Study Guide

Sui Sin Far

Sui Sin Far Essay - Far, Sui Sin

Far, Sui Sin

Introduction

Sui Sin Far 1865–-1914

(Born Edith Maude Eaton; wrote under the pseudonyms Sui Sin Far, Sui Seen Far, Sui Sin Fah, and E. E.) Canadian short story writer, journalist, and essayist.

The following entry provides information on Far's short fiction career from 1981 through 2001.

Sui Sin Far (the pseudonym of Edith Maude Eaton) is regarded as the first fiction writer of Asian descent to achieve professional publication in the Americas. The child of a British father and part-Chinese mother, Far's stories focus on the experiences of Chinese immigrants to the United States and Canada. In her short stories, Far countered popular stereotypes of Chinese immigrants and spoke against racial prejudice. She frequently focused on the unique position of Eurasians like herself, of mixed Western and Asian descent, who are often excluded from both Anglo and Asian communities. Far published numerous short stories, sketches, essays, and articles in popular magazines throughout the United States. Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), a collection of short stories, was Far's only volume of fiction to be published during her lifetime. Although somewhat recognized as a noteworthy writer, Far's work was largely ignored by critics from the time of her death until the 1980s, when the burgeoning field of Asian American studies led to a resurgence of critical interest in her work. Her work has been made available to a modern readership with the 1995 publication of Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings, a compilation of Far's stories, sketches, and essays.

Biographical Information

Sui Sin Far, which means narcissus or water lily, is the most commonly used of Edith Maude Eaton's several pseudonyms. Far was born in Macclesfield, England, in 1865. Her mother was raised and educated in Britain and was working in China as a missionary when she met Far's father, a British merchant. The family moved from Britain to the United States and, later, to Canada. Far grew up in Montreal, the eldest daughter of a family comprising fourteen children. Far and her siblings, who never learned to speak Chinese, encountered various forms of prejudice within the Chinese immigrant community as well as in mainstream culture. Far's autobiographical essay “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” describes the uniquely complex status of bicultural Asians residing in both Asian communities and mainstream American society. Far chose never to wed, believing that her identity made marriage to her with either an Anglo or an Asian man undesirable. Far's biracial identity was further complicated by the fact that she was able to pass as Caucasian. This ambiguity in regard to her own cultural identity informed much of her fiction. Far traveled extensively throughout her adult life, living in the Chinese communities of California, the Pacific Northwest, the northeastern United States, Jamaica, and Montreal. She supported herself through a variety of jobs, including stenographer, secretary, publicist, and freelance journalist. Far wrote numerous short stories, sketches, and journalistic essays published in popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping, New England Magazine, The Century, The Independent, the New York Evening Post, Overland, and The Westerner, among others. Far wrote under several different Chinese-sounding pen names, sometimes signed her writings simply “E. E.,” and often published anonymously. Far's sister, Winnifred Eaton, was also an author. Writing under the pen name Onoto Watanna, Winnifred Eaton claimed to be of Japanese descent and wrote romantic novels with exotic settings and stereotypical Asian characters. While her sister enjoyed greater commercial success, Far is considered the superior artist because of her pioneering efforts to increase the mainstream's understanding of Asian immigrants. Upon her death in 1914, the Chinese community of Montreal erected a monument in her honor.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Far's body of fiction comprises some forty short stories. The contents of her short story collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance are divided into two sections, “Mrs. Spring Fragrance,” and “Tales of Chinese Children.” In both sections, Far depicts the inhabitants of various Chinese communities throughout the United States and Canada, who are simply striving for basic comfort and security while contending with societal challenges. Far's recurring themes include the Chinese immigrant experience, assimilation, interracial marriage and children, cultural conflict, and racism. In the title story, Mr. Spring Fragrance struggles with the fact that his wife, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, has become thoroughly Americanized. While both husband and wife wear Western clothes, speak English, and live in a Western-style household, Mrs. Spring Fragrance has become assimilated as well to American individualism, while her husband wishes to maintain traditional Chinese notions of marriage and family. In another story, “The Wisdom of the New,” it is the wife who resists assimilation to Western culture, while her husband, a businessman, pressures her to accept the “New Wisdom” of American values. In protest against sending her son to an American boarding school, she poisons him, proudly asserting that she has thereby saved the boy from the Wisdom of the New. In “The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese,” a Caucasian woman and her children are abandoned by her abusive white husband. On the verge of committing suicide, she is saved by, and soon marries, a Chinese businessman. In contrast to her former husband, her Chinese husband is kind, generous, and supportive. Their marriage is blissful, and they live harmoniously in the Chinese American community. Together, they raise the children from her previous marriage with the children conceived of their marriage. Far's own personal struggles with, and ambivalence about, her mixed-race identity are expressed in “Its Wavering Image.” In this story, the daughter of a Caucasian mother and Chinese father, growing up in Chinatown, struggles with her sense of cultural identity, “wavering” between Asian and Anglo, while feeling excluded from both communities. Far also wrote of the Chinese immigrant experience in the United States and of such laws as the Chinese Exclusion Act that limited Chinese immigration quotas. In the ironically titled “In the Land of the Free,” United States immigration officials take away the young son of a Chinese American woman because the child was born in China. The mother spends ten months and all of her money on legal action pleading with the “Great Government at Washington” to return her son. When he is finally returned, she is completely impoverished and he has become so assimilated to American culture that he scorns her and fails to acknowledge her as his mother. In several of Far's stories, she explores the ways in which societal prejudice teaches children to internalize racist notions. In “Pat and Pan,” an orphaned Caucasian child named Pat is raised by a Chinese family, who treat him as one of their own children, to the extent that he is thoroughly acculturated to Chinese culture and develops a loving relationship with his Chinese sister, Pan. A Caucasian missionary school teacher, however, intervenes to remove him from his Chinese family and arranges to have him adopted by a Caucasian family. Over time, Pat becomes assimilated to Anglo culture and learns to be disdainful of the Chinese family he once loved. In other stories, Far addresses the effects of racial bigotry at a more mundane level, perpetrated by children against other children. In “Ku Yum's Little Sister,” a Chinese girl wanders inadvertently out of the Chinatown district and into an Anglo neighborhood, where a group of Caucasian children throw stones at her.

Critical Reception

During her lifetime, Far's short stories were popular with the reading public and well-received by the East Coast literati, who regarded them as both valuable contributions to the mainstream's understanding of Chinese immigrant culture and noteworthy works of literature. After Far's death, her work fell into obscurity until it was rediscovered in the 1980s by scholars of Asian American literature. These late-twentieth-century critics identified Far as the first fiction writer of Asian descent to be published in America. In addition to Far's significance to the history of Asian American literature, these critics saw in Far's stories a complex and insightful treatment of Asian identity and the Asian immigrant experience. Commentators applauded Far's success in giving a voice to Asian immigrants through her many fictional narratives. Critics continue to explore, discuss, and debate the many nuances of Asian identity represented in Far's short fiction. Far's subtly ironic narrative perspective has led critic Annette White-Parks to identify her as a “trickster” figure, who shrewdly adopts a “double voice” in her narratives in order to challenge accepted notions of race and gender. The realism of Far's fiction has been praised for its vivid, detailed descriptions of everyday life in the turn-of-the-century Chinatowns of urban United States and Canada. Far's short stories have also been classified as regional or local color fiction that emerged during the post-Civil War era.

Principal Works

Mrs. Spring Fragrance 1912

Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings [edited by Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks] (stories, sketches, and essays) 1995

Criticism

S. E. Solberg (essay date spring 1981)

SOURCE: Solberg, S. E. “Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton: First Chinese-American Fictionist.” MELUS 8, no. 1 (spring 1981): 27-39.

[In the following essay, Solberg discusses the significance of Far's Asian-American identity to central themes in her short fiction.]

Both her photographs and her own testimony seem to indicate that Edith Maud Eaton (1865-1914) could have “passed” into the majority society with little trouble.1 Moreover, although her mother was Chinese, Edith was unacquainted with her mother's native language, except for a few phrases, during her early years; in fact, she had very little contact with Asians or Eurasians, except for her own large...

(The entire section is 5810 words.)

James Doyle (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Doyle, James. “Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna: Two Early Chinese-Canadian Authors.” Canadian Literature, no. 140 (spring 1994): 50-8.

[In the following essay, Doyle discusses the influence of a Canadian background on the fiction of Far and her sister Winnifred Eaton, asserting that, while Winnifred wrote predictable formulas of sentimental fiction, Far's fictions explore important issues of ethnic and gender conflict.]

Edith Eaton (1865-1914) and Winnifred Eaton Reeve (1875-1954), the daughters of a Chinese mother and an English father, were among the earliest creative writers in Canada to deal with Asian people and topics. As far as I can determine, Edith...

(The entire section is 3464 words.)

Annette White-Parks (essay date spring 1995)

SOURCE: White-Parks, Annette. “A Reversal of American Concepts of ‘Other-ness’ in the Fiction of Sui Sin Far.” MELUS 20, no. 1 (spring 1995): 17-34.

[In the following essay, White-Parks argues that Far's fiction succeeds in representing Euro-Americans as the “Other” from the perspective of her Chinese-American characters, in contrast to dominant representations of Asian-Americans as the “Other.”]

I came to the concepts explored in this essay through questions formulated while reading Pocahontas's Daughters by Mary Dearborn.1 Although Dearborn does not directly discuss writers of Chinese descent, her concept of mediation—in which the...

(The entire section is 7868 words.)

Annette White-Parks (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: White-Parks, Annette. “Pacific Coast Chinatown Stories.” In Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography, pp. 101-43. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, White-Parks discusses Far's treatment of the themes of assimilation, cultural pluralism, and the experiences of Asian-American women in her short fiction.]

Enabled on the one hand to write, to create new worlds and to recreate what should have been home, many writers find the other hand shackled by the expectations and rules of the world of words they have chosen to inhabit. For some, however, the ambiguity and paradoxes inherent in finding a place...

(The entire section is 20235 words.)

Annette White-Parks (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: White-Parks, Annette. “Mrs. Spring Fragrance.” In Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography, pp. 195-236. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

[In the following essay, White-Parks provides a deconstruction of the physical design, marketing strategy, and public reception of Far's short story volume Mrs. Spring Fragrance, juxtaposing these elements of the book's production with the content of the stories included in the volume.]

So I do believe in the timelessness and universality of individual vision. It [my book] would not just be a family book or a woman's book, but a world book, and, at the same moment, my book....

(The entire section is 20188 words.)

Ning Yu (essay date fall 1996)

SOURCE: Yu, Ning. “Fanny Fern and Sui Sin Far: The Beginning of an Asian American Voice.” Women and Language 19, no. 2 (fall 1996): 44-7.

[In the following essay, Yu discusses the significance of Far's lack of a literary predecessor and role model as a Chinese-American fiction writer, and contrasts Far's short stories with the fiction of Fanny Fern.]

The lack of a role model, as Alice Walker points out, “is an occupational hazard for the artist, simply because models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect—even if rejected—enrich and enlarge one's view of existence” (4). The first Chinese American fiction writer, Edith Maude Eaton, or Sui Sin...

(The entire section is 3034 words.)

Carol Roh-Spaulding (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Roh-Spaulding, Carol. “‘Wavering’ Images: Mixed-Race Identity in the Stories of Edith Eaton/Sui Sin Far.” In Ethnicity and the American Short Story, edited by Julie Brown, pp. 155-76. New York: Garland, 1997.

[In the following essay, Roh-Spaulding examines the complexities of Far's self-proclaimed Chinese-American identity, asserting that her short stories “complicate traditional narratives of assimilation and amalgamation with tales of failed cultural mixing and conflicted identity.”]

The hybrid flower is the saddest flower of all.

—“Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” 1909...

(The entire section is 9403 words.)

Min Song (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Song, Min. “The Unknowable and Sui Sin Far: The Epistemological Limits of ‘Oriental’ Sexuality.” In Q & A: Queer in Asian America, edited by David L. Eng and Alice Y. Hom, pp. 304-22. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Song examines the intersection of gender and cultural identity in Far's short story “The Smuggling of Tie Co.”]

Sui Sin Far's “The Smuggling of Tie Co” (first published in 1900) literally and figuratively explores the borders that make an identity culturally legible.1 In this story, Tie Co, a relatively successful Chinese “laundryman,” abruptly solicits the help of the...

(The entire section is 8560 words.)

Xiao-Huang Yin (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Yin, Xiao-Huang. “The Voice of a Eurasian: Sui Sin Far and Her Writing.” In Chinese American Literature since the 1850s, pp. 85-116. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Yin discusses Far's efforts to challenge existing stereotypes about Asian Americans through her short fiction. Yin examines Far's treatment of such themes as assimilation, interracial marriage, biracial identity, and cultural conflict.]

I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant “connecting link.”

...

(The entire section is 14927 words.)

Vanessa Holford Diana (essay date summer 2001)

SOURCE: Diana, Vanessa Holford. “Biracial/Bicultural Identity in the Writings of Sui Sin Far.” MELUS 26, no. 2 (summer 2001): 159-86.

[In the following essay, Diana asserts that Far's short fiction functions to deconstruct stereotypes of “Orientalism” through her treatment of such themes as bi-racial identity, interracial marriage, and race relations in the United States.]

At the turn into the twentieth century, American culture witnessed related literary and political shifts through which marginalized voices gained increased strength despite the severe racism that informed US laws and social interaction. Many authors and literary critics saw connections...

(The entire section is 10744 words.)