The Poetics of Liminality and Misidentification: Winnifred Eaton's Me and Maxine Hong Kingston's the Woman Warrior

By Lee, Katherine Hyunmi | Studies in the Literary Imagination, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Poetics of Liminality and Misidentification: Winnifred Eaton's Me and Maxine Hong Kingston's the Woman Warrior


Lee, Katherine Hyunmi, Studies in the Literary Imagination


In 1915, Century. Magazine serialized the anonymously authored Me: A Book of Remembrance, and the story and its author were soon caught in a whirlwind of controversy. Although the autobiography focused principally on the author's artistic maturation, readers found her romantic escapades much more engaging. With dramatic flair ("I was love's passionate pilgrim" [Eaton 346]), the heroine describes her ill-fated affair with a wealthy married man, an unwelcome kiss from a black Jamaican politician, a lecherous doctor's advances, and her simultaneous engagement to three men (she is too kind and inexperienced to refuse their proposals). The Toronto Star reported that, "while shocking the sensibilities of many of the old subscribers," Me's racy subject matter "increased [Century]'s circulation considerably"; publicity also fueled sales as New York City subway advertisements and billboards asked, "Who is the author of Me?" ("Famous"; Birchall 116). (1) Reviewers responded to both Me's sensational content ("if all is true therein, the orthodox will find comfort in that the book ends with the heroine at prayer" [Clipping, Star]) and to the question of the author's identity ("the author of 'Me' is probably much more clever and fascinating than during the impulsive maidenhood of which she writes" [Clipping, Times]). (2) The speculation ended with the New York Times Book Review article entitled "Is Onoto Watanna Author of the Anonymous Novel Me?" in which the writer deduced the author's nationality, and ultimately her identity, from various clues (including a scene featuring the heroine's kissing a man's sleeve, which the writer claimed was a Japanese custom [cited in Birchall 116]). (3)

While the article satisfactorily resolved the mystery for readers, it served another, more important purpose by safeguarding the actual identity of the author, as "Onoto Watanna" itself was a pseudonym for the more pedestrian and distinctly Western-sounding Winnifred Eaton. The Canadian-born Eaton, whose father was British and mother Chinese, assumed a Japanese authorial persona in order to bypass late-nineteenth-century North American Sinophobia and exploit the Japonisme fad, dissociating herself from stereotypes of the Chinese as debased and unassimilable and appealing to the seemingly more benevolent stereotypes of the Japanese as exotic yet civilized. A prolific author whose fiction and non-fiction appeared in magazines such as Ladies' Home Journal and Redbook, her principal success stemmed from the popularity of Watanna's "Japanese" romance novels and short stories, most of which were published between 1898 and 1922 and featured picturesque settings, naive and childlike Japanese heroines, and the occasional act of hari-kari.

A significant departure from the Japanese novels, Me is nonetheless a narrative befitting its chameleonic author. In addition to depicting Eatong romantic exploits, the account details the crucial year in which the seventeen-year-old leaves her familial Canadian home to pursue a writing career and charts her travels to Jamaica, Richmond, Chicago, and New York. Although the plot essentially follows the events of Eaton's life, many other details are fictionalized, especially those related to the author's racial identity. Eaton refers to herself throughout Me as "Nora Ascough" and avoids mentioning her mother's Chinese heritage in a rather unconvincing attempt to "pass" as white (as evidenced by the New York Times Book Review "expose"). (4) Further conflating fact and fiction is Me's evocation of various literary genres, including Bildungsroman, fairy tale, and not surprisingly, the romance novel. Her dependence upon other genres and her predilection for melodramatic phrasing ("[fate] was a black, monstrous thing, a thief in the dark that hid to entrap me" [346]) often propels the autobiography into implausibility and reflects Eaton's treatment of her identity as merely another device that could be manipulated, fabricated, or exploited. …

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