Connecting Links: Race and Gender in the work of Edith Maude Eaton (Sui Sin Far)

Share
Public domain image of Edith Eaton (provided by Dr. Mary Chapman, UBC).

Public domain image of Edith Eaton (provided by Dr. Mary Chapman, UBC).

 

By Tiffany Johnstone

 

“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.”
-Edith Maude Eaton, “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” 230.

The history of women’s suffrage in North America is best understood within the context of historical debates about borders, nationality, race, and citizenship. Edith Eaton (1865-1914), also known by her frequent penname, Sui Sin Far, a journalist and fiction writer who wrote and lived in Canada and the United States at the turn of the 20th century, is a prime example of a writer who crossed geographical and political borders to explore the gender- and race-discrimination surrounding political definitions of citizenship. Eaton travelled throughout Canada, and the United States, promoting the rights of women and people of Chinese, Eurasian, and mixed racial descent. While she is known for her ambivalent and even critical perspective on suffrage discourses for their lack of attention to class and race, her work illuminates the ways in which types of race-, class-, and gender-discrimination intersect in definitions of citizenship (Chapman).

‘Race’ is not the only explanation for Eaton’s relative obscurity in Canada. She also readily disappeared because much of her life and work unfolded in the United States. Recently, however, she has been coined the “‘mother’ of Asian North American literature” (Chapman) and her work has begun to receive increased critical attention in Canada for her bold engagement in political debates that traversed primarily the Pacific Ocean and the Canadian/American border (Chapman; Lape). Like the better-known Sara Jeanette Duncan, she was a prolific journalist and prose writer with an incisive style of cultural commentary, an interest in politics and women’s rights, and what scholars would now define as a transnational cultural perspective. Eaton often highlighted her mix of British, Chinese, Canadian, and American cultural backgrounds and took particular advantage of the permeability of the Canadian/American border at the time. She wrote boldly about being half Chinese and like E. Pauline Johnson she drew on her own experience of racial hybridity to promote racial tolerance. She wrote extensively about the experiences of Chinese and Eurasian people in North America. As with Johnson, Eaton struggled with health and financial issues, but was nonetheless prolific and politically outspoken throughout her life.

Eaton was born in Cheshire, England in 1865. Her father, an English merchant, met her Chinese mother on a business trip to Shanghai. After spending the first few years of her life in England, Eaton emigrated with her family (which would later include 13 siblings) to New York and then to Montreal around 1872. The family suffered financial setbacks. Like other literate and ambitious young women, such as the slightly older Winnipeger, Cora Hind (1861-1942), she turned to the new career of stenography to put bread on the table. That employment remained a standby throughout her life but she also slowly developed a market for her writing on the issues of the day.

The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) in the United States and the Chinese head tax in Canada in 1885, both of which sought to discourage Chinese immigration, followed hard upon Eaton’s arrival, shaping both her politics and her reception. Her publications stand out for their efforts to expose and combat growing anti-Asian sentiments in North America. Eaton’s fiction and non-fiction appeared in popular magazines such as Walter Blackburn Harte’s Lotus (Kansas City, Mo.), Youth’s Companion (Boston), Delineator (New York), Good Housekeeping (New York), Land of Sunshine (Los Angeles), New York Evening Post, and Montreal Daily Witness. In 1912, she published a collection of short stories about Chinese and Eurasian immigrants called Mrs. Spring Fragrance in Chicago. In the 21st century, that volume has been regarded as the hall-mark of her literary career. Amidst failing health in her forties, she returned to Montreal and her family to die and was interred at the city’s Mount Royal Cemetery.

Edith was not the only member of her family to take up writing as a career. Her much younger sister, Winnifred Babcock (1875-1954), was a successful novelist and screenwriter who went by the name Onoto Watanna. Unlike Eaton, Babcock sought to evade pervasive racism against Chinese immigrants by assuming an ostensibly Japanese name and persona as a writer. The diverging paths of these sisters indicate the fallibility and subjectivity of racial definitions at the time, as well as, ironically, the cultural weight placed on such definitions by the reading and voting public. As Eaton pointed out in her writing, the problem with citizenship was that it readily limited the rights of the individual according not only to gender and race, but also to supposedly fixed racial categories to which she, as a woman of mixed race, did not belong.

This sense of not belonging, which consumed many professional women journalists and writers, took centre stage for Eaton. In one of her most powerful articles, “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian,” published in Independent (Boston) in 1909, she weaves her personal experiences of racism and sexism in England and North America with accounts of the struggles of (often impoverished) Chinese immigrants to find acceptance in North American culture. In her anecdote about a poor female Chinese immigrant who rejects her white fiancé after he encourages her to deny her Chinese heritage, Eaton shows how economic hardship and racism exacerbate the disenfranchisement of women. She also draws similar connections between racism and misogyny in her account of a proposition from a man who equates her Chinese heritage with sexual submissiveness.

Eaton regularly fore-grounds her own racial and cultural hybridity by pointing out that she experiences prejudice from both sides of the racial divide she traverses. “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” focuses on the struggles of Caucasians and even Chinese immigrants to decipher and label her racial identity. In this article, Eaton criticizes the very idea of citizenship as it was evolving before World War One. She portrays her mixed history and regular experience of not fitting in as somehow more authentic and interesting than exclusionary stereotypes of the ideal national subject (Chapman). Her refusal to ‘pass’ as either categorically Chinese or Caucasian or according to any specific nationality reminds readers of the long history of fluidity and negotiation when it comes to citizenship, race, and gender.

Eaton closes “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian” by confidently identifying herself as a politically self-conscious biracial woman at the opening of the 20th century. Anticipating Virginia Woolf’s famous 1938 statement, “as a woman, I have no country” (109), Eaton celebrates her individuality in this piece. She effectively dismisses North American concepts of citizenship as insufficiently advanced, stating: “After all I have no nationality and am not anxious to claim any. Individuality is more than nationality. [. . .]. 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” (230). This extraordinary statement, which is hard to match among her contemporaries, invokes the complicated history of Asian-Caucasian relations in North America.

Her metaphor of the “connecting link” lays claim ironically enough to Canada itself. Chinese labour in the building of the transcontinental railways had joined west and east and guaranteed a northern nation. As a human ‘hyphen’, another metaphor used by later mixed-race Canadians (Nakagawa) she also assumes a transnational, cosmopolitan identity that transcends the very notions of citizenship that exclude her as a bi-racial and Eurasian woman. Like Pauline Johnson, she portrays herself as a crucial interpreter across cultural divides. Her choice of the title, “Leaves …”, echoes that of Leaves of Grass (1855), the famous poem by the prominent 19th century American author and cultural icon Walt Whitman. She, however, confidently adapts and extends the New Englander’s dream of inclusivity and diversity in North America to the realm of political advocacy.

Edith Eaton’s self-conscious self-portraiture and political agenda unsettle any static vision of the suffrage generation. While we do not know of any direct campaigning on her part, she too was a ‘New Woman’ of her day. Her contestation of both racial and sexual exclusions should be considered along side the preoccupation with gender of better-known mainstream suffragists. Not unlike the iconical Pauline Johnson, Eaton serves as an invaluable reminder that intersectional approaches to women’s rights characterized the heated debates of professional women writers at the turn of the 20th century just as they do those of many feminist scholars a century later.

Bibliography
Chapman, Mary. “The ‘thrill’ of not belonging: Edith Eaton (Sui Sin Far) and flexible Citizenship.” Canadian Literature 212 (2012): 191.

Eaton, Edith. “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian.” In Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings. Ed. Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995. 218-230.

Lape , Noreen Groover. “Introduction: Rites of Passage, Contact Zones, and the American Frontiers.” In West of the Border: The Multicultural Literature of the Western American Frontiers by Noreen Groover Lape. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2000. 1-18 (234).

Nakagawa, Anne Marie. Director, Between: Living in the Hyphen. National Film Board of Canada (2005) http://www.nfb.ca/film/between_living_in_the_hyphen

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. 1938. New York and Burlingame: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963.