Eaton, Edith Maud
EATON, Edith Maud
Born 1865, England; died 7 April 1914, Montreal, Canada
Wrote under: Sui Sin Far
Daughter of Edward and Grace Trefusius Eaton
The daughter of an English father and a Chinese mother, Edith Maud Eaton neither spoke nor wrote Chinese. According to her autobiography, "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian," published in the Independent, 21 January 1909, she could have passed as Caucasian. At a time when it was not advantageous to be Chinese, Eaton embraced her missionary mother's nationality and through her writings in magazines in Canada and the U.S., became the champion of Chinese-American culture, taking the pen name Sui Sin Far. Her younger sister, Winnifred (1875-1954), adopted the Japanese pen name of Onoto Watanna; she published several popularly successful romances set in Japan and also wrote for films.
Eaton was the first Chinese-American to publish fiction. Her writing was widely read and, for the most part, received favorable reviews. Unlike her contemporaries, she did not create stereotypical Chinese characters. Instead, her characters are based on the people she met as a newspaper woman enlisting subscribers in Chinatown throughout the western United States.
Eaton wrote sketches and vignettes about common Chinese Americans, many of which were collected in Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912). Others appeared in a variety of popular magazines. Her purpose in writing was to bridge the gap between Chinese immigrants and their descendants and North Americans by allowing Americans to see the Chinese as real people. She wrote about universal themes such as love between man and woman, parent and child, and the forces that attempt to obstruct this love. Some of her stories are intentionally charming and spirited, while others are ironic or bitter. She is most ironic when expressing her outrage at the conditions of the Chinese in the U.S. and especially the condition of the Chinese woman. In such pieces as "The Inferior Woman," (1910) and in stories of marriage, her interpretation is frequently feminist.
Eaton felt at odds with both mainstream American culture and Chinese culture. As a Chinese woman she was not accepted by American society, yet Americanized Chinese did not accept her as a member of their race. Rather than synthesizing the two cultures in herself, Eaton felt caught between East and West. Realizing that she could not survive this liminal existence, she claimed her mother's heritage as her own.
While a champion of her people, Eaton wrote about the universality of human experience. She was convinced that in the nature-versus-nurture argument, nurture or the environment was more influential than nature. She did not accept that differences in human beings were inherently due to race; rather, she believed the individual had the power to control his own behavior and that, in the end, all human beings were basically the same.
Stories and sketches in: Overland (Jul. 1899). Century Magazine (Apr. 1904). The Chataquan (Oct. 1905). Delineator (Feb. 1910, Jul. 1910). Dominion Illustrated (1888, 7 Jun. 1890). Good Housekeeping (Mar. 1909, May 1909, May 1910). Hampton (Jan. 1910, May 1910). Independent (21 Jan. 1909, 2 Sept. 1909, 10 Mar. 1910, 18 Aug. 1910, 3 Jul. 1913). Land of Sunshine (Jan. 1897, Jul. 1900). New England Magazine (Aug. 1910, Sept. 1910, Dec. 1911, Jan. 1912, Feb. 1912).
Ammons, E., Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn into the Twentieth Century (1991). Bloom, H., ed., Asian American Women Writers (1997). Chiu, M. E., Illness and Self-Representation in Asian American Literature by Women (dissertation, 1998). Ferens, D., "Edith and Winnifred Eaton: The Uses of Ethnography in Turn-of-the-Century Asian American Literature" (dissertation, 1999). Ling, A., Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry (1990); "Chinese American Women Writers," in Redefining American Literary History (1990). Moser, L. T., "Chinese Prostitutes, Japanese Geishas, and Working Women: Images of Race, Class and Gender in the Work of Edith Eaton/Sui Sin Far and Winifred Eaton/Onoto Watanna" (dissertation, 1997). Patterson, M. H., "Survival of the Best Fitted: The Trope of the New Woman in Margaret Murray Washington, Pauline Hopkins, Sui Sin Far, Edith Wharton and Mary Johnston, 1895-1913" (thesis, 1996). Song, M., "The Height of Presumption: Henry James and Sui Sin Far in the Age of Nation-Building" (dissertation, 1998). Spaulding, C. V., "Blue-Eyed Asians: Eurasianism in the Work of Edith Eaton/Sui Sin Far, Winnifred Eaton/Onoto Watanna, and Diana Chang" (dissertation, 1996). White Parks, A., Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography (1995). White-Parks, A., Sui Sin Far: Writer on the Chinese-Anglo Borders of North America, 1885-1914 (dissertation, 1991).
CLHUS (1988). Dictionary of North American Authors Deceased Before 1950 (1968). FC (1990). Macmillan Dictionary of Canadian Biography (1963, 1978). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the Untied States (1995).
American Literary Realism (Autumn 1983). Arizona Quarterly (Winter 1991). MELUS (Spring 1981).
—AMY D. STACKHOUSE