Crossing Race and Nation

Reviewed by Mary Chapman

Karen Skinazi’s new edition of Winnifred Eaton’s 1915 novel Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model is a welcome addition to the growing archive of accessible texts by early Canadian women writers. It is particularly welcome because Eaton, although born and raised in Montreal and a resident of Alberta off and on from 1917 until her death, has not been given the attention she deserves by scholars of Canadian literature. Although Eaton is celebrated in the US literary canon, as the first Asian American novelist, she has not figured prominently in accounts of early Canadian literature. One reason for this critical neglect is scholars’ preference for the politically activist work of her “good sister” who, using the pseudonym “Sui Sin Far,” defended the diasporic Chinese community while Winnifred chose to fashion a Japanese identity “Onoto Watanna” through the plots and illustrations of her orientalist romances, A Japanese Nightingale (1901), Miss Nume of Japan (1898), and The Heart of Hyacinth (1903), and the staged authorial photographs in which she wore stereotypical Japanese clothing. But another reason is surely because there have not been, up until this point, modern editions of the fiction and non-fiction Eaton wrote about Canada. Her Japanese romances—all of which are set in Japan and feature Japanese and half-Japanese young women courted by Anglo-American men—as well as her middlebrow magazine fiction, and the autobiographical Me have all been reissued. However, Eaton’s Canadian novels—for example Cattle (1924) and His Royal Nibs (1925), both of which are set on the Canadian prairies—remain out of print.

Eaton’s transnational immigrant bildungsroman Marion is the ideal novel through which to reorient scholarly attention toward her complex national and racial identity. Set on the complex political and psychological terrain of the Canada-US border at the turn of the century, Marion tells the story of an idealistic young Montreal woman who, like the many authors Nick Mount examines in When Canadian Literature Moved to New York, moves to the US to pursue her artistic career. The first third of the novel, loosely based on the life of Winnifred’s sister Sarah Eaton Bosse (1868-1938) who moved to New York to pursue her career as an artist, tracks Marion’s childhood, in a poor Bohemian Anglophone family with a “foreign” mother, in white, Francophone Montreal. Although Marion is forced by contemporary gender ideology to earn her living not as an artist but as an artist’s model and actress, her move to the US liberates her from the racism she experiences in Canada, where she is marked as “other” because of her mother’s unspecified “foreignness”; in the US, Marion’s “difference” is attributed to her nationality rather than to a more threatening racial difference.

Skinazi’s thoughtful and nuanced ninety-nine-page introduction, which includes original illustrations from the serialized novel, provides a rich context in which to read the novel. In particular, she explores two mysteries: the first is the complex mystery of the novel’s authorship. As Skinazi notes, when Marion was first published in the popular periodical Hearst’s, it was advertised as “[a]nonymous master-fiction” by a writer hoping to “strike out along the new lines unhampered by a literary reputation.” However, when Marion was published in book form the following year, the cover identified two authors: “Herself and the Author of ‘Me’,” referencing an anonymous autobiographical work Eaton had published the year before and perhaps Sarah herself, who may have provided the “simple language” from “notes and journals that she kept over the years.” The second mystery is the novel’s own coyness about the protagonist’s racial identity. Skinazi reads Marion as a passing narrative in the sense that it “passes” as a novel unconcerned with race, but is in fact, through its focus on artistic representation, appearance, difference, and performance, all about the politics of otherness in turn-of-the-century North America. Marion is an ideal text to teach in a course about early Canadian identity, immigration, or transnationalism.

This review “Crossing Race and Nation” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 156-57.

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