The development and ongoing institutionalization of ethnic studies over the last thirty-five years or so has had a variety of positive, though sometimes controversial, effects across different academic fields. Within literary studies, one of the most interesting of these effects has been the drive to recover, and in some cases reassess, the achievements of writers of color from previous moments in history. Some of these writers, such as Charles Chesnutt, enjoyed a measure of popular success during the time that they wrote. But of course, such popularity typically came at the price of deploying racist stereotypes and confirming prejudiced assumptions and expectations of a dominant audience, at least on the surface. Consequently, their work has often generated a decidedly ambivalent response among more recent critics. On the one hand, there has been a desire to acknowledge these figures as important historical predecessors to contemporary minority writers; but on the other, there has been a simultaneous impulse to disavow the narrative strategies they employed, as well as the implicit cultural politics of their chosen subjects and methods of representation.
Within Asian American literary studies in particular, such ambivalence most clearly marks the critical response to Winnifred Maude Eaton (1875-1954), the first writer of Asian ancestry to publish a novel in the United States. Born to an English father and a Chinese mother, Eaton produced numerous novels, short stories and other writings under the pseudo-Japanese pen name Onoto Watanna. Her novels feature such exoticist titles as Miss Numè: A Japanese-American Romance (1899), A Japanese Nightingale (1902), A Japanese Blossom (1906), The Honorable Miss Moonlight (1912) and Sunny-San (1922). Generally they depict melodramatic romantic scenarios between passive Japanese women and boorish American men that follow the outlines of the more familiar tale of the genre, Madame Butterfly, the original version of which was published by John Luther Long in 1898 and subsequently made internationally renowned by Puccini in his opera of the same name that premiered in Milan in 1904. By contrast, Winnifred's sister, Edith Eaton (1865-1914), who chose the Chinese-sounding pen name Sui Sin Far, produced realistic and generally positive depictions of Chinese immigrant communities in the U.S. [End Page 855] In doing so, she openly declared her allegiance with and sought to improve conditions for people of her own ethnic heritage. Unlike her sister, Watanna rarely publicly revealed her half-Chinese ancestry, but rather invented a past to go along with her pen name, claiming Nagasaki (tellingly, the setting for Madame Butterfly) as her birthplace and a Japanese noblewoman as her mother. Consequently, for a long time critics largely ignored Watanna, dismissing her as a kind of ethnic "sell-out" and her work simply as so much pandering to the Orientalist desires of white readers.
More recently, however, Watanna has enjoyed something of a resurgence of interest among critics of Asian American literature. Offering greater sympathy and less moralizing judgment, such critics have begun to understand her professional choices more fully in terms of her social and familial context. Thus, in the early 1980s, Amy Ling initiated a reconsideration of Watanna's work by calling attention to the fact that she managed to support herself and four children entirely through writing, as well as by arguing that the Japanese masquerade constituted a valid response to the specifically anti-Chinese racism in the U.S. at the time. Indeed, during the last few years, a spate of publications relating to Watanna have appeared, including at least three critical studies by different scholars and a biography by her granddaughter, as well as reissues of three original works: the autobiography Me: A Book of Remembrance (University Press of Mississippi, 1997), Miss Numè of Japan (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), and The Heart of Hyacinth (University of Washington Press, 2000).
One of the critical studies and the biography have appeared under the University of Illinois Press imprint as part of their impressive and growing "Asian American Experience" series. This...