Legacy 20.1&2 (2003) 197-198
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Dominika Ferens's Edith and Winnifred Eaton: Chinatown Missions and Japanese Romances brings an astute new perspective to what, in this fledgling twenty-first century, we can finally refer to as "Eaton studies." Before 1981, it would have been a rarity to find the name of either sister in print, much less in a scholarly context. This was the year of S. E. Solberg's conference presentation, "The Eaton Sisters: Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna," attention that was continued by Amy Ling in various articles and her book, Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry (1990), then my Sui Sin Far/Edith Eaton: A Literary Biography (1995), accompanied by Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Stories, edited by Amy Ling and myself. Winnifred Eaton's fictionalized autobiography Me: A Book of Remembrance was reprinted by Linda Trinh Moser in 1997, and Diane Birchall's biography Onoto Watanna, The Story of Winnifred Eaton and Jean Lee Cole's critical work The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity were both published in 2002.
So recognition of the Eaton sisters is barely past twenty years, yet with Ferens's study a revisionist approach already enters the dialogue. While Roger Daniels's suggestion in the book's foreword that previous studies have viewed Edith as the "authentic" sister and Winnifred as the "phony" one expresses a polarization I do not see in these studies, Ferens is the first to portray these amazing sisters together. The book examines each as an ethnographer who adapted a pseudonym, ethnic identity, and authorial voice to appeal to the trend of Orientalism so popular with readers in Canada, the United States, and Europe in the late nineteenth century. Sui Sin Far/Edith aligned herself with Chinese culture and ethnicity, while Onoto Watanna/Winnifred identified herself as Japanese.
Ferens's stated attempt to give a balanced look at both sisters is built into the volume's structure. The first chapter sets up the discursive context, chapters two and three are devoted to Sui Sin Far, and chapters four and five address Onoto Watanna's work. Within this framework—clear, coherent, and easy to follow—the book interweaves a fascinating array of social-cultural phenomena, in what Ferens describes as "a cross-disciplinary approach" (5), bringing the concerns of anthropology into literature. A major contribution is the recovery of Sui Sin Far's writings as editor of Gall's Daily Newsletter in Jamaica in 1896, under the pseudonym "Firefly." Ferens does an excellent job of combining literary and historical research and relating issues of race and class to contemporary concerns. On a broader level, Ferens posits a theory about how, through cunning and perseverance, writers find ways to get published against the odds of their day and even exploit social prejudices for their own advantage.
Some generalizations, though, are surprising. Ferens states, for example, that "by focusing on Chinese family life in her early fiction [Edith] also marginalizes the problems of the predominantly male uprooted Chinatown society" (57). How? This requires explanation. And the statement that in "transforming Chinatown material from reportage to literature... Edith all but erased such facts as exclusion, laws, borders and racism" is readily disproved by stories such as "In the Land of the Free" (67); it also overlooks a trickster style that interweaves such "facts" with the plot. Ferens's identification of the sisters as primarily "white middle-class" fits racially but needs to be qualified economically, due to the impoverished state of the Eaton family and of Edith Eaton, as a single woman, throughout most of her life. [End Page 197]
The parallel examination this book gives to these sisters adds valuable depth to Eaton studies and indeed proves that to understand each assists in understanding the other. Certain differences, however, need to be noticed. Both Onoto Watanna and Sui Sin Far are treated as pseudonyms, and while this is clear of...