorities and so he has a lot of trepidation bringing up his personal problems to his parents in general. Immigrant children often have this  outsized sense of empathy for their parents' experiences because we are used to hearing a lot of stories of very specific and particular kinds of trauma from our parents.

So there's this hesitance to burden his mother and father with things like his burgeoning sense of sexuality in himself. He finds that he really wants to be able to communicate this with his parents and his mother, in particular. But they don't share a common language or culture. So they both communicate with each other, kind of circuitously, by reading each other fairy tales that they've chosen from the library as sort of a bedtime ritual.

It's a heartwarming read and everything about it is just beautiful. I just got reminded that while we have our own story, we also play a very important part in other people's stories. 

Yes, absolutely. I wanted to I wanted to make a project that was empathetic to my parents because if you are someone who lives in between cultures and your parents are trying their best to make sure that they're providing everything that you need in order to survive, oftentimes there is this sense of bereavement a little bit, that they aren't able to fully participate in the culture. I think that's at  the core of The Magic Fish.

Why did you choose to tell the story of your own experience growing up? Did you intend for this book to be like a personal story in the first place?

Oh, goodness. I did not intend for it to be a personal story at all. I wanted to steer away from telling a story that was autobiographical, because, at the time, I was still in my twenties. I felt like I didn't have enough to say yet. So I was very adamant that this is going to be a work of fiction. I did draw from some experiences that I had growing up, but I liked the freedom of being able to make all of it up.

The story that anchors The Magic Fish actually came second. It came later and it was a process of my examination of why these specific fairy tales meant a lot to me as a person who exists within all of these different identities and how that impacts the ways that these stories resonated with me. 

As soon as I drew it and became this tangible moment that I could observe in front of me, it really hit me emotionally. And that was when I knew I was like, oh, I guess I'm, I'm in it personally now.

Now that your story is out in the world, how does it feel to let yourself bear out there?

Well, that isn't something that has an enormous impact on my process in my day to day. Honestly, I'm a big believer in the ways that stories are personal to whoever consumes it. I really strongly hold that every reader's relationship to that text is going to be personal to them, and it might be different from mine in a lot of ways, as it's filtered through the imagination of a reader whose world views and whose experiences are different from mine. I'm really happy people get to facilitate their own understanding of the story.

You also associated fairy tales with your own immigrant experience. Can you tell us more about things that you've added into your own tellings and versions of fairy tales?

I love fairy tales because they're so tricky to nail down and I don't think that we’re meant to really fully understand them or nail them down. The notion that stories that are shared in this sort of oral tradition–those stories tell you a lot about the storytellers. The content of the story might be very similar, but they tell you a lot about the people who are telling the story. And that becomes this act of imparting. It becomes community building, and it becomes legacy building in this very accessible and very warm human way. 

I think that's why fairy tales have always really resonated with me because they're so messy and so imperfect–the characters are flat and they don't have a lot of psychology, but they're still funny. It’s still thrilling in all of these ways because we put ourselves there (in the story).We don't necessarily have these experiences, but we can drop parallels and we can exercise our empathy and fairy tales kind of give us the bare bones to do that.

Did you feel any pressure about accurately representing your community?

I think when I went in and actually pulled all of the pieces of the story together and realized that I was about to tell an immigrant story, I did feel a lot of pressure to accurately represent my community. I had to do a lot of personal examination about what my relationship was to that dialogue. One of the challenging things about being a writer who writes about identities from the margins is that you are oftentimes tasked with edifying an audience. You're oftentimes given this special responsibility to teach people about your experience. And I didn't want to do that. I wanted to engage with people's sense of empathy. I didn't want to engage with their curiosity if they wanted to learn more about immigrants.

There are a lot of news resources where they can sort of dive in and give themselves a better sense of the eagle's eye view of an immigrant narrative. So I set off to tell a story that was kind of small in scope. I wanted to tell a story where the characters could be fully realized and you could see what their individual motivations were and not necessarily a teaching tool for a large swath of the population.

What is your hope for people of color and immigrant stories being told in literature and other other media?

I'm sure this answer will change from time to time, but at this moment: [it’s] about the pressure that I felt to accurately and respectfully represent this swath of the population of people who might share identity disease with me. I wanted to relieve myself of that. I think one of the discussions about how to solve problems of diversity in media and in publishing tends to come from well-intentioned individuals who want to make sure that they're doing things correctly. People can do their best, but like the core of The Magic Fish, people have what they have and they only have the experiences that they have. 

So you might get things wrong, but I think that the pressure to get everything absolutely correctly is really relieved every time there are more voices available out there. My attitude about diversity in publishing is just always going to be yes. If something doesn't resonate with me, exactly, that's great. I hope that there can be more stories for me to choose from. And so I want people of color. I want people from marginalized background authors and creators of all to be relieved of the responsibility of being the sole arbiter or being the sole story that is told within their sphere of culture. I want them to be able to have the freedom, to be messy, and to make mistakes and to not be precious about the narratives that they produce because storytelling should be fun and it should be accessible and it should be this wonderful, beautiful, messy thing. I want that for everyone.

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