A Reversal of American Concepts of "Other-Ness" in the Fiction of Sui Sin Far

Article excerpt

I came to the concepts explored in this essay through questions formulated while reading Pocahontas's Daughters by Mary Dearborn.(1) Although Dearborn does not directly discuss writers of Chinese descent, her concept of mediation - in which the role of the ethnic woman writer is to "stress samenesses rather than differences," "explain" a subordinate group to a dominant group, and ultimately "bridge" cultures - raises important issues for my examination of Sui Sin Far.(2) One critical aspect of mediation, as I interpret, is the stance or attitude a writer assumes toward the culture(s) of and for whom she is writing. The cultural pool that Sui Sin Far drew from was composed basically of populations of Chinese or European descent, living in Canada or the United States, encountering one another for the first time on the North American continent. Her narrative stance varies. When Chinese North American characters interact with each other, they follow no particular insider-outsider pattern but, contrary to the "Yellow Peril" stereotypes in the age they were written, depict the scope of humanity in its diversified range.(3) Among interactions between Chinese and White(4) North Americans across racial borders, however, another picture begins to emerge: Chinese North Americans repeatedly occupy the fictional center, taking on the role of insiders, while White North Americans shift to the periphery, becoming the outsiders, or "Other."(5) This is a direct counter-perspective to conventional portrayals of the relationships between White and Chinese North Americans in literature during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century era when Sui Sin Far was writing. More subtle is the writing strategy by which this effect was created. In 1976, S.E. Solberg observed:

Edith Eaton as Sui Sin Far did manage to dip into those deeper currents...[of Chinatown], but no matter what she saw and understood, there was no acceptable form to shape it to.(6) (Melus 32)

My study examines the way in which Sui Sin Far's fiction creates that form, combining strategy and idea to contrive a reversal of concepts of "Other-ness" as portrayed in American literature. I show that Sui Sin Far's primary writing task, as perceived through these stories, is not to mediate - stressing the "samenesses" - but to create a visibility, a voice and, ultimately, an hegemony for Chinese North Americans in her art that they were denied in their lives.(7)

To interpret the critical questions of race as Sui Sin Far - and any writer of non-European heritage - must have encountered them in the imperialist-racist climate of North America at the turn-of-the-century, we must look at the options such writers were faced with: 1) to climb into the Procrustean bed the dominant, European-based culture defined for them, be assimilated and give up traditional cultures, or 2) to fight back against the discriminatory laws and attitudes these writers lived with daily as individuals and took stands on as artists. Sui Sin Far seems never to have doubted that her choice was to fight. From early childhood, she recalls street battles with other children who malign her and her siblings for being Eurasian, and writes: "I glory in the idea of dying at the stake and a great genie arising from the flames and declaring to those who have scorned us: 'Behold, how great and glorious and noble are the Chinese people!'" ("Leaves" 127). As an adult, Sui Sin Far relates an actual confrontation with her dream and tells how she responded. It happened in "a little town away off on the north shore of a big lake" in the "Middle West," when she was lunching with White American acquaintances, including her employer, who perceived her as being racially the same as themselves. Conversation turns to the "cars full of Chinamen that past [sic] that morning" by train, leading to her companions' observations that "I wouldn't have one in my house," and "A Chinaman is, in my eyes, more repulsive than a nigger," and "I cannot reconcile myself to the thought that the Chinese are human like ourselves. …

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