Asian American Literature, U.S. Empire, and the Eaton Sisters
- Edward TangEdward TangDepartment of American Studies, University of Alabama
The Eaton sisters, Edith Maude (b. 1865–d. 1914) and Winnifred (b. 1875–d. 1954), were biracial authors who wrote under their respective pseudonyms, Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna. Raised in Montreal, Canada, by an English father and a Chinese mother, the sisters produced works that many scholars have recognized as among the first published by Asian American writers. Edith embraced her Chinese ancestry by composing newspaper articles and short stories that addressed the plight of Chinese immigrants in North America. Winnifred, on the other hand, posed as a Japanese woman and eclipsed her older sibling in popularity by writing interracial romances set in Japan.
The significance of the Eaton sisters emerges from a distinct moment in American history. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States began asserting an imperial presence in Asia and the Caribbean, while waves of immigrants entered the nation as valued industrial labor. This dual movement of overseas expansion and incoming foreign populations gave rise to a sense of superiority and anxiety within the white American mainstream. Even as U.S. statesmen and missionaries sought to extend democracy, Christianity, and trade relations abroad, they also doubted that people who came to America could assimilate themselves according to the tenets of a liberal white Protestantism. This concern became evident with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the Gentleman’s Agreement (1907), legislation that thwarted Chinese and Japanese immigration efforts. The lives and writings of the Eaton sisters intersected with these broader developments. As mixed-race authors, they catered to a growing U.S. consumer interest in things Asian, acting as cultural interpreters between East and West. In doing so, however, they complicated and challenged American beliefs and attitudes about race relations, gender roles, and empire building.