Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism, and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton. McGill-Queen's University Press
Active recovery of Edith Eaton’s contributions to the early Asian North American canon began in earnest in the 1990s following the republication of Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), a short-story collection written under her Chinese pseudonym, Sui Sin Far. However, as Mary Chapman outlines in her introduction to this edited collection of Eaton’s early writings, these initial attempts to recover Eaton “were motivated by desires to make literary canons more diverse but have, paradoxically, oversimplified her complex subject position in the process.” Eaton spent significant portions of her life on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel and has been claimed by scholars of both Asian Canadian and Asian American studies as a key figure in these national canons. Yet, as this new collection makes clear, Eaton’s insertion into these literary traditions has been based on a relatively small proportion of her oeuvre.
Through its emphasis on Eaton’s early writing career, Chapman’s collection challenges the “presumed centrality of China and Chinatowns to Eaton’s work” by shedding light on some of Eaton’s earliest work, much of it written before she moved to the US. The early fictional and poetic contributions to the Dominion Illustrated display a more romantic and realist side of Eaton’s writing, one heavily influenced by popular British and American literature of the era, while her journalistic writings for Gall’s Daily News Letter (Kingston, Jamaica) trace the development of an effusive and energetic persona appropriate for columns focused on “The Girl of the Period” or “The Woman about Town.” Given Eaton’s status as an outsider in Kingston, Chapman argues that these journalistic writings evidence Eaton’s commitment to avoid generalizing about individuals based on their nationality. As Eaton herself comments in a descriptive sketch of the Kingston Races: “Jamaica has an individuality of its own, entirely different from English-speaking centres generally; and it is a country where individuality must ever rank higher than nationality.” Such comments offer a vital corrective to scholarly studies that have solely focused on Eaton’s writing in relation to its representation of the Chinese North American experience, while also offering valuable insights into Eaton’s early journalistic craft and her ability to take on multiple personas and pseudonyms in order to reach her intended audience.
Nevertheless, this collection does still offer valuable new materials for those who are especially interested in Eaton’s writing about North American Chinese communities and subjectivities. Chapman’s archival detective work has uncovered a slew of early journalism (largely unsigned) produced by Eaton in the early 1890s for the Montreal Daily Witness and the Montreal Daily Star. Her decision to remain anonymous (or else to use only the initials E. E.) for the majority of these pieces enables her to assert particularly strong and strident opinions with regard to issues of immigration or government policy in relation to Chinese people. Another fascinating section of Becoming Sui Sin Far collects a series of travel writings produced by Eaton under a male Chinese pseudonym (Wing Sing) for the Los Angeles Express. Although it remains unclear whether Eaton actually disguised herself as a man in order to produce the travelogues, or just wrote them from a male perspective, they nonetheless serve as an absorbing and captivating example of sustained journalistic cross-dressing. Released over a period of several months in early 1904, the stories follow Wing Sing’s transcontinental journey via rail from Los Angeles to Montreal, with the journey itself serving as a metaphor for the character’s experience of becoming a newly bicultural subject. This experiment in cross-continental travel writing is also illustrative of recurrent tropes that Chapman has identified in Eaton’s work about border crossings and smuggling, which become increasingly prevalent in her later fiction.
Becoming Sui Sin Far collects seventy texts, mostly written in the first decade of Eaton’s career, that offer invaluable insight into the origins of her more mature work. Chapman’s comprehensive introduction contextualizes the different stages of Eaton’s early career and offers important insights into the print culture of her day. Through Chapman’s careful selection of specific stories and her deliberate emphasis on acknowledging their transnational themes and challenges to more fixed categories of national identity, the collection opens up new avenues for scholarly explorations of Eaton beyond the confines of Chinatown. Hopefully others will take up Chapman’s call to acknowledge and to further explore the complexity of Eaton’s expanded oeuvre, and continue to shed light on the prolific and chameleonic career of this early Asian North American author.