Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Race to the Page: Positioning as a Writer of Mixed Race

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Race to the Page: Positioning as a Writer of Mixed Race

Article excerpt

Race to the Page: Positioning as a Writer of "Mixed Race"(f.1)

Kyo Maclear Department of Sociology in Education Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Toronto, Ontario

Once upon a time, not so long ago...

Almost a century has passed since "mixed raced" writer Sui Sin Far (1865 - 1915) wrote her autobiographical essay, "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian." As a context - specific document, "Leaves" offers a glimpse into one woman's journey as a racialized writer during a period in which ruling narratives constituted "race" as biologically determined, and thus immutable. Born to a Chinese mother and English father, and raised in Montreal during the late nineteenth century, Sui Sin Far provides an interesting point of departure for this article.

At a time of entrenched, and often violent anti - Chinese racism, Sui Sin Far actively positioned herself as a "Chinese writer." The constructed nature of this assumed identity, and literary persona, is underscored by her decision to adopt a Chinese pseudonym in lieu of her given name, Edith Maude Eaton.

Yet what is perhaps most interesting about her writing, and what has often been elided by "Asian American" scholars and critics, is her conscious effort to explore the production of her (resisting) identity within an historical context that was wholly racialized.(f.2) Despite having delivered herself to the world as a "Chinese writer," Sui Sin Far was critical of the matrix of social and political relations which regulated her choices of subject positions. In this context, "Leaves" can be read as an attempt to write against the hegemonic social codes and discourses that contained Sui Sin Far's ability to position herself in such a way as to reflect her multiple subjectivities.

Sui Sin Far allows us to examine how a writer's subject positioning is negotiated in relation to the prevailing discursive and material contexts. For Sui, this context included childhood years spent in a city where anti - Chinese xenophobic and racist sentiments were at their peak. An economic depression that hit Canada during the 1870s had exacerbated pre - existing hostility, and Chinese labourers who had been brought to work on the transnational railroad and as surplus agricultural labour became the scapegoat. Describing her experience during that period, Sui writes: "There are many pitched battles, of course, and we seldom leave the house without being armed for conflict" ("Leaves," 1909, p. 126). In this antagonistic context, Sui's public affirmation and fervent embrace of her Chinese "identity" may be seen as both counter - measure to, and evidence of, the fierce hostility and alienation she and her family experienced. Her decision to publicly identify with the Chinese community -- a community treated with absolute contempt during that historical period -- takes on added dimensions if we consider that her sister Winnifred, who was also a writer, chose to disavow herself completely of her Chinese ancestry and assume instead a Japanese identity and pen name (Onoto Watanna).(f.3)

Leaves" is an impressionistic memoir. In punctuating her poetic narrative with vignettes culled from her "everyday," Sui provocatively peels back and exposes the impact of gendered racism on her subject formation.(f.4) Recollections of family -- which reflect on the myriad of differences and tensions between the ways in which Sui's Chinese mother and white English father signify in racially and gender - stratified nineteenth - century North America -- are re - membered in the present tense: the "past" flashes back into the "present" as living memory. In one instance, Sui recalls her mother emerging from a hotel in francophone Canada to the curious stares and derisive comments of passersby:

I am only ten years. And all the while the question of nationality perplexes my little brain. Why are we what we are? I and my brothers and sisters. Why did God make us to be hooted and stared at? …

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