Academic journal article MELUS

"A Chinese Ishmael": Sui Sin Far, Writing, and Exile

Academic journal article MELUS

"A Chinese Ishmael": Sui Sin Far, Writing, and Exile

Article excerpt

   Our destination is fixed on the perpetual motion of search. Fixed in its
   perpetual exile.

      Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee

Errant Storytelling

In the beginning of her personal memoir, "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian," Sui Sin Far, the half English, half Chinese, Asian American writer, reconstructs her first experience as a storyteller. Only four years old, Sui Sin Far attempts to report to her mother what the nurse has been telling others about the family. However, in the telling the story is garbled, and the nurse informs Sui Sin Far's mother, "Little Miss Sui is a story-teller" (218). In response, her mother slaps her. For Sui Sin Far, it is a significant childhood moment because "I first learned that I was something different and apart from other children" (218). Sui Sin Far is referring to her Eurasian background and the influence this difference will have on the rest of her life, but what the reader cannot also help but notice is that storytelling, whether consciously or unconsciously on Sui Sin Far's part, is immediately associated with deceit. The slap Sui Sin Far receives is due to the fact that her mother thinks she is lying when, in actuality, it is the nurse who lies to cover up her gossip. Deceit is present, but it is not the "story-teller" who is guilty. In fact, it is the nurse who introduces deceit by both lying to the mother and by using the word "storytelling" to signify the untruth.

Instead of explicitly blaming the nurse in her recollection, Sui Sin Far places the burden of proof upon herself: "I fail to make myself intelligible. My mother does not understand" (218). Based on the fact that Sui Sin Far grows up to be a professional storyteller, it would seem she learns a valuable and lifelong lesson from this childhood incident: the failure to make the truth apparent through representation results in misunderstanding and injustice. Because her story is not clear, her mother is prohibited from knowing the truth, from discerning fact from fiction, thus resulting in Sui Sin Far's punishment. This may not seem like an enlightening lesson, but for Sui Sin Far disclosing the truth to the world about the Eurasian and the Chinese becomes her mission in life. She explicitly states this in another autobiographical recollection: "I attended school again and must have been about 8 years old when I conceived the ambition to write a book about the half Chinese. This ambition arose from my sensitiveness to the remarks, criticism and observations on the half Chinese which continually assailed my ears, also from an impulse, born with me, to describe, to impart to others [all] that I felt all that I saw, all that I was" ("Sui Sin Far" 289). Writing, for Sui Sin Far, offers an opportunity to share a glimpse of the other's interior identity. Thus, it is imperative that Sui Sin Fat's representation of herself and others like her be accurate in order to promote greater understanding of and sympathy toward the other, which in this case is the half Chinese. In addition, like other writers, Sui Sin Far attempts to turn storytelling, or rather fiction, into a vehicle for disclosing the truth. Representation must rewrite the injustices against the other, the half Chinese, as well as redeem its own reputation. (1)

However, if Sui Sin Far intends to reveal to her audience the interiority of her experiences as a half Chinese, thus proving her humanity, the representation of herself through her autobiographical writing is suspect. Born Edith Maude Eaton of a Chinese mother and British father, Sui Sin Far renames herself when she begins publishing Chinese-American stories in 1896. Sui Sin Far's biographer, Annette White-Parks, draws attention to the fact that the author refers to herself as Sui Sin Far throughout "Leaves," even though she adopts this name only when she is an adult. Thus, if the memoir reconstructs an actual experience, the authenticity of the recollection is thrown into doubt because of the fact that in her narration the nurse calls her "Little Miss Sui," a name that will not exist until she is older. …

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