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How to Navigate Coming Out to Your Parents With the Help of 3 Fairy Tales

Sometimes stories can articulate what we cannot put into our own words. Fairy tales can function as long-form proverbs that allow people to identify and pass on important values, expectations and experiences regarding love, loss, longing, fate and hardships. Children often learn about the adult world through these stories, but they retain their value throughout one’s entire life.

A story of family dynamics, interwoven with fairy tales

Magic Fish, a graphic novel by Trung Le Nguyen, explores these truths. At its very core, the book tells the story of a young teen struggling with how to come out to his parents. Tiến worries that his mom won’t understand or accept him because of his sexuality while America’s puritan strain of institutional intolerance causes further dismay. His difficult situation is compounded by the fact that his parents immigrated to America as refugees and the language they share is limited. Tiến navigates this while his mother, Helen, is grappling with her separation from her home country, family and culture.

To tackle these themes, Trung Le looks to three fairy tales: a loose amalgamation of Allerleirauh and Tattercoats; Tấm Cám; and the Little Mermaid. While Tiến and his mom read the stories together, we immediately notice parallels between their lives and those of the characters: Allerlerirau feels the need to hide her true self from one she loves; Tấm suffers cruelties when the loss of her mother upends her life while the young mermaid Ondine sacrifices greatly to find a new life beyond the water’s edge.

The folk story Tấm Cám is a major influence in the plot.

Trung Le wisely refuses to let the fairy tales serve as parables that perfectly match Helen and Tiến’s stories. Rather, they act as graceful accompaniments that add layers of emotional complexity through frequent similarities that compel readers to recognize nuances in the protagonists’ experiences. Even small details gain gravity when juxtaposed with elements in the fantasies, such as Helen’s job as a seamstress and Tiến’s patchwork jacket, as seen beside the importance of ball gowns in each tale. In the graphic novel’s stunning conclusion, the wall between the fairy tales and the central narrative crumbles in a masterful twist that is worth experiencing without spoilers.

Magic Fish relies entirely on dialogue and recitation of the fairy tales to advance the plot. While this approach makes it a fast-paced, suspense-filled read, it does pose a problem: how to differentiate the three fairy tales from each other and the main narrative? Each segment is rendered in a simple single color so flicking through the red, yellow and blue pages is like swiping through photo filters.

Magic Fish color-codes the pages to distinguish between the three fairy tales.

The monochrome panels highlight the deceptively complex illustrations. Trung Le created the majority of the illustrations by hand before switching to digital design for the ending to meet deadlines. While the faces and scenery are sparse and cartoon-like, closer inspection of details such as people’s hair and dress fabrics reveal a significant amount of intricacy.

“I set out to write a very small story. One of the odd challenges of writing a story about characters living within any social margins is the gravity of the marginalization itself. It is such a dense thing, seemingly to insist that all the pieces of the story should orbit around it. Immigrant stories are all like this,” Trung Le writes in the author’s note, adding that he wanted to expand beyond the familiar arc and “tell a story about one of the little pieces that orbit around it.” This focus on the characters’ attempts to discuss love in the absence of a shared vernacular makes the book more original and simultaneously more universal. The theme, while relevant for immigrant families and members of the queer community, will resonate with many readers in the same way that fairy tales transcend generations, geographies and backgrounds.

One of the odd challenges of writing a story about characters living within any social margins is the gravity of the marginalization itself.

The short time it takes to read Magic Fish obscures the careful attention Trung Le paid to each element. In a “Between Words and Pictures” section that follows the narrative, he provides insight into his process of unifying the story and the accompanying illustrations. For example, the setting of each story springs from the imagination of the character narrating it, and thus is informed by their experiences. This means that Helen’s sister’s version of Tấm Cám is set in 1950s Vietnam with colonial architecture and dress. Meanwhile, the story Tiến tells is influenced by mid- to late-1990s pop-culture western sensibilities. Trung Le did significant research into the details, going so far as to base each of the ball gowns on specific dresses that he lists.

Fairy tales are notorious for being revised, re-contextualized, and re-packaged time and time again for new audiences. Stories about the coming out experience and immigrant dislocation, alienation and marginalization have been told countless times, but Magic Fish, like the best fairy tales, provides a novel experience thanks to its inventive format and specific, affable voice.

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