Study Guide

Sui Sin Far

Sui Sin Far Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

By putting the Asian name first in the title Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton, Annette White-Parks communicates not only her subject’s Eurasian heritage but also Sui Sin Far’s affirmation of her Asian identity in her mature writings. Born in England in 1865 to a Chinese mother and a British father, Sui Sin Far (Chinese for water lily) migrated with her family in 1873 to Montreal, where she lived in near poverty during a time of strong Sinophobia. At the age of ten she began working to help support her family. Later she traveled to the United States in search of work, living for a time on the West Coast and in Boston. She published both nonfiction and fiction in Canadian and American newspapers and magazines. She also published a novel, Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1914), shortly before her death in Montreal.

White-Parks’ Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton is the third publication in the University of Illinois series The Asian American Experience, edited by Roger Daniels. The fourth volume in this series is a collection of Sui Sin Far’s writings, Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings (1995), edited by Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks. Material on Sui Sin Far and later Asian American writers is included in Elaine Kim’s Asian American Literature: An Introduction to the Writings in Their Social Context (1982), Amy Ling’s Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry (1990), andTricksterism in Turn-of-the-Century American Literature: A Multicultural Perspective (1994), edited by Elizabeth Ammons and White-Parks.

White-Parks undertakes three tasks in her study of Sui Sin Far. First, she locates all of her subject’s extant published literary works, journalism, and correspondence from the years 1888-1913; second, she presents the results of her extensive research into the biography and social context of the writer and her works; third, she analyzes and evaluates Sui Sin Far’s writings, using both sociocultural and feminist critical approaches. By so doing, she gives contemporary Asian American women writers such as Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston a literary foremother of distinction. Moreover, White-Parks breaks new ground in women’s literary history.

In her biographical account in the first chapter, White-Parks traces her subject’s choices to remain single and to pursue a writing career. Neither of these was the norm for women in the late nineteenth century, and in particular they were not the norm for women of Asian heritage. Still, by the mid-1880’s, this oldest daughter in a large, impoverished family had published her first pieces in Canadian and American newspapers and magazines. At this time, the writer signed herself Edith Eaton.

In subsequent chapters White-Parks looks at the interrelationships of race, gender, and Sui Sin Far’s writing. Thus the chapters are titled “Montreal: The Early Writings,” “Pacific Coast Chinatown Stories,” “Boston: The Mature Voice and Art,” and, finally, “Mrs. Spring Fragrance.” White-Parks concludes that although Sui Sin Far was never sustained by a community of writers or of women but sought instead to understand and write about the Chinese communities in North America, she succeeded in finding her unique voice. She did so by experimenting with and mastering strategies that would subtly confront Sinophobic and sexist views.

White-Parks includes extensive research on Sinophobia and sexism in Canada, America, and each city in which Sui Sin Far lived. At times, in fact, the reader might wish that there were fewer footnotes and citations. The background that White-Parks provides, however, is integral to an understanding of Sui Sin Far’s struggles as an Asian American woman writer.

Sui Sin Far lived in a time when the need for cheap Chinese immigrant laborers for the Canadian and American transcontinental railroads had ended and both countries passed exclusionist acts against the Chinese. Negative stereotypes of Chinese people and their North American communities flourished in popular culture during this period of Social Darwinist theory and American imperialism. In the face of such national and local racism, Sui Sin Far’s siblings all chose to deny their mother’s heritage.

White-Parks points out that because the writer had the physical appearance of her European heritage, she could have remained Edith Eaton, a white woman and writer. Her earliest Montreal publications, as noted above, were signed Edith Eaton and did not deal with Chinese living in North America. In 1896, however, she began publishing stories with Asian American characters and signing herself...

(The entire section is 1896 words.)