Welcome to this week’s History Thread! Since we’ve been exploring the politics of well-known American authors in recent threads, I wanted to take a slightly different track by highlighting a lesser-known writer from the 19th Century. Specifically Edith Maude Eaton (aka Sui Sin Far), who’s credited as the first popular Chinese-American writer.
Eaton was born in Cheshire, England in 1865 to an English father and Chinese mother. Eaton’s family (including 13 siblings) spent much of her childhood moving between England, the United States and Canada, forcing her to drop out of school at age 11. At age 18 she began writing for the Montreal Daily Star, slowly building a reputation as an essayist until another paper, the Montreal Witness, hired her to write a feature on the Chinese community in Montreal. Seeing their mistreatment by racist Canadian society, but also charmed by their culture, the experience caused Eaton to embrace her own Asian identity and also to begin writing fiction.
While she continued working intermittently as a journalist (including a stint living on Jamaica before settling, more or less full-time in Boston), Eaton became better-known for her works of short fiction. Adopting the Cantonese pseudonym Sui Sin Far, she wrote frequently on the experiences of Chinese immigrants to North America at a time when anti-Chinese sentiment (codified by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act) ensured they faced discrimination, violence and expulsion in their day-to-day lives. In 1912 she published a compilation of short stories entitled Mrs. Spring Fragrance, which remains her best-known work.
In her memoir Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian (online here), Eaton/Far expresses frustration with her mixed race identity, of which she was made painfully aware from childhood. Enduring racist taunts from white classmates in the UK and Canada, racial discrimination in America, distrust from Chinese who mistook her for white, and, even worse, mockery from her father (who told her, with perhaps deliberate cruelty, that she would never be “half the woman” her mother was) and other family members, Eaton struggled to form a personal identity in her early years.
I am not as strong as my sisters, which makes me feel somewhat ashamed, for I am the eldest little girl, and more is expected of me. I have no organic disease, but the strength of my feelings seems to take from me the strength of my body. I am prostrated at times with attacks of nervous sickness. The doctor says that my heart is unusually large; but in the light of the present I know that the cross of the Eurasian bore too heavily upon my childish shoulders. I usually hide my weakness from the family until I cannot stand. I do not understand myself, and I have an idea that the others will despise me for not being as strong as they. Therefore, I like to wander away alone, either by the river or in the bush. The green fields and flowing water have a charm for me. At the age of seven, as it is today, a bird on the wing is my emblem of happiness.
I have come from a race on my mother’s side which is said to be the most stolid and insensible to feeling of all races, yet I look back over the years and see myself so keenly alive to every shade of sorrow and suffering that it is almost a pain to live.
Yet Eaton took pride in her Asian heritage; she spent much of her childhood “steal[ing] away to the library and read every book I can find on China and the Chinese. I learn that China is the oldest civilized nation on the face of the earth,” though “others are ignorant of my superiority.” Despite the continued slights and indignities she experienced as an adult, Eaton still found her own voice and personal identity. “I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any,” Eaton would say. “Individuality is more than nationality.”
Indeed, Mrs. Spring Fragrance (online here) shows the difficulties of forming an identity in an immigrant context. The title story (one of the collection’s more lighthearted entries) shows a Chinese woman who is charmed by the seeming freedom of American society to the exasperation of her husband, who clings to traditional Chinese ways. These tensions inform most of the stories in the volume, with varying tones and resolutions: in “The Wisdom of the New,” perhaps the collection’s bleakest story, a Chinese-American man who assimilates into American society is shamed by relatives into committing suicide.
The most striking stories, unsurprisingly, deal with racial tension. There’s little hint of the full-on pogroms and lynchings that often targeted Chinese immigrants in this era, only commonplace tension and humiliations faced by any immigrant. “The Land of the Free” shows a young couple separated from their young child by heartless immigration officials, a story with obvious contemporary resonance; they rely on a dubious white associate to bribe or persuade officials to releasing the child, with the story remaining unresolved. Our confidence isn’t high, however, since that man appears in an earlier story, “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese,” as an abusive drunkard whose wife leaves him for a Chinese man.
Other stories in this collection highlight both the indignities of immigration, the struggles to assimilate and even the thrills of finding life in a new society. One of the women in “The Wisdom of the New,” chastened by the protagonist’s fate, evolves in later stories (particularly “The Americanizing into a full-fledged Chinese American. She embraces American fashions and political ideas, while still retaining pride in her identity. Similarly, “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese” depicts the title character’s betrothal to a Chinese man as, if not ideal (he is admittedly short-tempered and ambitious), than a love match with no more than the usual marital stress. Despite the book’s occasional bleak spots, Eaton shows a hopefulness in the melting pot experience, that something good will come from two cultures blending together.
Nor was Eaton the only writer in her family. Her sister Winnifred also became a prolific writer of short fiction, though with a bizarre twist: she styled herself Onto Watanna and wrote various works (most famously A Japanese Nightingale) depicting the Japanese-American experience. Unlike her sister, Winnifred married, had several children and lived to a ripe old age; however, in the preoccupations of her work and her itinerant lifestyle (she spent most of her life moving between New York and Calgary), she was very much Edith’s double.
Eaton died in April 1914 at age 49 in Montreal after a short illness. She left behind neither husband, romantic partner nor children, but an impressive body of work that was unfortunately neglected for many years; Mrs. Spring Fragrance was out of print within years of her death, and she was forgotten to all but the most diligent literary students and cultural historians until the 1990s, thanks in large part to Mary Chapman of the University of British Columbia’s efforts to recover and promote her work. Since then, she’s become justly celebrated as a pioneering Asian writer whose voice still resonates today.