Sex, Love, Revenge, and Murder in "Away Down in Jamaica": A Lost Short Story by Sui Sin Far (Edith Eaton)

Article excerpt

Tucked between advertisements for Ever Ready Dress Stays ("Impervious, Pliable, Durable, Reliable"), Jonas' Flavoring Extracts ("Perfectly Pure Extracts of Choicest Fruits"), and Bovril Fluid Beef ("A Genuine Social Reform") in the Montreal women's newspaper the Metropolitan from 19 March 1898 is an unknown and previously unrecovered story by Sui Sin Far (Edith Eaton, 1865-1914) with a decidedly unladylike content. "Away Down in Jamaica" details a love triangle or even quadrangle between four people. Kathleen Harold (a white woman) spurns Phil Everett (a white man), instead agreeing to marry Wickliff Walker (a white man) who has had an affair with and cast aside a Jamaican ("brown" [4]) woman with the symbolically weighted name of Clarissa. Eventually Everett dies from love, Clarissa vanishes after poisoning Kathleen Harold, and Wickliff Walker is left bereft. Set against the dramatic backdrop of Jamaica, with its "magnificent sea of fire" caused by the "mingling together in great numbers of phosphorescents" (4), and obsessed with its themes of interracial sex, magic, magnetism, betrayal, murder, and revenge, the story would seem to be extremely unusual in the corpus of Sui Sin Far's fiction. Perhaps even more odd is the placement of this story in the socially upright ladies newspaper the Metropolitan, with its ornate masthead of angels and cherubim (see illustration), and its advertisements for respectable businesses. Further deepening the mystery surrounding the story is its location at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles among letters between Sui Sin Far and her mentor and editor, the well-known and influential Californian publisher of Land of Sunshine and Out West, Charles Fletcher Lummis. What was Sui Sin Far's purpose in writing this story? And what was her goal in sending it to Lummis?

I found this story in the archives at the Southwest Museum while doing research at both the Southwest Museum and the Huntington Library on how Sui Sin Far's publishers attempted to shape her literary identity and capitalize on her appeal as an "exotic" Asian American writer. "Away Down in Jamaica" was among letters that probably had not been part of this archive at the Southwest Museum (the Marion Parks Collection) until the late 1990s. Marion Parks was a librarian at the Southwest involved in the project of trying to save the Lummis homestead. According to the current archivist at the Southwest Museum, Kim Walters,

  The short story that you referred to came in with other letters from
  Edith Eaton about 4 years ago [in 1998]. It is not in the part of the
  Lummis collection that everyone else has published previously. You
  will be the first. As far as I can tell Marion Parks, the woman that
  had all of the Lummis correspondence, worked here at the Museum
  briefly in 1927-1928, [and] she continued to be affiliated with the
  Museum, and with the Charles F. Lummis Foundation, which did not last
  very long. This would have been in the early 1940's when people were
  trying to save El Alisal (Lummis' home).... I have a feeling that this
  woman just went through and picked up bundles of Lummis papers and
  correspondence. We left the papers organized the way they were
  donated, because they were tied up with string, with Lummis'
  handwritten notes on each group. From some other things that we found
  in Marion Park's personal files, I think she had intended upon
  writing a biography of Lummis which she never did.

This may mean that other new materials--such as new letters written by Sui Sin Far to Lummis--are now in this archive at the Southwest Museum.

Based on what I know about the correspondence, I surmise that Sui Sin Far sent a copy of this short story to Lummis with a letter, as was her frequent practice. However, it is unclear with which letter it might have been enclosed because there are no direct references to it in the extant letters. Sui Sin Far was in Jamaica from 1897-1898, and in a letter to Lummis from 30 January 1897, she mentions wanting to publish some stories about the West Indies, although she says she is too busy at the current time to do so. …