To some, the task of "recovering" works by late-nineteenth- and earlytwentieth-century American authors might seem to have already been [End Page 291] carried out decades ago, when long-forgotten works by writers such as Rebecca Harding Davis, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Charles Chesnutt, Kate Chopin, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and others were first unearthed from the pages of obscure periodicals and brought to the attention of readers and scholars. In this volume Mary Chapman solidly refutes such a view, at least in the case of Sui Sin Far (Edith Eaton), often held up as the first major Chinese-American author despite the fact that she was born in Britain and lived most of her life in Canada. There is, Chapman amply demonstrates, much more to know about Sui Sin Far's career and writing.
Many years of delving through print and digital archives have allowed Chapman to quadruple the number of poems, sketches, journalistic articles, travel narratives, and fictions by Sui Sin Far that had previously been listed in various bibliographies and finding lists, most notably those in Annette White-Parks's Sui Sin Far / Edith Eaton: A Literary Biography (1995) and Dominika Ferens's Edith and Winnifred Eaton: Chinatown Missions and Japanese Romances (2002). Chapman lists all of these approximately 260 works in an excellent, comprehensive bibliography at the back of the present volume.
Forced to choose among this wealth of material by the exigencies of academic press publishing, Chapman here presents seventy different publications by Sui Sin Far, most from what she labels the "first phase" of her career, spanning the years 1888 to 1898. nine of these publications are early fictions, poems, and sketches that appeared in Dominion Illustrated: A Canadian Pictorial Weekly; twenty-one are journalistic pieces from the Montreal Daily Witness and Montreal Daily Star; fifteen are journalistic stories published in Gall's Daily News Letter during Sui Sin Far's short time in Jamaica (1896–1897); ten are selected later fictions (1896–1906) from various magazines; and the final fifteen are installments of her 1904 travel narrative, published in the Los Angeles Express newspaper, about a long train trip she took from Los Angeles to Montreal, then to new York, and back to Seattle.
The pieces reproduced here persuasively support a number of Chapman's assertions, offered in a well-written introduction, about the ways Sui Sin Far's expanded oeuvre should affect our understanding of her as an author and of her work. As Chapman contends, this diverse collection of writings "challenges the presumed centrality of China and Chinatowns to Eaton's work"; "reveals the previously unrecognized significance of her career as an early woman journalist"; "invites us to recognize Eaton's efforts to examine racial identities beyond the Chinese"; and encourages reading "her in terms of transnationalism—that is, in terms of border-crossing, border-straddling, and border-challenging."
For a number of years now, I have been teaching various works Sui Sin Far published in Land of Sunshine and Westerner magazines, and my students [End Page 292] have greatly appreciated the opportunity to read and write about fresh, nonanthologized, non-overanalyzed pieces by her. Chapman is to be commended for doing the hard work to make so many of Sui Sin Far's other unknown publications more easily available not only to students but also to researchers. Taken together, these works are likely to prompt not only greater interest in her writing but also a long-overdue revaluation of her artistry and legacy.
University of Nebraska at Omaha
Sui Sin Far / Edith Maude Eaton
A Literary Biography
Awards and Recognition:
Winner of the Association for Asian American Studies Outstanding Book Award in Cultural Studies.
This first full-length biography of the first published Asian North American fiction writer portrays both the woman and her times.
The eldest daughter of a Chinese mother and British father, Edith Maude Eaton was born in England in 1865. Her family moved to Quebec, where she was removed from school at age ten to help support her parents and twelve siblings. In the 1880s and 1890s she worked as a stenographer, journalist, and fiction writer in Montreal, often writing under the name Sui Sin Far (Water Lily). She lived briefly in Jamaica and then, from 1898 to 1912, in the United States. Her one book, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, has been out of print since 1914.
Today Sui Sin Far is being rediscovered as part of American literature and history. She presented portraits of turn-of-the-century Chinatowns, not in the mode of the "yellow peril" literature in vogue at the time but with an insider's sympathy. She gave voice to Chinese American women and children, and she responded to the social divisions and discrimination that confronted her by experimenting with trickster characters and tools of irony, sharing the coping mechanisms used by other writers who struggled to overcome the marginalization to which their race, class, or gender consigned them in that era.
"Superbly researched, thoughtfully reasoned, and beautifully written. . . . Will be the foundation for all future work on Sui Sin Far." -- Elizabeth Ammons, author of Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century
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