- Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism, and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton
Mary Chapman's edited collection recovers early writing from Edith Maude Eaton, the Chinese North American author often known by her pen name, Sui Sin Far. Becoming Sui Sin Far: Early Fiction, Journalism, and Travel Writing by Edith Maude Eaton is a valuable collection for scholars working in a range of fields, including Chinese American and Canadian literatures, print culture, gender studies, travel writing, and transnational and hemispheric studies. Whereas Edith Eaton's 1912 book, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, has become increasingly well-known since its recovery in the 1980s, this collection focuses on her early writings, which heretofore have not been available in print. Carefully edited and introduced, Chapman's volume brings to light a wealth of Eaton's early periodical fiction and essays, allowing a fuller understanding of Eaton's boundary-defying life and work.
The introduction to the collection offers a persuasive reassessment of its subject's complex authorial position, an argument signaled by the fact that Chapman refers to the writer by the name Edith Eaton and titles the collection Becoming Sui Sin Far. Whereas previous scholarship tended to focus on the author's ethnic heritage and Chinatown writings, Chapman argues that Eaton was a "transnational, or even post-national, author who questioned the coherence of ideas about ethnic and national identity" (xix). Eaton's work featured in the collection serves as evidence for this claim. Her early writing falls in a wider range of genre categories than the sentimental Chinatown fiction of Mrs. Spring Fragrance. These categories include literary sketches, middlebrow fiction, sensational fiction, journalism, and travel writing. Perhaps most striking is the fact that Eaton employs a variety of bylines in her early work. Eaton wrote anonymously and under her given name before using the pseudonyms Fire Fly, Sui Seen Far, and Wing Sing. Thus, Chapman reveals that the pen name Sui Sin Far was only one among many. Moreover, while assuming these names, Eaton traveled internationally, living in Montreal, Jamaica, Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. The collection illuminates an author who persistently crossed borders and resisted any single ethnic or national identity.
Chapman's introduction also models a rigorous process of recovery. Recognizing scholars who have helped to expand our knowledge of Eaton's [End Page 218] oeuvre (S. E. Solberg, Amy Ling, Annette White-Parks, Dominika Ferens, Martha J. Cutter, June Howard, and Hsuan L. Hsu, among others), Chapman describes her own research in detail. This description of the periodicals Chapman searched and how she searched them provides an important note on the text and a useful point of reference for future scholarship. The book's appendices supplement its recovery work with a bibliography and a timeline of Eaton's life. The bibliography is the most comprehensive inventory of Eaton's work to date, and it points to additional texts not included in the collection. Likewise, the biographical timeline offers new details of Eaton's life. For instance, Chapman uncovers the history of Eaton's Chinese-born mother, Achuen "Grace" Amoy, who was enslaved in childhood as a member of an acrobatic troupe that toured the United States and Europe before being rescued by missionaries and returning to China where she would marry Edward Eaton and once again migrate to England and North America (xvi).
The body of the book is divided into five sections. The first consists of literary sketches and poetry published under Eaton's given name in Montreal's Dominion Illustrated from 1888-1891. Experimental in nature, these pieces fluctuate between realistic depictions of city life and romantic fantasies. The texts are particularly fascinating as Eaton adapts established genres and canonical sources for her own purposes. The second and third sections of the book consist of journalism that Eaton composed in Montreal and Jamaica. From 1890-1896, Eaton's work was published anonymously or with her initials (E. E.) in the Montreal Daily Witness and the Montreal Daily Star...