“I often see a story in an image”: A Conversation with Yang Huang
Elizabeth Graver shares a lively back-and-forth with her former student, Yang Huang, whose third novel, MY GOOD SON, published this May
My Good Son
My Old FaithfulLiving TreasuresHow to Write an Autobiographical NovelMy Good Son
Elizabeth Graver: raises complex issues, both universal and culturally specific, about what it means to love a child, to want success for him, to see him as he is, and to separate from him as he grows up. Can you describe the initial seed that led to ?
My Good Son
EG: How do Mr. Cai’s various contexts—historical, cultural, social class, etc.—inform his parenting of Feng?
EG: Yes, I can see that. It’s also interesting how love—which the family clearly has plenty of—is not enough to lead to understanding, and in some cases, it even seems to cloud people’s visions. I was intrigued by Feng’s passion for fashion and sewing—a gift from his tailor father in a way, since Feng learned most of what he knows from him, but ironically, Feng is better suited to a life as a tailor than his father, who chafes at the role. What are your thoughts on the importance, both literal and figurative, of the profession of the tailor in the novel?
YH: I’m fascinated by how people work in the real world; a tailor reconciles his aspirations and artistic vision with the need to make a living. To Mr. Cai, tailoring is a menial job. He is chagrined that Feng dreams of becoming a tailor. As a result of his job, Mr. Cai doesn’t go out much; instead the world comes to him. The tailor has to dress countless bodies to camouflage their flaws, with fabric, color, pattern, and tailoring craft. Mr. Cai is not impressed by ostentation; instead, he likes to say, “Less is more.” He appreciates natural beauty, candor, and authenticity in people.
EG: That’s really interesting. It seems to me that this mix of camouflage and a desire for authenticity gets at a central contradiction in Mr. Cai. Over time, as we get to know him, we find out that he can be several things at once. I view Feng, too, as a complex, even mysterious character, particularly in relation to his father. Do you agree?
YH: Definitely. Despite all his discontent, Feng has secret admiration for his father. Feng is drawn to beauty, style, and self-expression; to him, tailoring is not only an art and a craft but also a way to masquerade. Feng has kept secrets from his parents, girlfriends, and probably even himself. I suspect that Feng may be bisexual. He hasn’t come out to me in the end, but there are clues that he is not 100 percent straight. Exploring one’s sexuality can be a lifelong journey, especially in China, where conformity is required. Feng will explore his sexual identity in a foreign country.
EG: I wonder if Mr. Cai regrets sending Feng abroad. How do your characters’ interpersonal struggles offer a lens that allows you to examine questions of morality and what it means to be good?
YH: Mr. Cai gives Feng a map to head straight for the university, but Feng craves the freedom to make his own mistakes. The more Mr. Cai pressures Feng to succeed, the further Feng retreats into his shell. Mr. Cai longs to believe Feng is good, but he is also plagued by doubts: Is Feng a “good” son? In what sense is he good? Does he ever stop being good—if so, when? The father-son relationship is entangled in genuine affection, personal sacrifice, and deep resentment on both sides.
The bond between a parent and child is one of the few relationships in society that is not at heart transactional. In the work world, everyone is in some way dispensable, but (almost) no one is dispensable in their own family, no matter how fraught the parent-child relationship is. In a sense, all family members need one another in order to become fully themselves. This is particularly true with adolescents. The people teenagers fight with the most may become their closest allies after they move out.
Through Mr. Cai, I also explored a wider moral question: Do you treat people as a means or as an end? Initially Mr. Cai approaches Jude strategically, as someone who might help Feng study in the United States. Quickly, though, Mr. Cai becomes Jude’s friend and commits to help him despite the outcome of the sponsorship. I found that change of heart endearing. The characters keep surprising me with their strength, kindness, complexity, and, above all, autonomy, which is so gratifying for a writer.
In a sense, all family members need one another in order to become fully themselves.
EG: Did you do much research to write this novel, and, if so, did you learn anything especially surprising?
YH: I had to do a lot of research about textiles and the art and craft of tailoring because I don’t sew. I work as a computer engineer and am not fashion conscious at all. A book titled Color Me Beautiful taught me a lot about the effects of color. The Asian Mind Game explained what kind of businessman my tailor could be. But I still didn’t know Mr. Cai’s emotional landscape. I decided to go back to China to visit my family and do some research.
I visited my parents, and they introduced me to a tailor in Shanghai. This tailor had a son with a health problem. He told me that his petite wife had to carry the boy up five flights of stairs on her back after his treatment. Watching them made his heart burst with love, pain, and sorrow. I was deeply moved and decided to make my protagonist a father struggling to raise his son up in this world.
What surprised me is the memories that came up. I had met a tailor when I was sixteen. My family couldn’t afford to buy ready-made clothes. My mother sewed most of our casual clothes, but one day she took me to a professional tailor in the neighborhood to make a wool jacket, my first formal wear. The tailor was a slender young man with a chiseled face. His wife was tall and, in my eyes, voluptuous. She was talkative and said I had a small bust, tiny waist, and big hips. Those were cutting remarks for a self-conscious sixteen-year-old. I realized that a tailor sized you up without mercy. The young man was quiet and said little. I wondered what he thought of me both as a person and as a customer. I loved the jacket he made and wore it to death. It still fits me. I thought of him while writing this novel, and that helped me bring Mr. Cai to life.
EG: You are the mother of two sons. How did writing My Good Son serve as a personal journey for you in terms of your understanding of what it means to be a good parent and a good son? Did your sense of what that looked like change over the course of writing the book?
YH: I revised My Good Son during the pandemic and deepened the theme of privilege. Having jumped through a series of bizarre hoops, Mr. Cai questions the relative privilege in his son’s upbringing and how unfair it is to those who have less, yet he also feels the stakes are high and cannot bear to let his son, a mediocre student, “fail.” He has to give Feng the best chance to thrive in a cutthroat society.
Even as I lived through a fictional father’s heartache by writing this novel, I learned to accept my children unconditionally. My elder son applied to college during the pandemic. Despite his perfect GPA and extensive extracurricular activities, he was waitlisted at many top schools. I told him it’s fine to go to community college—it’s a perfectly good path. But he wasn’t content with the outcome. It was hard to watch him be disappointed over and over again. At one point I was worried about his mental health. I had taken a suicide-prevention training at my job and advocated for mental health support before the pandemic. I got worried when he stopped talking to me and would only update me once a week about the waitlists and rejections.
Finally, he got accepted at two colleges he is excited about, but it was a hard journey for everyone involved. So much of childrearing is unpredictable and high-stakes, because parents cannot always be dispassionate bystanders. Perhaps the essence of a good parent-child relationship has little to do with external markers of success but lies in the unbreakable bond and the clumsy push and pull; we care about each other, and we are always fallible. Despite our shortcomings, family can strive to be a safe haven against a cruel world, and that is an ultimate privilege. Like Mr. Cai, I want my sons to have a better life than mine, although I don’t always know what that will look like for an American-born Chinese during a time of rising anti-Asian hate.
EG: Why, as a woman and mother, did you decide to take on the perspective of a father in this book?
YH: I wrote a novel-in-stories, My Old Faithful, which has ten stories told in five POVs: father, mother, two daughters, and son. Some of the stories from the father and son were my favorites, because they felt more honest and forceful. I wasn’t as protective of my male protagonists, and I could let women exert pressure on them in interesting ways. In My Good Son, I let Mr. Cai and every person in the novel make mistakes and be humbled. With my female protagonist, I may be a little too tender and feel compelled to make her a heroine being tested by her painful choices, as Gu Bao is in Living Treasures.
The characters keep surprising me with their strength, kindness, complexity, and, above all, autonomy.
EG: What other books and/or authors served as an inspiration to you when you were writing My Good Son?
YH: Here is a list of books that inspired me. In particular, I learned a great deal from Ha Jin’s A Free Life in his depiction of the mundane life of immigrants, full of striving, pathos, and grace. Recently I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong. I was struck by its raw power; here is a gay poet’s passionate tribute to his first love and his yearning to connect with his Vietnamese mother. With courage and hope, he reaches out to her in a letter, which his mother cannot read, to tell his story and express his longing for her understanding.
I am grateful for the flourishing of Asian American literature in recent years; there are so many stories coming out of our diverse and beautiful community. Asian American literature is more than an antidote to the bad art like Madame Butterfly and Miss Saigon, written by white men who had no conception of Asian women and fantasized about exotic “Orientals” who were subservient temptresses. Can we reject lazy fetishization and read the stories by responsible writers, including Asian and other minority writers?
EG: Yes! There are so many wonderful writers adding their voices to the conversation, both in the US and abroad. In terms of your work, I’m struck by how most of your fiction is set in China, despite your having lived in the United States for thirty-one years. Can you talk about why that is?
YH: My life in the US is ongoing, while my life in China concluded thirty-one years ago. I can look back at my life in China and extract the emotionally significant experiences to use as clay and create new narratives. I always need some distance from real life in order to free my imagination. In fact, while writing My Old Faithful, I had to move the town from Yangzhou, where I had grown up, to Nanjing, another town I only visited a few times, to create that distance physically, so that I could create fiction rather than retell my life story. I wrote the book in English, since that’s the language I learned to write fiction in (though I usually first hear the dialogue in Chinese).
Only once I establish some distance from my life in America will I be able to encapsulate certain experiences and use them as clay to create fiction. This is a fluid, organic process, not a fixed agenda set by me. One day, I will conceive a new story in an image, and then be driven to solve the mystery in that inexplicable image—that much I know.
EG: Maybe there will be a sequel? Are you at all tempted to follow Feng after he leaves China? I’d love to read that book!
YH: I wrote a sort of mini-sequel by time-traveling to the UT Austin campus in 1991 to interview Feng. No one suspected that I was the author arriving on the scene. “Yang Huang Interviews Feng” is a rare treat. We flirted a bit as a creator and brainchild. Take a look!
Elizabeth Graver’s fourth novel, The End of the Point, was long-listed for the 2013 National Book Award in Fiction and selected as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Her other novels are Awake, The Honey Thief, and Unravelling. Her story collection, Have You Seen Me?, won the 1991 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories; Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and Best American Essays. She teaches at Boston College and is at work on a novel-with-photos inspired by her grandmother.