"I think," said Co Ek ]u, "that when I return to China I will write a book about the American people."
"What put such an idea into your head?" I asked.
"The number of books about the Chinese by Americans," answered Go Ek Ju. "I see them in the library; they are very amusing."
"See, then, that when you write your book, it is likewise amusing."
"No," said Go Ek Ju. "My aim, when I write a book about Americans will be to make it not amusing, but interesting and instructive. The poor Americans have to content themselves with writing for amusement only because they have no means of obtaining any true knowledge of the Chinese when in China; but we Chinese in America have fine facilities for learning all about the Americans. We go into the American houses as servants; we enter the American schools- and colleges as students; we ask questions and we think about what we hear and see. Where is there the American who will go to China and enter into the service of a Chinese family as a domestic? We have yet to hear about a band of American youths, both male and female, being admitted as students into a Chinese university."
Sui Sin Far, "A Chinese Book on Americans" (1)
Sui Sin Far (Edith Maude Eaton) readily fits none of the categories scholars of Chinese American literature have identified, in that she belongs neither to the group of writers who were born in China in the twentieth century, emigrated to the United States, and write and publish in Chinese, nor to the group of Chinese American writers who were horn in the United States and "write in English about things (Chinese) American" (Shan 117). (2) Born in England in r865, Edith Eaton grew up with an English father and Chinese mother and later described herself as "Eurasian." The family moved from England to North America in 1873, first arriving in Hudson, New York, then settling in Montreal, where the young Edith attended school and, as she writes in an autobiographical essay, where she first discovered discrimination when her schoolmates learned that her mother was Chinese. (3) Nevertheless, as an adult Edith adopted the Chinese name Sui Sin Far and moved to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where she wrote journalistic pieces and fiction based in the Chinese immigrant experience (White-Parks, Sui Sin Far 9).
Neither does her fiction reflect the limitations writing in English has typically placed on Chinese writers. In describing the difference between "characteristics of Chinese-language literature in America" and "writing in English by Chinese-American authors," Xiao-huangYin identifies as a "hallmark" of Chinese-language literature in America the freedom such writers have from the restraints of the "social codes of mainstream society" ("Worlds" 177). Yin observes that while American-born Chinese writers "tend to delve into the broad issues of ethnic identity, cultural conflicts, and sentiments of the native-born," what distinguishes Chinese-language writers "is their persistent focus on immigrants" (178). Yet the stories from Sui Sin Far's only book, "Mrs. Spring Fragrance," a collection of short fiction published in 1912, manage at the same time to critique the "social codes" and the political constraints the United States placed on immigrant Chinese in the late nineteenth century, to focus on the complex responses of various Chinese immigrants to their immigrant experiences, and to reflect on the issue of ethnic identity for persons of biracial origin, such as herself.
Sui Sin Far remains unique among Chinese American writers. According to Annette White-Parks, Sui Sin Far perhaps used the term "Chinese-American" for the first time in print in the series of sketches of Chinese life in America she published in the Westerner in May 1909 ("Introduction" 174). (4) In other ways as well, critics have considered her unique. Yin, among others, identifies her as the first Chinese American woman writer ("Worlds" 176); S. E. Solberg calls her the first "Chinese-American fictionist"; and Frank Chin sets her apart from the "pack" of Christian Chinese Americans who wrote autobiographies in the nineteenth century, calling her "a lone champion of the Chinese American real" and asserting that her essays and contemporary portraits of Chinatowns "are the only knowing and sympathetic writing on Chinese America of the time" (12).
If we cannot fully understand her work by categorizing her among Chinese immigrant or Chinese American writers, the key to understanding Sui Sin Far's contribution to American literature lies in analyzing her use of the English language in ways similar to that of the regionalist writers who were also her contemporaries. Like the fate-nineteenth- and turn-of-the-twentieth-century regionalist writers who found in dialect a way to convey regional experience from within, Sui Sin Far discovers in the structures of English itself how to represent the Chinese experience in America. She refashions English in a way that allows her both to reflect that experience and to demonstrate her immigrant characters' consciousness of the ways the English language encodes dominance. In the process, she reconstructs the English language as a site of cultural encounter, thereby demonstrating to her American readers, in their own words so to speak, their potential to write and think in ways that are less dominant and more modest--characteristics Sui Sin Far associated with the "humble, kindly, moral, unassuming Chinese people of America" (qtd. in McCullough 235). In her use of English, she attempted to reflect Chinese immigrant experience back to her American readers in such a way as to help those readers come to view themselves differently and to change their attitudes and behavior toward the Chinese. In this essay, I will explore Sui Sin Ear as a regionalist writer whose work demonstrates her struggle against mainstream American representations of the Chinese and who achieves artistic form and a strategy for helping her readers think differently through her adaptation of English syntax in "Mrs. Spring Fragrance." Before approaching Sui Sin Far's innovations in the use of English, however, it is necessary to situate her as a regionalist.
It is significant that Sui Sin Far published her earliest Chinese stories in the Land of Sunshine, a California magazine edited by Charles Lummis, who expressed his interest in publishing "the best Western literature" as well as unknown "writers of promise" (White-Parks, Sui Sin Far 86-87). Writing for a "Western" publication gave Sui Sin Far an opportunity to write about the Chinese. At the same time, her work joins that of other nineteenth-century regionalists in expressing the voices of disenfranchised people.
In literary regionalism, the political location of the narrator with respect to the region determines whether or not the reader will empathize with or laugh at the regional characters who inhabit the text. Indeed, regionalism emerged as a resistant discourse to the "local color" mode prevalent in American prose writing after the Civil War. Judith Fetterley and I differentiate between "local color" and regionalism primarily by virtue of the text's positionality with respect to the inhabitants of regions and note that this distinction "can be summarized as the difference between 'looking with' [regionalism] and 'looking at' [local color]. If a text looks 'with' regional characters, location becomes marked rather than transcended and the text retains its 'geography.' When a text looks 'at' the region, however, geography and location characterize only one aspect of the text while the perspective of the one who looks is framed as universal and transcendent" (Fetterley and Pryse, Writing 36).
The resistance of regionalist discourse to "local color" emerges from the responses of regional people to being made the object of scrutiny, "queered" and "othered" by mainstream and urban society and by "local color" narrators. Such treatment of regionals has much in common with the objectification of immigrant and ethnic persons. As Ruth Frankenberg has observed in an early contribution to "whiteness" studies, "it has ... for the most part been Other, marked subjects rather than white/Western, unmarked subjects whose racial and cultural identities have been the focus of study" (17), or, in "local color," the focus of objectification. But even the white characters in "local color" fiction become less "white" by virtue of their becoming "Other, marked subjects." By writing from within the regions, regionalism emphasizes the subjectivity of regional people, whatever the reasons for their disenfranchisement--whether they are poor, elderly, unmarried, children, mountain people, women, and/or persons of color.
Regionalism creates a fictional space to contest the ruling relations that subordinated rural people and other groups who possessed limited power in mainstream US society and did so by developing the subjectivity of regional persons. Sui Sin Far joins other late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers of color who aligned their own critiques of political dominance with geography and writing with a resistant regionalist discourse, writers such as Zitkala-Sa, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, and Charles W. Chesnutt. (5) For these writers--and their white regionalist counterparts--place represents more local and bounded geographies than conventional understandings of regions in the United States (e.g., South, Midwest, Northeast, West).
Sui Sin Far's "region" is the urban Chinatown of Seattle and the West Coast--hardly the same "West" as that of Bret [Harte]. ... [F]or Zitkala-Sa, the "West" is complicated by her identity as Dakota and her upbringing on the reservation. [Kate] Chopin, [Grace] King, and Dunbar-Nelson all place their fictions in Creole Louisiana, a "region" hardly metonymic for the "South"; ... for Dunbar-Nelson "region" connotes a hybrid space where to be Creole may also mean to be part African. (Fetterley and Pryse, Writing 12)
Because the geographies of the fictions are so specific, regionalist writing, while often tied to geographical place and conscious of its social and natural environment, emphasizes an understanding of "region less as a term of geographical determinism and more as discourse or a mode of analysis, a vantage point within the network of power relations that provides a location for critique and resistance" (11). Inhabitants of a region share a vantage point based on the relationship between their region and the larger cosmopolitan centers of political and economic power with which that region must interact. Literary expressions of a region's geography (or, as in the case of Sui Sin Far, of a city's Chinatown in relation to its surrounding urban center) may either contribute to …