- Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism, and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton ed. by Mary Chapman
Until recently, readers of Edith Maude Eaton, also known as Sui Sin Far, have focused on the Chinatown-oriented fiction collected in Mrs. Spring Fragrance (1912), along with a handful of nonfiction essays and sketches. On the basis of these works, critics have established Eaton as an important antecedent for Asian diasporic mixed-race literatures as well as a sophisticated practitioner of literary regionalism, sentimental fiction, journalism, and memoir. Building on both earlier scholarship and her own extensive archival research, Mary Chapman’s Becoming Sui Sin Far presents a broader picture of Eaton’s career—a corpus of more than 260 texts (carefully documented in a comprehensive, chronological bibliography of Eaton’s known works) that goes far beyond American Chinatowns and encompasses multiple and heterogeneous communities in (and in between) Canada, Jamaica, China, and the United States. Presenting dozens of newly discovered works that Eaton authored under a range of identities (from “Edith Eaton” and “E. E.” to “Fire Fly,” “Sui Seen Far,” and the male merchant “Wing Sing”), Chapman’s collection will shift how scholars understand Eaton’s experiments with the transgression of national, racial, formal, sexual, and gender boundaries.
In the volume’s introduction, Chapman provides an invaluable overview of Eaton’s biography, the “expanded oeuvre” of her previously uncollected writings, and major trends in the critical reception of her work (xxii). The introduction complements scholarly assessments of Eaton’s cosmopolitanism and her cross-racial analogies with Chapman’s striking discoveries about Eaton’s family history: for example, her mother, Achuen Amoy, had previously traveled [End Page 399] to England and the United States as a child performer in a touring troupe of Chinese acrobats, and her father was a “‘kingpin’” among the Montreal-based smugglers who transported Chinese across the border into the United States (xxvi). Eaton’s own experiences as a mixed-race, diasporic journalist moving among Canada, Jamaica, and the United States while frequently writing about China inform Chapman’s assessment of her early work, which shows “incredible diversity in terms of genre, venue of publication, subject matter, style, and assumed audience” (xxi). Among other things, the previously uncollected writings demonstrate Eaton’s exceptional versatility as a professional writer producing work for “a far wider range of publications than has previously been acknowledged” (xxi); these works “[challenge] the presumed centrality of China and Chinatowns to Eaton’s work” (xxii), highlight “the significance of her career as an early woman journalist” (xxiii), and showcase “Eaton’s efforts to examine racial identities beyond the Chinese” (xxiii). These writings will provide new evidence for scholars interested in the themes of transnational circulation and cross-racial affiliations in both Eaton’s work and her personal development. For Chapman, smuggling in Eaton’s journalism, family history, and fiction becomes a trope for a sensibility oriented toward surreptitious border crossing—or toward subjects positioned between and across normative identities:
The diverse historical and fictional characters whose stories Eaton tells yearn for flexible subject positions that can encompass their complex racial, ethnic, legal, gender, sexual, religious, and class identities, whether they are Chinese immigrants struggling to fit into North American society, North American–born Chinese juggling inherited cultural traditions and the traditions of the society in which they live, the mixed-race individuals with whom Eaton most identifies, or multicultural/multinational individuals whose genealogies and lived experiences complicate their senses of self.(xxviii)
Becoming Sui Sin Far traces Eaton’s development across what Chapman calls the first phase of her career—“a period of authorial experimentation between 1888, when Eaton’s earliest known publications began to appear in Montreal newspapers and magazines, and about 1898, when, after having tried out Sue Seen Far, Sui Seen Far, and Sui Sin Fah, she committed to spelling her new pen name Sui Sin Far” (xxviii). The book’s first section reproduces some of Eaton’s earliest known works...