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.
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.
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.