- Cross-Cultural Affinities between Native American and White Women in “The Alaska Widow” by Edith Eaton (Sui Sin Far)
When her work was recovered in the 1980s, Edith Eaton (Sui Sin Far) was credited with founding the canon of Asian-North American literature.1 The earliest Eaton scholarship focused on her resistance to yellow-peril discourse through her sympathetic portrayals of diasporic Chinese and Eurasians.2 This scholarship contrasted Edith Eaton’s “authentic” self-presentation as the half-Chinese “Sui Sin Far” with her sister Winnifred’s posturing as Japanese noblewoman author “Onoto Watanna.” Although fascinating in many ways, this scholarship was circumscribed by both an exclusive focus on the politics of race as it intersected with gender—and the lack of access to Eaton’s complete and more internally self-contradictory oeuvre. Scholars relying on the same handful of anthologized works—“The Story of One White Woman Who Married a Chinese” (1910), “Her Chinese Husband” (1910), “In the Land of the Free” (1909), “The Wisdom of the New” (1912), “Mrs. Spring Fragrance” (1910), and “The Inferior Woman” (1910)—explored only a few of Eaton’s themes, most notably Eurasian marriage, tricksterism, and American anti-Asian racism. By focusing on Eaton’s depictions of North American Chinatowns, scholars have rarely recognized the broader transnational political contexts in which Eaton wrote or the cross-racial collaborations depicted in many of her works. Most have understated the significance of Eaton’s British, Canadian, Jamaican, and Chinese cultural referents and ignored significant interactions with the native communities—French Canadian, Caribbean, and even Native North American—that she depicts in much of her work. Nor have scholars adequately appreciated the carefully framed politics of what Sean McCann dismisses as Eaton’s “ordinary, mundane and domestic” settings (76).
In the past ten years, scholars have located numerous unknown essays, works of fiction, and journalism by Eaton that expand her known oeuvre and challenge the Asian American dualism for which she is known. In 2002, Dominika Ferens uncovered a daily column Eaton wrote for six months (1896–1897) for Gall’s Daily News Letter, a Jamaican newspaper (68). Martha J. Cutter’s 2004 discovery of a story concerning a love triangle between two white Jamaicans and a mulatta published in Montreal’s Metropolitan Magazine in 1898 added to this Caribbean corpus and inspired Cutter’s and others’ essays about Eaton’s thematic treatment of racial hybridity outside a Chinatown context (85).3 [End Page 155]
In the past five years, I have located more than ninety uncollected works by Eaton, including journalism written in Montreal, Northern Ontario, California, and Washington; fiction depicting Native Americans, Persians, “Arabians,” and Japanese; middlebrow magazine fiction; syndicated sensation fiction; children’s fiction; and much more. Together with other discoveries, these works almost quadruple Eaton’s known oeuvre and project a complex image of her as author. They reveal that in 1893, Eaton filed hard-boiled “masculine” journalism about smallpox epidemics and murders from a predominantly Native Canadian community in Northern Ontario; that three years later, she shifted from “professionally detached” to affective, “stunt-girl” journalism in columns written in Jamaica; and that, after her return to North America, she began a diverse career as a fiction writer, publishing more than 100 works in 50 Canadian and US periodicals. She sent experimental fiction to “little” magazines devoted to “New Ideas” at the same time that she dismissed modernist experimentation in other periodicals. She hawked sensation fiction to the Daily Story Company at the same time that she supplied religious and didactic fiction to conservative children’s, women’s, and missionaries’ magazines. She published middlebrow (white) women’s fiction while penning racier and more racialized fiction for radical magazines. She also weighed in on numerous international events in essays and fiction that discussed the aftermath of the Chinese Revolution (1911–1912), the Alaska gold rush (1896–1899), and the Spanish-American War (1898). These texts challenge basic scholarly assumptions about Eaton’s body of work and understandings of authorship. She was much more than a sympathetic chronicler of US Chinatowns.
One of the most interesting texts by Eaton is “The Alaska Widow,” a story published in the April 1909 issue...