Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960: Asian American Influences

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SOURCE: Yu, Ning. "Fanny Fern and Sui Sin Far: The Beginning of an Asian American Voice." Women and Language 19, no. 2 (fall 1996): 44-47.

In the following essay, Yu compares the work of Sui Sin Far with Fanny Fern, noting that Fern provided a model upon which Sui Sin Far developed her literary voice and critique of racism, establishing a female literary tradition followed by subsequent Asian American artists such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Judy Syfer.

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 Far, had to cope with this "hazard" when she started her literary career near the turn of the century. Born in 1865 to an English father and a Chinese mother, Edith Maude Eaton grew up in an era notorious for its "violent anti-Chinese sentiment and legally sanctioned discriminatory policies" (Falvey, backcover). Taking "tremendous pride" in her Chinese heritage (Ammons 107), Eaton early decided to "write wrongs in order to right them" (Ling 32), defying "the stereotype of the passive, impassive, fragile, inscrutable 'Oriental,'" and refusing to "take on the identity assigned her by racist whites" (Ammons 107). Anticipating "her spiritual great grand-daughter Maxine Hong Kingston by three-quarters of a century, she creates herself as a fighter" (Ammons 107). As the first Chinese American "woman warrior," Eaton had to address both the racial injustice she and her people suffered daily and the bias and misunderstanding she faced as an independent young woman struggling against two equally male dominant, though otherwise different, cultures. Yet such an ideal double voice was not available to her, and the voice of Chinese Americans, male or female, was rather effectively silenced by the hegemonic white male culture.

The only American text written by someone of Chinese descent before Eaton, Lee Yan Phou's When I Was a Boy in China, describes "Chinese sports, games, food, clothing, folk tales, and ceremonies" (Kim 25) but does not address Chinese American situations. As one of the dozen elite students sent by the Chinese government to the U. S. for a Western education, Lee knew nothing about the ordinary Chinese American's life on the margin. Neither Lee's life nor his book could help a young female from a poor mixed race family find her position in literary arenas of late-nineteenth-century America.

However, unable to find a model in her own race, Eaton searched among contemporary authors of her own gender for a voice that could be adopted and adapted for her own purpose; she found it in Sara Payson Willis Parton, or Fanny Fern, a pioneer woman author who "advocated and practiced—both in her life and in her writing—individualism for women" (Warren 306). Fanny Fern was already a household name before her major work Ruth Hall was published in 1854. According to Nancy A. Walker, Fanny Fern was "the most widely reprinted and most highly paid newspaper columnist of the 1850s" (1). Nathaniel Hawthorne used to dismiss his contemporary popular women authors as the "damned mob of scribbling women," but he modified his harsh criticism after reading Ruth Hall. He confessed in a letter to his publisher:

In my last, I recollect, I bestowed some vituperation on female authors. I have since been reading "Ruth Hall"; and I must say I enjoyed it a good deal. The woman writes as if the devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading.

(I, 78)

Indeed, Fanny Fern expanded the genre of "domestic novel" beyond the closure of "marriage plot," claimed her "own language as a precondition of autonomy, and thus made a "major contribution of American fiction" (Walker 62). She is a major figure in her "own historical moment" and today's "reevaluation of women's literary history" (Walker 40). It is small wonder that young Eaton should choose Fanny Fern as a role model when embarking on her literary endeavor.

The affinity between Eaton and Parton is too striking for one not to assume that Eaton deliberately emulated Parton: like Parton's flowery pen name, Fanny Fern, Eaton's pseudonym, Sui Sin Far, is also derived from a plant; it is a transliteration of the Chinese word for narcissus (literally, "water immortal flower").1 Moreover, Parton's first collection of essays is entitled Fern Leaves from Fanny's Portfolio, while Eaton's autobiographical essay is called "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian." Although in her Between Worlds Professor Amy Ling anticipates me in noticing the similarity between the two "flowery" titles, the focus of her book requires her to refrain from discussing the affinity between the two in any length or depth. I wish to argue in this paper that from a major voice among America's early feminist writers, Sui Sin Far, the first Asian American fiction writer, has adapted stylistic tactics that literary women use to negotiate a space for their own voices within an oppressive and hegemonic patriarchal discourse.


DJUNA BARNES (1892-1982)

Born in 1892 in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, Barnes began writing at an early age to support her mother and three brothers. She contributed frequently to New York City newspapers and to such magazines as Smart Set and Vanity Fair. After nearly two decades of publishing poetry, fiction, and drawings, Barnes published her landmark novel, Night-wood, in 1936. Both the form and the content of Nightwood were informed by her years, first among the bohemian writers in Greenwich Village and, after 1920, among the expatriate artists living in Paris. Barnes and many of her peers, including James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound, have made the period famous for their radical experimentation with language and literary convention. The expatriate community also offered an open-mindedness about sexuality unavailable in the United States; a large number of the women publicly identified as lesbian or bisexual, and many of the men were gay. Barnes's own sexuality, as well as her frank and, at the time, ground-breaking, portrayal of homosexuality in her works has informed much of the critical assessment of her writing. After publishing Nightwood, Barnes experienced a series of personal crises, including failed relationships, financial difficulties, and alcoholism. She moved into a small apartment in New York's Greenwich Village, where she remained secluded for the rest of her life. Barnes continued to write, but not prolifically, and it took her years to complete her obscure verse drama, The Antiphon (1958).

Feminist critics have identified two major tactics in women's writing. Sometimes women authors would declare open warfare on the dominant discourse and choose "to assume the symbolic armor, to name the law and to attack it using the same law" (Jardine 231). Sometimes they would "engage in guerrilla tactics," using irony, indirection and understatement "to vitiate the assertions in the text" (Cheung 80). Both ploys can be found in Fanny Fern's writing. For instance, in her "Hints to Young Wives," Fanny Fern launches a frontal attack on the conventional code of behavior imposed on a married woman. She begins the essay with a sketch of a young wife trying hard to live up to the expectations of the patriarchal ideology that has been taught to her as the "gospel truth" (224). The young woman stands at the front door to welcome her husband home after work, and she "chases round after the boot-jack; warms his slippers and puts 'em on" because she "imagines that's the way to preserve his affection" (224). At this moment Fanny Fern the narrator steps in with a sharp comment: "Preserve a fiddlestick! The consequence is, he's sick of the sight of her …" (224). Fanny Fern winds up her short piece with an episode from her own life. Like the imaginary young wife in the sketch, Fanny Fern was once also such a "[p]oor little innocent fool" who one day, while obediently mending her husband's coat despite "a crucifying headache," found in the pocket a love-letter from her husband to her dress-maker. Then she told herself, and by extension to the imaginary young wife and all the married women who read her works, "' F-a-n-n-y F-e-r-n! If you—are—ever—such—a—confounded fool again'—and I wasn't." Here Fanny Fern is at once identifying and subverting the dominant discourse by adopting an authoritative voice to challenge the authority of the patriarchal ideology. Fanny Fern first singles out the rationale that a husband's affection should be preserved, and then she shows that the affection between husband and wife is mutual and the forced submissiveness of the wife spoils the husband and destroys rather than preserves the affection.

Such a frontal attack can be found in Sui Sin Far's autobiographical essay as well. Although Sui Sin Far is known for her satire on the gender bias practiced in both American and Chinese cultures, the following example demonstrates her skillful adaptation of Fanny Fern's direct tactics in an attack against racist prejudice. Working as a stenographer near one of the five Great Lakes at the turn of the century, she tried to avoid revealing her racial background "in a Middle West town" where people held "strong prejudices against [her] mother's countrymen" (905). Yet, one day, at a dinner party including her new employer, landlady and a few other white colleagues, the following conversation ensued:

My employer shakes his rugged head. "Somehow or other," says he, "I cannot reconcile myself to the thought that the Chinese are humans like ourselves. They may have immortal souls, but their faces seem to be so utterly devoid of expression that I cannot help but doubt."

"Souls," echoes the town clerk. "Their bodies are enough for me. A Chinaman is, in my eyes, more repulsive than a nigger."

"They always give me such a creepy feeling," puts in the young girl with a laugh.

"I wouldn't have one in my house," declares my landlady.


At this juncture, Eaton's employer noticed her silence and asked her opinion about the issue. Eaton courageously confronted the prejudice against her race: "Mr. K., the Chinese people may have no souls, no expression on their faces, be altogether beyond the pale of civilization, but whatever they are, I want you to understand that I am—I am a Chinese" (906). Here Eaton uses her opponents' "law" against that "law" itself. Judging from Eaton's facial features her employer included her into the "us" in his attack of the Chinese as the "other," yet by revealing her racial background Eaton exposed the senselessness of the physical, psychological and spiritual distinctions the white man drew between the "us" and "other." Professor Amy Ling has accurately summed up Sui Sin Far's frontal attack on racism as "sincere and earnest, straightforward, and purposeful [with a mission] to right wrongs by writing them" (Between Worlds 32). I venture to suggest here that the sincere and earnest frontal attack against social wrongs is a traditional and powerful weapon of the American writing women.

Another weapon that Fanny Fern and Sui Sin Far shared is irony. Fanny Fern uses irony and indirection, or what Cheung calls the "guerrilla tactics," in "A Chapter on Literary Women" to satirize Colonel Van Zandt's male chauvinist prejudice against women. The female narrator (probably Fern) feigns surprise when she first hears of the Colonel's plan to search for a wife, and then points out the conflict between such a plan and the Colonel's "central" position in the patriarchal world:

Want a wife, do you? I don't see but your buttons, and strings, and straps, are all tip-top. Your laundress attends to your wardrobe, your hotel de maitre to your appetite, you've nice snug quarters at the——House, plenty of 'fine fellows' to drop in upon you, and what in the name of the gods do you want of a 'wife?'

(Fern Leaves 178)

At the first glance, the woman narrator seems to embrace and reinforce the centrality of the male by assigning the wife, or any woman, the servile roles of the cook, the seamstress, the laundress and housemaid. Yet she sets up this male-centered world picture only to subvert it through the Colonel's own words. His response to her questions reveals that his central position in the domestic world is self-claimed and the true source for his need to centralize the male self is, ironically, intellectual inferiority:

I should desire my wife's thoughts and feelings to centre in me,—to be content in the little kingdom where I reign supreme,—to have the capacity to appreciate me, but not brilliancy enough to outshine me, or to attract 'outsiders'.

(Fern Leaves 178)

Colonel Van Zandt's celebration of the male's central position in the little domestic kingdom as well as the larger outside world is based on suppressing the woman, forcing her "to be content" so that he could "reign supreme," to be modest so that she wouldn't "outshine" him, to be isolated so that the outsiders couldn't see her innate superiority.

Sui Sin Far is equally skillful in her use of ironic satire. In "Mrs. Spring Fragrance," the titular story of her collected works, Sui Sin Far also satirizes the false superiority that male-dominant culture assigns to man. Writing to her husband at home in Seattle while she is visiting San Francisco, Jade Spring Fragrance begins her letter in an exaggerated tone that seems to conform to but actually undermines the male-centered culture: "GREAT AND HONORED MAN,—Greeting from your plum blossom, who is desirous of hiding herself from the sun of your presence for a week of seven days more." She winds up the letter in equally inflated formality: "I continue for ten thousand times ten thousand years Your ever loving and obedient woman, Jade." (Mrs. Spring Fragrance 6). The letter's ironic tone is made clear by the context in which it is written. Through out the story Jade Spring Fragrance is presented as superior to her husband in intelligence, language skills, literary imagination, artistic taste, cultural sophistication and social understanding and involvement. Yet in the letter she is playing the role of a submissive wife who basks in the superior male sunshine of her husband. Although a man of gentle heart, Mr. Spring Fragrance is slow-witted if not plainly dumb. He derives his value as a literary figure from his wife and through out the story he is referred to as Mr. Spring Fragrance (Spring Fragrance is a typical first name for a Chinese girl but an unlikely last name for a man) rather than Mr. Sing Yook, which is his "business name." It is also worth noting that in the letter, the "loving obedient" woman simply informs her "GREAT AND HONORED MAN," but does not ask for his permission, as the cultural code requires and the formality of the letter suggests, that she is going to stay in San Francisco for another week.

However, Sui Sin Far improves rather than slavishly imitates Fanny Fern's irony. To meet the challenge of defending both women and Chinese Americans, Sui Sin Far gives her irony a double-edge so that it undercuts not only the male-chauvinist fantasy but also the white supremacist hypocrisy, furnishing her heroine with an effective weapon to expose some Americans' self-righteous claim that America is China's protector. Mrs. Spring Fragrance tells her husband in the same letter about her first encounter with one of China's "protectors" in San Francisco:

Mrs. Samuel Smith, an American lady, known to my cousin, asked for my accompaniment to a magniloquent lecture the other evening. The subject was "America, the Protector of China!" It was most exhilarating, and the effect of so much expression of benevolence leads me to beg of you to forget to remember that the barber charges you one dollar for a shave while he humbly submits to the American man a bill of fifteen cents. And murmur no more because your honored elder brother, on a visit to this country, is detained under the roof-tree of this great Government instead of under your own humble roof. Console him with the reflection that he is protected under the wing of the Eagle, the Emblem of Liberty. What is the loss of ten hundred years or ten thousand times ten dollars compared with the happiness of knowing oneself so securely sheltered? all of this I have learned from Mrs. Samuel Smith, who is as brilliant and great of mind as one of your own superior sex.


Sui Sin Far's contrastive use of exaggeration ("magniloquent," "most exhilarating," "the loss of ten hundred years or ten thousand times ten dollars") and understatement ("forget to remember," "murmur no more") reveals the wide gap between the harsh reality in Chinese American life and the white supremacist fantasy of America as a godlike protector of China. Like the centrality of Fern's Colonel Van Zandt, America's role of China's protector is self-claimed. The source of both evils is the same inflated ego whose rampant growth depends on putting down others to claim a false superiority. Both edges of Sui Sin Far's ironic dagger meet to form a sharp point: "[A]ll this I learned from Mrs. Samuel Smith, who is as brilliant and great of mind as one of your own superior sex."

At an early stage of her literary career, Sui Sin Far was able to develop a double voice that challenges both racism and male dominance. Her double voice is necessitated by her dual identity as minority and woman. She is a cultural exile, someone "who is capable of invoking or experiencing two realities simultaneously" (Shih 66). As a woman, Sui Sin Far has access to a rich legacy from the sisterhood of women authors who write wrongs to right wrongs; as a minority woman, she has the opportunity and the need to use women's tactics in a new field, where she gives women's irony an added edge. Because of her creative use of women author's tradition in the field of Asian American literature, Sui Sin Far's voice of strong frontal attack and tone of feminist irony are echoed not only in Maxine Hong Kingston's "On Discovery" but also in Judy Syfer's "I Want a Wife."


1. Amy Ling translated Sui Sin Far as "water fragrance flower." But the Chinese character xian, or sin in Eaton's transliteration, means "immortal," while the Chinese word for "fragrance" is xiang. For Professor Ling's translation of Eaton's pseudonym see Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry, New York: Pergamon Press, 1990; 41.


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Fern, Fanny (Sara Willis Parton). Ruth Hall and Other Writings. Joyce W. Warren ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. Letters to William Ticknor, 1851-1869. C. E. Frazer-Clark, Jr. ed., 2 vols. Newark, NJ: Carteret Book Club, Inc., 1972.

Jardine, Alice. "Pre-texts for the Transatlantic Feminist." Yale French Studies 62 (1981): 220-36.

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Shih, Shu-mei. "Exile and Intertextuality in Maxine Hong Kingston's China Men." In James Whitlark and Wendell Aycock eds.. The Literature of Emigration and Exile. Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 1994; 65-77.

Sui Sin Far. Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Catherine Falvey ed. Albany: New College and University, Inc., 1994.

——. "Leaves from the Portfolio of an Eurasian." In Paul Lauter et al. eds. The Health Anthology of American Literature (second edition) Vol. 2. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994, 901-910.

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Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960: Asian American Influences

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Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960: Asian American Influences