Monday, June 15, 2009

Day 125/365 Cherry Blossom Time

No matter how many books I buy (and list for sale), or read (and decide to add to my personal collection), there are always surprises: books I've never heard of, obscure editions of books I love, or books by authors that don't quite fit the norm.

This charming lady fits that last description. This is Miss Winifred Eaton (1875-1954). Or you may call her Onoto Watanna.

Along with her sister, she introduced the entire genre of Asian-American literature. Born in Canada, Winifred was one of sixteen children born to an English father and a Chinese mother who had been adopted by missonaries. Her eventful life included running away from home, working on a Chicago newspaper, falling in love with a married man, and becoming a well-known novelist.

In spite of her tendency to buck societal convention, her pen name is Japanese (Onoto Watanna), only because she feared the anti-Chinese discrimination sweeping America at that time, and thought it would be professional suicide to admit to her half-Chinese heritage.

As a result, her books are not only the very first example of Asian-American literature, but also the first to feature predominantly Japanese-American romance and the intricacies of bi-cultural relationships.

Each book has beautiful delicate artwork, providing yet another reason to collect these books.

One of the books has this frontiespiece photo of Winifred/Onoto.

The last odd twist to this story is the woman above, Edith Maude Eaton (1865-1914), Winifred's sister.

She was also one of those sixteen children, and Winifred's older sister. She also took up a successful career writing Asian-American literature, but for all her sensible appearance in the photo above, Edith was the one who threw convention to the winds: she embraced her Chinese heritage, and took the Chinese pen name of Sui Sin Far.

In the mid-1890s, Edith moved first to Jamaica (where she contracted malaria), then to Seattle and San Francisco. Never fully recovering from malaria, and suffering from rheumatism as well, she moved back to Canada and died there in 1914.

During her lifetime, she made a point of writing books that embraced a multi-cultural world, as well as bi-racial relationships, in a world that was not welcoming or understanding of either.

(For a comparison, the year that Edith Eaton died the investigations into the sinking of the Titanic were still being held, with all their class-oriented standards. The world was still reeling from the notion that perhaps people could not be divided into 1st class, 2nd class and steerage; the concept that an American woman would marry a Chinese man was way past their comprehension).

Still, Edith and Winifred wrote on. They were not only pioneering women with jobs, their own income, and their own adventures, but they introduced the entire genre of Asian-American literature, and refused to compromise while serving as a bridge between two very different cultures.

I give my right hand to the Occidentals and my left to the Orientals, hoping that between them they will not utterly destroy the insignificant "connecting link.""Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian" Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Stories (Edith Eaton)

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