‘Many American women wrote books. Why should not a Chinese? She would write a book about Americans for her Chinese women friends,” thinks Mrs. Spring Fragrance in Edith Maude Eaton’s story The Inferior Woman. “The American people were so interesting and mysterious.”
Eaton, who often wrote under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far, is considered the mother of Asian-American literature, the first writer of Chinese descent to publish fiction in North America, closely followed by her sister Winnifred Eaton, who assumed a half-Japanese persona and wrote as Onoto Watanna.
Eaton’s stories, published from the late 1880s until the years leading up to her death in 1914, offered an insider’s view of the Chinese diaspora living in North America, covering both universal struggles – romantic love, gender inequality – and those specific to the community – immigration, assimilation, racism. A major new discovery of 89 works by a researcher at the University of British Columbia reveals that Eaton, who spent many years in Montreal, was a lot more prolific than previously believed, her oeuvre much more complex and diverse.
The find, along with other recent discoveries, has essentially quadrupled Eaton’s canon, says Mary Chapman, associate professor at UBC’s Department of English, and the detective in this literary sleuthing tale. Some of the uncovered works – including short stories, essays, newspaper articles and poetry – were attributed to Sui Sin Far. Others were anonymous, and some were written under different names for publications including the Montreal Star, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Boston Globe and Ladies’ Home Journal.
Chapman says these finds challenge many widely held ideas about Eaton and her work, and have made Chapman question how many other unknown works by established female writers of the time might be out there.
Edith Eaton was born in 1865 in Macclesfield, England, to a British father and Chinese mother. When Edith was 7, the family settled in Montreal.
As a teenager, Eaton got a job setting type at the Montreal Star, and later earned a living as a stenographer. But she was also writing her own pieces. Over the years, many of these works – written in cities from Thunder Bay to San Francisco to Kingston, Jamaica – were published under the name Sui Sin Far or a variation of this nickname from childhood.
Eaton’s stories offered an alternative to the familiar “yellow peril” outsider’s narrative of the Chinese experience in North America at the time. She wrote about diasporic families – women, children – and she wrote from a Eurasian perspective, which was groundbreaking
The stories in Eaton’s 1912 collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance smashed literary stereotypes, shining a sympathetic light on the North American experience for Chinese immigrants and their descendants during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States and the head tax in Canada.
“I did not recoil – not even at first,” recounts the protagonist in The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese after she leaves her white husband and is offered a place to stay by a Chinese man. “It may have been because he was wearing American clothes, wore his hair cut, and, even to my American eyes, appeared a good-looking young man – and it may have been because of my troubles; but whatever it was I answered him, and I meant it: ‘I would much rather live with Chinese than Americans.’”
Two years after the book’s publication, Eaton died in Montreal. Her literary contribution was essentially forgotten for decades, but her work was rediscovered after the 1995 publication of Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings, edited by Eaton scholars Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks. Sui Sin Far became a household name, at least in the small universe of academic circles focusing on Asian-American fiction – and among scholarly literary academics in China.
Chapman was doing research into suffragist writing when she hit on what would become a treasure trove. Aware that Eaton had written a couple of stories that were “kind of snippy about suffrage,” a Google search turned up an Eaton story Chapman had never seen. The Alaska Widow, published in Bohemian Magazine in 1909, was not referenced in any of the Eaton scholarship, and seemed atypical of her oeuvre: It was set in Alaska and the Philippines; it was a much more sustained, lengthy piece; it dealt with racy issues such as infidelity.
For Chapman, a light went on. “I thought, oh my God; she was a self-supporting writer; she had to have published way more stuff.”
The search was on.
A fertile starting point was the Mrs. Spring Fragrance acknowledgment page, where Eaton thanked editors of various publications “who were kind enough to care for my children when I sent them out into the world, for permitting the dear ones to return to me to be grouped together within this volume.”
Chapman and student researchers in various cities scoured those publications, and were rewarded with more clues. Chapman also traced the careers of editors who worked with Eaton, figuring they might have published her work elsewhere. She was right. In one case, Chapman found a letter from Eaton saying she was travelling by train across the continent, “making my way as a Chinaman.” Chapman, knowing who Eaton was writing for then and the rough dates, found a 1904 article in the L.A. Express by a man named Wing Sing, about a cross-country train trip. She knew Wing Sing was Eaton – the dates, cities, publications lined up. Although the writing was in an entirely different style.
“I am a Chinaman. My name is Wing Sing,” begins Wing Sing of Los Angeles on His Travels. “I got a wife and boy in China, but for ten years I live in America. I learn speak American. Some time white man laugh at my speaking and I say him, ‘Perhaps you not speak my Chinese talk so well I speak your talk. Perhaps I laugh more at you try to speak Chinese man’s language.’ That American man not laugh any more.”
Here Eaton, posing as an Americanized Chinese merchant, is able to sell what is promised to be the first of a series of travel articles, while refuting stereotypes in a more subversive way.
One major piece of the puzzle is still missing: the book Eaton was working on toward the end of her life. “The search continues for that one,” says Chapman, whose Sui Sin Far in Canada: The Uncollected Canadian Writings of Edith Eaton (working title) will be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press.
In The Inferior Woman, Mrs. Spring Fragrance talks repeatedly about the book she wants to write. She describes it as “a book about Americans, an immortal book.” Even if Eaton’s second book is never found, Mrs. Spring Fragrance – a book about people, not just Americans – has turned out to have more life than Eaton probably could have imagined.