in conversation with Lissa Jones-Lofgren

Wednesday, July 28
5:30 pm Central — FREE!

An award-winning poet, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers now joins the front ranks of American novelists with The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (Harper). Already hailed as one of the most anticipated books of the summer by publications from Ms. and People to the New York Times, this majestic epic follows a family from the colonial slave trade through the Civil War to our own tumultuous era. At heart it is also the story of what the great scholar W. E. B. Du Bois called “Double Consciousness”—a sensitivity that every African American possesses in order to survive. At this special event, Jeffers will be joined in conversation with Twin Cities-based radio and podcast host Lissa Jones-Lofgren. Free to attend, registration required. We hope to “see” you there!

“This sweeping, brilliant and beautiful narrative is at once a love song to Black girlhood, family, history, joy, pain . . . and so much more. In Jeffers' deft hands, the story of race and love in America becomes the great American novel.”
—Jacqueline Woodson

Books can be purchased either during the event or in advance from Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis; just click the button below. Fun Fact: Any and all books you purchase when you start at this link help support Rain Taxi’s virtual event series—thank you!

About the Participants

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of five poetry collections, ranging from The Gospel of Barbecue (2000), selected by Lucille Clifton for the Stan and Tom Wick poetry prize, to The Age of Phillis (2020), a dazzling deep dive into the life and times of the 18th-century African American poet Phillis Wheatley. Her work has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies, and her many honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the 2018 Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year. For her scholarly research on Early African Americans, Jeffers was elected into the American Antiquarian Society, a learned organization to which fourteen U.S. presidents have been elected. She teaches creative writing at the University of Oklahoma, where she is an associate professor of English.

Lissa Jones-Lofgren is the host for the podcast Black Market Reads and the creator, executive producer, and host of Urban Agenda, the longest continuously running program on KMOJ Radio, Minnesota’s oldest Black radio station. She authored “Voices of the Village,” a column in the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, and is a frequent presenter on the intersection of Black history and present-day thought.

Music From Another World

Robin Talley
Inkyard Press ($18.99)

by Helena Ducusin

Tremendous progress has been made in the past several decades in the realm of LGBTQ+ rights and representation. Because of this, it can be easy for younger readers to feel disconnected from the history of overt discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Robin Talley’s historical fiction novel Music From Another World engages present readers with its dynamic characters who navigate social pressures while grappling with feelings of isolation. Such desire for belonging persists in present time, and Talley’s novel resonates shockingly well, connecting readers to a history they may not know.

Music From Another World traces the letters of two teenage pen pals, Tammy and Sharon, as they decipher their identities in their surrounding religious communities. Tammy is a lesbian and has not told anyone, especially not her Baptist and actively homophobic family, while Sharon’s brother confided in her that he is gay and made her swear not to tell their devoutly Catholic mother. The girls are matched as pen pals through a school assignment, and at first, they’re exactly that. They exchange favorite TV shows, hobbies, and follow the list of questions on the assignment sheet. That is, until, Tammy suggests a pledge of honesty—no crossing words out, no rereading before you send, and no sharing with anyone else. Sharon agrees, and the two enter into a more intimate friendship.

As the book progresses, Tammy and Sharon each seek out places where they feel at home and people around whom they can genuinely express themselves. Their experiences are unique, so they are able to grow individually while sharing their experiences with each other. The author’s choice to alternate between their letters and entries in their personal diaries further enriches their characters and allows the reader to intimately experience the layers of secrecy each girl is grappling with. “The two ultimately show different ways of finding yourself when your surrounding community isn’t accepting of you.”

When Tammy and Sharon both become engulfed in the political campaign of civil rights activist Harvey Milk, they face the consequences of dissenting from their families’ beliefs. Similar homophobia and rejection is still very much present in some conservative or religious communities today, and presenting this dynamic to a young demographic is likely to enable queer and questioning readers to feel accepted and heard, even if their own communities reject them.

This novel continues Talley’s streak of writing captivating stories that depict the queer teenage experience and provide LGBTQ+ youth with complex, empathetic characters in historical settings not typically represented in mainstream media and education. Tammy and Sharon are characterized as young women who actively seek to understand themselves and their beliefs while forming meaningful friendships with people who support them and encourage them to express their true selves. Tammy writes in her diary a question that many queer people have wrestled with in their lifetime: “I want to be proud of who I am, the way you are, but how? How do you make yourself feel something when everyone around you believes the exact opposite?”

Talley’s novel emphasizes the universal desire for belonging, while also illuminating much-needed LGBTQ representation in historical fiction. Young adult readers are sure to be enthralled by the depth of Tammy and Sharon’s friendship, their active fight for equal rights within their communities, and their inner battles between the values of their childhood and their identities.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021

Volume 26, Number 2 Summer 2021 (#102)

Volume 6, Number 2 Summer 2021 (#102)

To purchase issue #102 using Paypal, click here.


Julia Fine: Goodnight Nobody | interviewed by Rachel Slotnick
Chris Harding Thornton: Nebraska Intersections | interviewed by Allan Vorda
Poe Ballantine: Beauty, Truth, Meaning, Laughter | interviewed by Scott F. Parker


The New Life | a comic by Gary Sullivan
Victor Frankl: 75 Years of Linking Hope, Imagination, and Meaning During Suffering | by Rodney Dieser
Chapbook Review: The End | Aditi Machado | by Graziano Krätli


Cover art Amy Rice


The Uncollected Stories of Allan Gurganus | Allan Gurganus | by Julian Anderson
A Bright Ray of Darkness | Ethan Hawke | by Mark Massaro
The Big Baby Crime Spree and Other Delusions | Darrin Doyle | Christopher Linforth
The Copenhagen Trilogy: Childhood; Youth; Dependency | Tove Ditlevsen | by Poul Houe
Piranesi | Susanna Clarke | by Ross Kilpatrick
Impurity | Larry Tremblay | by Rick Henry
Milk Blood Heat | Dantiel W. Moniz | by Annie Harvieux
Cyclopedia Exotica | Aminder Dhaliwal | by Annie Harvieux
The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party | Allan Wolf | by Linda Stack-Nelson


The Walker: On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City | Matthew Beaumont | by Patrick James Dunagan
Breath Taking: The Power, Fragility, and Future of Our Extraordinary Lungs | Michael J. Stephen, MD | by Heidi Newbauer
Let Me Tell You What I Mean | Joan Didion | by Grace Utomo
The Fall of America Journals, 1965–1971 | Allen Ginsberg | by Christopher Luna
No Hierarchy of the Lovely: Ten Uncollected Essays and Other Prose 1939–1981 | Robert Duncan | by Patrick James Dunagan
Plague Literature: Lessons for Living Well during a Pandemic | Dustin Peone | by John Toren
Tattoo Histories: Transcultural Perspectives on the Narratives, Practices, and Representations of Tattooing | Sinah Theres Kloß | by Mark Gustafson


Cry Baby Mystic | Daniel Tiffany | by Alexander Dickow
The New Mélancholia & Other Poems | Gerard Malanga | by Djelloul Marbrook
Broadway for Paul | Vincent Katz | by Jim Feast
Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts | J. Drew Lanham | by Thomas Rain Crowe
The Mouth of Earth | Sarah P. Strong | by Gale Hemmann
Owed | Joshua Bennett | by Beth Brown Preston
Gunpowder for Single-Ball Poems | Alan Britt | by Mish Murphy
Deluge | Leila Chatti | by Tara Ballard
In the Blink of a Third Eye: Poetry, Flash-Fiction, Drawing-Collages | Valery Oisteanu | by Stash Luczkiw
OYO: The Beautiful River | Mark B. Hamilton | by Greg Bem

Amy Rice

I use nontraditional print-making methods--including hand cut stencils and a Japanese screen printing toy called a Gocco printer--as a starting point for original mixed media pieces. I use spray paint, acrylics, gouache, and inks, and print on a variety of surfaces including wood, fabric and antique papers (preferring handwritten love letters, envelopes, journal pages, sheet music and maps).

I am most satisfied when I can make a tangible or visceral connection between the materials used and the image rendered. My work is deeply layered, often both literally and figuratively. My imagery--nostalgic and wistful--is largely biographical and reflective of my pensive nature.

I am as inspired in my art as much by childhood memories of growing up on a Midwestern farm as I am the urban community in which I now live. I am influenced by bicycles, street art, gardening, and random found objects, collective endeavors that challenge hierarchy, acts of compassion, downright silliness, and things with wings.

Visit her website for more information.

What This Breathing

Laura Elrick
The Elephants ($15)

by David Brazil

In an interview about the 1979 film Alien, director Ridley Scott stated that he understood the events of that film to be set in the same world as the urban dystopia of Blade Runner. With such classics of science fiction and apocalyptic cinema feeling especially relevant during our pandemic times, this observation regarding the convergent catastrophes of corporate cupidity in deep space and the unlivable environments left to rot down here on earth feels like a key to reading Laura Elrick’s What This Breathing. The space of the book is one of multiple overlapping disasters through which we navigate. The title itself, stripped of a verb that would animate the fragment into a sentence, might be asking “What [is] this breathing,” what is the nature of life right now? But it might also be asking, in the manner of “What, me worry?” (the tagline of Mad magazine mascot Alfred E. Neuman), “What, this breathing?”

The book’s first text, “Mouth Starts,” is titled in the table of contents but not on the page where it appears, signaling that it is intended as a sort of overture. With our mouths we breathe, speak, eat, and sometimes vomit:

tremblingly my muscled mouth my uncontrolled control

is ownerless, my botanies, when it arcs it

or actual my mouth

starts many-ownered over

From the start the poem stages the question of what belongs to us and what is common or taken away by degraded collectivities. The possessive pronoun “my” is obsessively repeated in the text, perhaps because the speaker perceives that it is both “ownerless” and “many-ownered.”

A similar drama attends the deployment of the first-person pronoun, which sometimes functions grammatically as though it were third-person: “I begins to dance?” or “just tell me how much I owes.” The speaker’s estrangement from a language into which we are supposed to fall without reserve (we aren’t supposed to think about whether we are “I” when we say “I”) makes the mask of even what should be the most intimate, evident. As the physical environment is polluted by industrial waste and nuclear disasters, so the linguistic environment becomes toxified by the degradations of language that are its analogues and concomitants: “to be the lie repeatedly, day after day.”

Having seen the world and the word smashed, and being ourselves smashed, it seems that the right response might be to smash back:

You say: the state, police state, patriarchy and its breaks, broken backs and the tanks, bank windows, white power networks, official and unofficial, pharmaceutical capitalists misogynists and terfs, excessive feelings of fear or vulnerability, refugee camps, excessive feelings of power and self-righteousness, museums, cartesian space linear time, putting the brakes on, no brakes and no breaks

Elrick’s voices—for these poems are speeches, as surely as Browning’s are—find the solace of “her whom I loved” even in the battery of an MRI chamber. And since poets are, as Shelley says, “mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present,” it’s no wonder that a text preoccupied with emergencies should prefigure much of the tonal center of pandemic life: anxiety, confusion, isolation and broken communication. There are even mysterious visitors “from the epidemic / Center.”

In a short poem, “Slurry Pump,” which may be the book’s ars poetica, the speaker takes a break from wading “through sludge, toward the hull of a rusting ship rent / in half” where they live, to reflect on a past whose “lessons (guppy, minnow, porpoise, shark)” (the grades in YMCA swimming classes) “could have prepared you / for this type of breathing. A poem for the future then.” It is a poem that remembers a world before the devastation and brings that memory into relationship with what breathing is now: airways choked by methane seas, respiratory contagions, and cops. “The Great Dying will nevertheless be lived through / An intersubjective space.” In the midst, the task of speaking and naming abides.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021


Book Launch for Together We Will Go

Tuesday, July 6
5:30 pm Central — FREE!

Known for his groundbreaking work across television, comics, films, and more, award-winning and bestselling author J. Michael Straczynski joins us to celebrate the publication day of Together We Will Go (Gallery/Scout Press), his stirring first foray into literary fiction. A powerful tale of a struggling young writer who assembles a busload of fellow disheartened people on a journey toward death, Together We Will Go grapples with the biggest questions of existence while finding small moments of the beauty in this world that often goes unnoticed. As Straczynski’s travelers cross state lines and complications to the initial plan arise, it becomes clear that this novel is as much about the will to live as the choice to end it—and that it’s a book readers will remember for a lifetime.

Free to attend, registration required. We hope to “see” you there!

Books can be purchased either during the event or in advance from Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis; just click the button below. Fun Fact: Any and all books you purchase when you start at this link help support Rain Taxi’s virtual event series—thank you!

About the Author

J. Michael Straczynski is the widely acclaimed creator of Babylon 5, co-creator of Netflix’s Sense8, and writer of Clint Eastwood’s Changeling, which earned him a nomination for a British Academy Award for Best Screenplay (BAFTA); other film work includes being one of the key writers for Marvel’s Thor (in which he also has a cameo) and the apocalyptic horror film World War Z. In comics he has written celebrated runs of The Amazing Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Superman, Wonder Woman, and other iconic series, as well as original comics works such as Rising Stars and Midnight Nation. His 2019 memoir Becoming Superman (HarperVoyager) was praised as “remarkable” (The Wall Street Journal), “harrowing and triumphant” (Entertainment Weekly), and “everything good storytelling should be” (NPR.org), and he has also recently released the nonfiction book Becoming a Writer, Staying a Writer: The Artistry, Joy, and Career of Storytelling (BenBella Books). His work has frequently appeared on the New York Times bestseller list, and his extensive list of awards includes the Hugo Award, the Ray Bradbury Award, the Eisner Award, and the GLAAD Media Award. And seriously folks, this just scratches the surface!

The Island Child

Molly Aitken
Vintage ($16)

by Jane Ainslie

In The Island Child, Molly Aitken’s first novel, readers are taken to a barren, Irish island, where only America lies beyond the horizon. It may be the 1980s, but Inis is a place where idols of Jesus and the Virgin Mary live alongside tales of selkies and faerie children. When it comes to gender roles, the place also remains in the past: only boys get to experience the reckless freedom of childhood. Girls are shut away in the house until they are old enough to marry.

The story alternates between Oona’s childhood on Inis and her adulthood in Canada, where Oona settles with her husband Pat and raises their daughter. Oona’s childhood is poisoned by superstitious beliefs instilled in her by her mother and the crude moral carrots and sticks of her religion. The reader feels acutely how trapped Oona is in that hut with Mam, who uses religion to justify the hatred she feels for her daughter.

One of Aitken’s gifts as a writer is her ability to evoke a world, and the immediacy of the detail is at times astounding—the bed cover that is “smooth as a church window,” the broken umbrella flapping in a rainy Galway street “like a dead crow’s wing,” elderly Aunt Kate standing in the doorway with her smear of pink lipstick. It is often said, though, that a writer’s strength is also her weakness, and this is true when it comes to Aitken’s remarkable descriptive abilities. The prose is so packed with detail that it often leaves little room for the story to breathe, and the characters are not given the chance to inhabit Aitken’s carefully crafted settings as fully as they might. The constant transition between time periods is also an obstacle to becoming immersed in the story.

Still, there is much to be admired here. Besides her gift for atmosphere, Aitken also has a talent for revealing the invisible dynamics between characters. This is perhaps most poignantly demonstrated in the winding path Oona’s life follows; a girl who hated her Mam, she becomes a woman who puts up the same emotional walls between herself and her daughter.

Ultimately, the soft angst of Irish motherhood is at the heart of The Island Child. It hangs in the corners of a room, in the shadow of a lace curtain, and in Oona’s fingers as they trace the curves under the wooden table where she hides from her young daughter in a heartbreaking role reversal of mother and child. The story shines most in these quieter moments, when we are allowed to feel what remains unspoken between two people.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021


On May 16, 2021, the Twin Cities literary community lost a beloved and active member, Paul Von Drasek. Paul was Rain Taxi’s Board Chair and his passionate delight in spreading the word about interesting books fueled everyone in our organization, from his fellow Board members to your humble editor. Wide-ranging in his interests, Paul loved all of Rain Taxi's tendrils—reveling in the magazine’s spirit of discovery, attending every darn one of our events, laying hands on each new chapbook and broadside—but he had a special fondness for Rain Taxi’s Twin Cities Book Festival. The picture you see above is of someone who threw his whole being into making our annual Festival a happy day for all—“the best day of the year,” as he joyfully called it. Below you’ll find fellow Board member Tom Cassidy’s amazing one-minute video of Paul at the Festival.

Wonderful obituaries of Paul ran in the Star Tribune and Publishers’ Weekly. We encourage you to click those links to learn more about this remarkable person. The family has requested that instead of flowers, donations be made to the causes Paul championed. If you would like to donate to Rain Taxi in that spirit, please go to our GiveMN page here.

“While Paul Von Drasek was happily (and intentionally) milling around the 2018 Twin Cities Book Festival, my son and I asked if he'd give a quick overview of the event for a video we were putting together. He expressed surprise that we wanted to record him, but said he'd give it a shot. Within a minute Paul was on camera, and off-the-cuff shared his brilliant, inspirational summary of the Festival buzzing around us. One take. It was pitch-perfect and engagingly delivered—we couldn't have gotten better results had we used a well-rehearsed actor with a script. And not only does that short clip provide an excellent overview of the book Festival, it provides a pretty good portrait of Paul: kind, sincere, positive, encouraging, welcoming, and bibliomaniacal. I'll miss him an awful lot.”
—Tom Cassidy

Indeed, we will all miss our dear friend, tireless champion, joyful companion on this literary ride. And we will strive to honor him by continuing to serve the literary community in the ways he loved.


The Staff and Board of Rain Taxi


in conversation with Eric Lorberer

Thursday, June 17th
5:30 pm Central — FREE!

Join us for a conversation and reading with Arthur Sze to celebrate his latest publication, a monumental New and Collected Poems called The Glass Constellation (Copper Canyon Press)—a triumph spanning five decades of work that ranges from compressed lyrical poems influenced by classical Chinese poetry to structurally complex sequences that present contemporary experience in all its multiplicity. At this special event, Sze—the poet Rain Taxi chose to inaugurate its event series 23 years ago—will be in conversation with Rain Taxi director and poetry lover Eric Lorberer. Free to attend, registration required. We hope to “see” you there!

Books can be purchased either during the event or in advance from Magers & Quinn Booksellers in Minneapolis; just click the button below. Fun Fact: Any and all books you purchase via this link help support Rain Taxi’s virtual event series— thank you!

About the Author

photo by Mariana Cook

Arthur Sze has published eleven books of poetry, including Sight Lines (2019), which won the National Book Award. His other books include Compass Rose (2014), a Pulitzer Prize finalist; The Redshifting Web: Poems 1970–1998, selected for the Balcones Poetry Prize and the Asian American Literary Award; and Archipelago (1995), which won an American Book Award. He has also published one book of Chinese poetry translations, The Silk Dragon (2001), and edited Chinese Writers on Writing (2010). Sze is the recipient of many honors, including the Jackson Poetry Prize, a Lannan Literary Award, and a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award. His poems have been translated into a dozen languages, including Chinese, Dutch, German, Korean, and Spanish. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he is a professor emeritus at the Institute of American Indian Arts and was the first poet laureate of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he lives.

The Magic Fish

Trung Le Nguyen
RH Graphic ($16.99)

by Stephanie Burt

The Magic Fish is everything.

Or—in a less colloquial, wordier way—The Magic Fish is everything I want at the moment in a graphic novel, especially in one meant for both kids and adults to read. This first narrative work from the accomplished Minnesota-based illustrator Trung Le Nguyen folds European and Vietnamese fairy tales (among them “Cinderella” and “The Little Mermaid”) into a braid that also includes realist stories about a second generation immigrant childhood; about parents who do their best and still sometimes fall down; about middle-school friendships that (amazingly) work out; about modern and wartime Vietnam; and—not to be forgotten—about kisses, love stories and happy endings, some of which are gay as all get out. And that’s without even mentioning the line art or color. Nguyen’s debut flew—or swam in the air—from my hands to the very small shelf of all-ages graphic novels I buy in multiples and give to everybody, alongside Laura Lee Gulledge’s Page by Paige and Tillie Walden’s On a Sunbeam. Like them, it’s a thing of surpassing, sweet, credible beauty, at once realistic in its treatment of human emotions and out-of-this-world in terms of what readers can see. Its happy endings (and there are several) could warm up a frozen room.

The Magic Fish begins as a pair of alternating stories. One, told in black and white line art with red backgrounds, follows thirteen-year-old Tiên Phong, who attends middle school with his best friend Claire and their jock friend Julian in 1998. At home, Tiên reads fairy tales to his hardworking, kind, attentive mom, who wants to improve her English; she came to the U.S. as an adult, and now works at a costume rental (modeled on Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater). Tiên has—Claire realizes—a big crush on Julian: will Julian reject him as a friend, return his love? Can Tiên ever come out to his immigrant mom, and will he get in trouble as a gay kid at their Catholic school?

While panels in red follow Tiên’s story, panels in black, white, and indigo follow the fairy tales that Tiên reads. All concern mermaids or magic fish, and all concern girls magically tied to the sea who make their way, and fall in love, on land. One is “Cinderella,” another “The Little Mermaid,” and another still has debts to “The Juniper Tree.” The first and longest concerns a girl in a Shakespearean boy-disguise and the boy who wins her love. All involve children and grandmothers, aunts, magic helpers, and older antagonists; all speak to the ocean, and to the generation, that separates immigrants both from their culture of birth and from their more Americanized children. They also evoke the spells, the determination, and the compassion that come with the right kinds of love.

If The Magic Fish were nothing but what its first third promises—red realist childhood stories and blue fairy-fish stories—the book would end up good enough to recommend, not only for its sensitive storytelling pace, its lovely, expectant faces and tender poses, but for the way that Nguyen deploys ink and monochrome color. One particularly expressive panel where Claire comforts Tiên uses at least five intensities of red, from Claire’s dark skin to the pale-pink of Tiên’s much-mended and plot-relevant jacket. Nguyen’s line art, meanwhile, is its own pleasure: his many sinuous curves and filigree traceries bring exceptional beauty to long hair, fish fins and tails, waves, and showers of magic stars from a twilit sky, but he is also more than capable of following them with cartoony middle school kids, whether they’re credibly happy or quietly angsty or, in one case, sweaty.

And yet—for all the delights its first segments delivers—The Magic Fish is far more than that. There’s a third storyline colored in tangerine: yellow-orange panels, beginning less than halfway through the book, denote flashbacks, mostly to Vietnam and the days when Tiên’s mother and her new husband became refugees. Now that the Phong family have become US citizens, Tiên’s mother can go back to visit her family, and once there, she learns other, Vietnamese fairy tales, linked by motif to the Western versions her son has told her before. These tales, in turn, illuminate Tiên’s coming out story at home and his wish for a romantic happy ending. That wish finds support in the way that his mom, her relatives in Vietnam, and, by extension, Nguyen himself self-consciously tweak, transform, and reinvent matters of heritage so that they can inform, rather than contradict, modern, queer lives.

Nguyen keeps these optimistic, queer-positive, kid-friendly claims aloft not just through his plots, but also through deft nets of elegant symbols. Mending clothes—as Tiên’s mom does all the time—is like adapting folktales. Patches are like peaches. Adapting folktales is like translation. Translating is like baking, but also like what Claire does at school, serving as a trustworthy go-between. And all these enterprises are like the larger enterprise of fixing a life, picking yourself up after a rent or a tear or a disaster—say, a war—and learning to go on. Fantastic visions meet their counterparts in the careful realist stories that link Nguyen’s generations, that link the troubles of immigrant parents to the emotional questions tweens (and not only gay tweens) try to handle. “I feel,” Tiên tells Claire, “like everybody’s problems are so much bigger than mine.” He’s not wrong. But his problems are real.

artwork from The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

As the braided tales inform one another, fairy marine princess to immigrant mom to stressed-out, crushed-out kid, the colors do too: in one of Nyugen’s signature effects, single objects and then panels on pages with one color incorporate another—first the red peaches in the blue tale of Alera, then panels of tangerine or indigo inside pages of red. Asking “How can I return to a place I’ve never been” about the fierce ocean, looking brave and vulnerable in her blanket and cloth cap, young Alera echoes Tiên’s questions about his own relationship to Vietnam. His mom’s resolution, like Alera’s Happily Ever After, proves worth the wait.

Astonishingly beautiful all on its own, Nguyen’s story will still make sense to kids who have read few or no graphic novels before. It’s likely to be the first long story with an Asian, and especially Southeast Asian, protagonist that some of those kids have perused. Comparisons to the deservedly über-popular Raina Telgemeier, to Tillie Walden, or to Jen Wang’s also-elegant The Prince and the Dressmaker might prove hard to avoid.

Comparisons to the best-known comic about insecure Asian kids—MacArthur Fellowship winner Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese—show a welcome variety of difference. Graphically, panel by panel, the two are nothing alike (and, if it needs saying, China is not Southeast Asia). Structurally, they resemble each other. Nguyen’s volume, like Yang’s, brings together multiple narratives, one about a kid and one built from folktales. Yang tells an emphatic story about accepting the heritage, and the body, you’re given. The Monkey King comes all the way from legendary China so that Yang’s protagonist can stop his fits of self-hate, his futile attempts to be someone else (someone white), someone other than what he was at birth. It’s a perfectly told and deservedly famous story, but it can hit trans kids and artsy kids and kids who require assistive technology in very much the wrong way.

Nguyen hits us the right way. “It feels as though I’m not whole,” his Little Mermaid figure tells her elaborately drawn, marine-magical grandmother, who cautions the girl: “This is transgressive. Your yearning desire to be other than what you are may well be your undoing.” But, as we know and Tiên learns, that desire might instead build your best self. Your wish to dress different, to look different, to change your friends or your habits or your body or your pronouns, might be a culpable wish to run from yourself (as in Yang) but it also might be your way to become who you need to be, who nobody else knew you were. Self-acceptance can also be self-transformation, and that’s a lesson everybody—not only middle school second-gen kids—could use.

But I’m getting away from my initial claim. So let me call your attention to the striking, Art Nouveau-ish, transoceanic beauty on every page of The Magic Fish, which also tells sweet and credible stories about a girl in disguise and her peach tarts, a spectacular mentor who can’t leave the ocean, a mom and her kid and their family in Vietnam, a kid and his dad and his crush and their best friend. Ultimately, though, you have to read it yourself, because The Magic Fish is everything.

Click here to purchase this book
at your local independent bookstore
Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021