Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


'The Magic Fish' is a story of language, transformation and family

The cover of "The Magic Fish" is shown with an undated photo of author Trung Le Nguyen.
RH Graphic / Laura Duholm
The cover of "The Magic Fish" is shown with an undated photo of author Trung Le Nguyen.

This year's KPBS One Book, One San Diego selection for teens is "The Magic Fish," a graphic novel by writer and illustrator Trung Le Nguyen.

"The Magic Fish" is about a second-generation Vietnamese American teenager, Tiến, who uses fairy tales to help his mother learn English.

"I based a lot of the characters in 'The Magic Fish' on the experiences of my own family that I observed growing up in the United States and learning English and learning the culture alongside them as well," Nguyen said.


Tiến is gay, and he is not able to come out to his family. In the book he says he doesn't know the word in Vietnamese to even begin a conversation with his parents.

"This was a struggle that I also had growing up, trying to articulate my sexuality to my parents. When I was growing up, we didn't share a language or share a vocabulary to discuss these things," Nguyen said. "I do remember going to the library and trying to find language resources to be able to articulate the exact things that I wanted to tell my parents."

Nguyen said that he wanted to explore the way language transforms and is significant in both everyday use and broader, big-picture cultural ways.

"When it comes to describing sexuality, when it comes to describing gender and queerness, the ways that we talk about these things, the words that we use kind of change all of the time. They're dependent on where we find ourselves in time and regionally as well. So for 'The Magic Fish,' I think the continued impetus for me to want to tell this precise type of story, is that even within queer communities, we shift in the ways that we describe ourselves, and we kind of have to offer each other a little bit of grace around the language by which we find ourselves. Through which we find ourselves, basically," Nguyen said.

Tiến and his mother read fairy tales aloud to each other in English as a way for Tiến's mother to better grasp the language. The stories also, of course, pack more meaning.


The fairy tales included are two separate retellings of the "Cinderella" story and one of "The Little Mermaid." Nguyen said the Vietnamese Cinderella served as early inspiration for the project.

"I had heard it growing up, because that was a story that was familiar to my parents, and I have a lot of strong, warm, sentimental feelings about it," Nguyen said. "Originally 'The Magic Fish' was just supposed to be a bunch of Cinderella stories put together, and then I had to figure out what these stories meant to me and why I was drawn to Cinderella stories, and stories about transition in these ways."

The inclusion of "The Little Mermaid" suggests the similarities between that tale and Cinderella. Nguyen said that "The Little Mermaid" also involves leaving something familiar behind to seek a different life or love.

"That's something that I find to be really resonant as an immigrant," Nguyen said, adding that there's queer allegory to be found in the traditional Hans Christian Anderson story — another pivotal theme in "The Magic Fish."

Nguyen was also drawn to fairy tales because of their commonalities across cultures, and that it highlights that storytelling is a universal, communal phenomenon.

"[Fairy tales] feel like they're people, almost. I love the notion that a fairy tale is something that can exist in multiple places, or that it moves from place to place and it changes clothes depending on the culture in which it finds itself and it changes its priorities," Nguyen said.

Interior pages from "The Magic Fish."
Courtesy of RH Graphic/Penguin Random House
Interior pages from "The Magic Fish."

To delineate the past, present and the fairy tale universes, Nguyen casts the illustrations in certain colors. He originally wanted the book to be in black and white, inspired by manga and newspaper comics, but the editors encouraged him to use a limited color palette — and in doing so, create a sort of roadmap to orient readers along the way.

Red tones signal the present moment, with Tiến and his mother or at school. Yellows and sepias mean his parents' past in Vietnam. Blues indicate the imaginary realm of the fairy tales. While the effect is ultimately practical, it's also beautiful, and each color change feels transformative.

"The Magic Fish" is an enchanting, visually astonishing story about immigrants and their many migrations — whether from place to place, from one understanding of oneself to another, or from an imaginary, magical life to a lived reality. But it's also a simple story about a family and about love.

"I chose to tell 'The Magic Fish' from the perspectives of people who aren't thinking about their marginalization in terms that might be considered academic. They are kind of just trying to get by and live their lives," Nguyen said.

Nguyen will hold two events this week for One Book, One San Diego — at 4 p.m., Monday, Dec. 12 at San Diego State University, and a livestreamed event at 9:50 a.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2022.