Q: What inspired you to write My Good Son?
A: My Good Son began with an image. A tailor spends his entire life making clothes for other people, and one day he puts on a form-fitting dress and heels. The image stayed with me.
The tailor is reconciling his artistic aspirations with his need to make a living.
I visited my parents, and they introduced me to a tailor in Shanghai with a son who had health problems. I was deeply moved. The father was struggling to make his way in the world.
Why was the tailor wearing a woman’s dress? I came up with a plot!
Q: What do you think the novel says about parent-child relationships?
A: I think the relationship between a parent and child is the one thing in society that’s not based on merit. Mr. Cai regards Feng as his flesh and blood. He lives through him. The more Mr. Cai pressures him, the more he retreats into his own shell.
To Mr. Cai, tailoring is a menial job. He is chagrined that Feng wants to become a tailor. Feng is happy living at home with his parents. The father and son influence each other imperceptibly. Neither likes to show respect for the other. [For that to happen] Feng needs to be independent.
Q: You have a link on your website to an essay about why you write in English. Can you say something about that and whether your writing voice is different in English than in Chinese?
A: I haven’t written any fiction in Chinese, only personal essays. Growing up in China with censorship, my parents were worried I’d be sent to a labor camp if I wrote honestly.
It wasn’t until I was working as an engineer [in the U.S.] that I used storytelling as a way to channel creativity. I had to support myself by working as an engineer. My day job involved technical work behind the scenes.
Writing fiction required me to take a risk. I like to tackle social problems in my work and use ingenuity to help the characters move forward with their lives.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: My new novel, Oasis, is about two lovers separated by the climate crisis in Northwest China. The heroine leaves her village but the village never leaves her. I’ve been working on this for many years, and it’s still trying to find its way into the world.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: My fiction tends to have the themes of work, personal aspects, and family dynamics. My Good Son is about people who love, but don’t like, each other.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb