What inspired this beautiful story for your debut?
The Magic Fish originally started out as several different art projects. I realized through exploring fairy tales that, at this point in my life, I had an interest in certain themes of transformation, sacrifice, and flight. The Magic Fish wound up being the project where I did my best to connect those fairy tale themes to a human element. I wanted to see what happens when different characters with their own points of view started iterating on fairy tales made up of flat archetypes. Broadly speaking, my book became a project about how similar stories take on different shapes depending on who tells them.
Was it important to you that this story be told through the comics medium?
It was super important! The graphic narrative is my preferred method of storytelling, but it comes from a place of caring about the ways people access and interpret information beyond just the letters and symbols. I think the way we envision literacy is evolving. We are starting to examine how images are really great at facilitating context-specific information and how that can be its own sort of literacy. Really, the crudest drawings can communicate so much, and I love how thoroughly that can be explored in comics, both from the creator end and the reader end. I imagine there’s been more discussion about it in the context of children’s picture books, but the derisive thing I always heard about picture books growing up is that they don’t give you room to exercise imagination. There’s a misapprehension that pictures dampen the desire to imagine because a scenario is already presented, and I really disagree with that sentiment. A drawing in a comic has to be economical. Because we’re human beings with only so much time on our hands, the pictures we draw more often suggest than depict. Even live action movies work this way. In every mode of storytelling, there is an expectation for the audience or the reader to fill in the gaps, to suspend disbelief, and to hold room for curiosity. That’s what keeps us reading and watching. That imaginative legwork keeps us invested. And for immigrant families or even just for people engaging with literature at different reading levels, a picture offers an anchor for their imaginations to connect with each other. Pictures help our own imaginations share space with others.
While this is a YA story about a young boy, the mom and her own story and history plays such a prominent role throughout. Can you share why her story was an essential piece of the narrative?
For any story about a young person, I find that their relationships to their guardians or caretakers to be really illuminating. I wonder if that’s a cultural thing. When I think about American stories, there’s so often this urgent desire to set oneself apart from one’s parents, right? And me being a kid who grew up in a totally different world than my parents, I don’t really have that urge. That individual distinction was baked into my experience. I’m more interested in figuring out what parts of my parents I carry on, and I wanted to explore that between Tien and Helen. I wanted readers to consider that this parent character lived a robust and complicated life before she had a kid, and that colors the ways she loves him and her hopes for his future.
One of the tougher aspects to read through this is how much Tien has to act as his own advocate since his parents English is more limited—which is something I don’t think is considered a lot for kids of immigrant parents from non-English speaking countries. Was this your own experience, and what are aspects that you wanted to share with readers who are unfamiliar with this life experience?
Certainly yes, this was colored by my experiences. I’m sure a lot of children of immigrants grew up with the experience of witnessing their parents experiencing horrible racism or xenophobia from other adults. Kids see that stuff, and they clock it, and they carry it with them. I remember being really little and watching people treat my parents with totally unvarnished condescension and feeling a complicated mixture of shame and indignation. When you’re a kid, what can you do in that situation? You can’t act out because it’ll make your already-embarrassed parents look worse. My strategy as a kid was to divert my parents away, tell them I needed to use the bathroom or that I was urgently thirsty or something. I imagine it’s something almost a little bit like a YA protagonist being embarrassed at their terminally uncool parents in front of their friends. I’m sure there were shades of that. For me, as a bilingual immigrant kid, it came with the added weight of, “My parents maybe don’t know how to get out of this situation, and I need to protect them from these mean people.” So by the time I hit middle school I remember doing my best not to involve my parents in my school life or social life, thinking it would just be easier for everyone. I think I wrote that in with Tien a bit. He’s so hesitant to admit that he needs an adult because he doesn’t want his parents to go to the immense amount of trouble it would take for them to navigate an English-speaking institution.
Is there a message that you hope readers get from reading The Magic Fish?
Yeah! The Magic Fish is a story about not having all the pieces to get your point across, but still doing your best to make it work anyway. I hope readers walk away with being a little more mindful of all the ways we might not know how to show up for each other. It takes so much heart to keep on trying. And it also takes a lot to let other people try again. I hope people leave more room for trying whenever they can.