How do you speak when you don’t have the words?
How do you tell someone something about yourself when you don’t know the right words?
Throughout Trung Le Nguyen’s The Magic Fish, this struggle plays out and out.
Tiến wants to come out to his mother, but he doesn’t know the right words in Vietnamese to tell her. As the son of immigrants, he knows a little Vietnamese, but not enough to fully explain who he is. And his parents know enough English, but not enough to understand what he wants to tell them. There is still something that brings Tiến and his mother together, though: fairy tales. There’s a familiarity with the tales Tiến reads to his mother—there’s something they can both latch onto and connect with each other in ways that a normal conversation can’t accomplish. Stories of magic and loss, stories of fish and jealousy, and stories of gowns and love. Every story Tiến tells feels like a variation on a theme—continually getting to the point that he wants to make, but is unable to do so when he has to go to school or his mother has to rush back to Vietnam. We can feel every break in the fairy tales—each aspect of the story is represented with its own color scheme—and just how much there needs to be said before it’s left hanging.
It is in Tiến’s struggle to communicate that the heart of the story lies. It isn’t just with his mother, but with his friends Claire and Julian, his teacher after she sees him dancing with Julian, and with the priest his teacher brings to talk with him. The balance that Nguyen strikes between all of these moments—Tiến and his mother’s struggles in the present, the quick flashes of the past, and the fairy tales all help to ground us in the moment and bring us closer to Tiến and his mother. And despite the inability to communicate what he wants to say, Tiến and his mother still have the stories that bring them closer together. In an incredible depiction of character, Nguyen is able to show how much these stories matter to the two of them and how there’s still a commonality between the fairy tales regardless of where they’re from. They’ve always been there to impart some grander message and it’s what Tiến and his mother use to bring each other closer and to bring us closer to them.
The Magic Fish communicates grief and loss, but also the joy of being able to be with the ones you love when you need them the most. It shows us that, despite everything, we can still hold onto those people we need even when it feels like the world is crumbling around us and we don’t quite have the words to tell them what we really want to say.
Get excited. Get the right words.
Drew Barth (Episode 331, 485, & 510) resides in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida.
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