By Chelsey Shannon, editor
I’m kind of a sucker for stories about artists and/or creativity. The highlights of my stay-at-home media intake—Raven Leilani’s Luster, Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, Diana Ross in Mahogany—tackled questions of power and self-possession as refracted through their characters’ identities as artists.
In the early days of the pandemic, my own creativity found various manifestations in order to counter the onslaught of anxiety, confusion, aggravation, and a general feeling of being unmoored. My partner and I would take walks to a nearby community garden and create bouquets of endless variation, and we planned and planted a garden of our own. I would cook, collage, sometimes write.
And I worked on My Good Son, the first book I edited in my pajamas.
As the title of Yang Huang’s novel suggests, familial relationships, specifically of the father/son variety, are a major heart of the story: when it comes to his only son Feng’s future, Mr. Cai is highly concerned. Feng is upfront about his desire to join what he thinks of as the family trade, but as far as Mr. Cai is concerned, his own work as a tailor is just that: a steady way of making money so that his son can have a better life.
Where Mr. Cai is prudent to the point of neurosis, Feng is iconoclastic and dreamy. What’s true of their personalities is also true of their approaches to creation, whether they’re cooking food, forging relationships, raising carp, choosing a vocation, or sewing clothing.
In his own days as a student, Mr. Cai deliberately switched from the open-endedness of fashion design to the enduring rituals of traditional tailoring: “For decades he had made clothing in sophisticated traditional methods, with limited variations. Repetitions never bored him; if anything, they confirmed the lasting value of Tang suit styles.” We tend to draw a line between “artisan”—skilled worker—and “artist”—visionary, waymaker. But that’s a division Feng seems innately drawn to muddle, given his passion for unexpected spins on classic designs—a fair description of his general MO in life.
This through line of balancing the tension between creativity, self-expression, and control is one I expounded on in my feedback letter to Yang: “The concept of creativity in numerous iterations—from Jude’s refuge in his art, to Little Ye’s participation in Jude’s art, to Mr. Cai’s struggle with Feng’s creativity and sexuality, to his internal struggle with and judgment of his own—is rich, and offers a central philosophical (indeed existential) topic for readers to chew on as they move through the novel, with each character offering a distinct contribution to the overall meditation.”
Creativity itself may seem like a redundant theme for a piece of creative work; under the wrong circumstances, it certainly can be. But with My Good Son, part of what endeared the characters to me was the way they each pursued their own unique approach to the universal act of creating something new. Especially in times of loss and doubt, the intuitive, renewable, multitudinous resource of human creativity is worthy of both depiction and appreciation. In fact, it’s our dearest source of hope.