Fanny Fern and Sui Sin Far: The Beginning of an Asian American Voice

Article excerpt

The lack of a role model, as Alice Walker points out, "is an occupational hazard for the artist, simply because models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect - even if rejected - enrich and enlarge one's view of existence" (4). The first Chinese American fiction writer, Edith Maude Eaton, or Sui Sin Far, had to cope with this "hazard" when she started her literary career near the turn of the century. Born in 1865 to an English father and a Chinese mother, Edith Maude Eaton grew up in an era notorious for its "violent anti-Chinese sentiment and legally sanctioned discriminatory policies" (Falvey, backcover). Taking "tremendous pride" in her Chinese heritage (Ammons 107), Eaton early decided to "write wrongs in order to right them" (Ling 32), defying "the stereotype of the passive, impassive, fragile, inscrutable 'Oriental,'" and refusing to "take on the identity assigned her by racist whites" (Ammons 107). Anticipating "her spiritual great grand-daughter Maxine Hong Kingston by three-quarters of a century, she creates herself as a fighter" (Ammons 107). As the first Chinese American "woman warrior," Eaton had to address both the racial injustice she and her people suffered daily and the bias and misunderstanding she faced as an independent young woman struggling against two equally male dominant, though otherwise different, cultures. Yet such an ideal double voice was not available to her, and the voice of Chinese Americans, male or female, was rather effectively silenced by the hegemonic white male culture.

The only American text written by someone of Chinese descent before Eaton, Lee Yan Phou's When I Was a Boy in China, describes "Chinese sports, games, food, clothing, folk tales, and ceremonies" (Kim 25) but does not address Chinese American situations. As one of the dozen elite students sent by the Chinese government to the U.S. for a Western education, Lee knew nothing about the ordinary Chinese American's life on the margin. Neither Lee's life nor his book could help a young female from a poor mixed race family find her position in literary arenas of late-nineteenth-century America.

However, unable to find a model in her own race, Eaton searched among contemporary authors of her own gender for a voice that could be adopted and adapted for her own purpose; she found it in Sara Payson Willis Parton, or Fanny Fern, a pioneer woman author who "advocated and practiced - both in her life and in her writing - individualism for women" (Warren 306). Fanny Fern was already a household name before her major work Ruth Hall was published in 1854. According to Nancy A. Walker, Fanny Fern was "the most widely reprinted and most highly paid newspaper columnist of the 1850s" (1). Nathaniel Hawthorne used to dismiss his contemporary popular women authors as the "damned mob of scribbling women," but he modified his harsh criticism after reading Ruth Hall. He confessed in a letter to his publisher:

In my last, I recollect, I bestowed some vituperation on female authors. I have since been reading "Ruth Hall"; and I must say I enjoyed it a good deal. The woman writes as if the devil was in her; and that is the only condition under which a woman ever writes anything worth reading. (I, 78)

Indeed, Fanny Fern expanded the genre of "domestic novel" beyond the closure of "marriage plot," claimed her "own language as a precondition of autonomy, and thus made a "major contribution of American fiction" (Walker 62). She is a major figure in her "own historical moment" and today's "reevaluation of women's literary history" (Walker 40). It is small wonder that young Eaton should choose Fanny Fern as a role model when embarking on her literary endeavor.

The affinity between Eaton and Parton is too striking for one not to assume that Eaton deliberately emulated Parton: like Parton's flowery pen name, Fanny Fern, Eaton's pseudonym, Sui Sin Far, is also derived from a plant; it is a transliteration of the Chinese word for narcissus (literally, "water immortal flower"). …