Meet Mary Chapman, literary sleuth

UBC prof uncovers lost works by first published Asian-American woman author

In a detective story of cultural and literary importance, a University of British Columbia researcher has found a treasure trove of lost fiction and journalism by Edith Eaton, the first female Chinese-American author published in  North America.

Eaton, who often wrote as Sui Sin Far—meaning “lotus flower” in Cantonese—is best known for her sympathetic portrayals of Chinese immigrants in Canada and the United States. Her short story collection, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, published two years before her death in 1914, is largely credited with establishing Asian-American literature.

The discovery was made by Prof. Mary Chapman of UBC’s Dept. of English. Eaton’s significance, combined with the sheer size of the discovery—89 new works, which essentially doubles the author’s canon—makes it one of the largest literary discoveries in 20 years. Eaton, whose mother was Chinese and father was British, wrote the stories while living in Montreal, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Boston some 100 years ago.

“It has been fun playing this literary detective, of sorts,” says Chapman, who travelled to, and borrowed from, libraries and archives across North America searching for Eaton’s works. “Finding these stories by a pioneering Chinese North American author, who was also one of Canada’s first female journalists, is incredibly rewarding. When I found the first story, I almost couldn’t believe it. I was so excited that I nearly telephoned everyone I know.”

Chapman’s haul is most notable for revealing many styles and themes not previously associated with Eaton. These include syndicated fiction (“some, very much of the trashy, bodice-ripping variety,” she says), short stories, travel literature, stories for children, poetry and previously unknown news articles written for the Montreal Star, Canada’s largest newspaper at the time, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Los Angeles Express, and the Boston Globe.

While many stories address the Chinese experience in America, others take up other themes such as American imperialism in Alaska and the Philippines, and early feminism.

“These stories really expand or challenge our understanding of Eaton,” says Chapman. “Many of them transcend the Asian-American themes she is associated with. Her works depict a truly transnational author, even more skilled than we knew, writing about many countries and cultures, and willing to try whatever it took to get published so that she could support herself as a writer.”

Chapman says her search began where Eaton’s book ended: on the acknowledgement page of Mrs. Spring Fragrance, where Eaton thanked editors and magazines for their support and permission to reprint. “This inspired me to track down original publications in dusty, bound volumes,” she says. “In many cases, these referred me to other Eaton stories—including the ones that have eluded scholars for some 100 years.”

The many spellings of her Chinese nom de plume, as well as at least one other pen-name, have made it particularly difficult to track these uncollected stories down. The digitization of old periodicals hasn’t necessarily made it any easier, Chapman says. “Magazines often printed Eaton’s pseudonym in elaborate, hand-drawn graphics, which played up her Asian heritage,” she says. “So when these pieces were scanned and digitized, her name showed up as an illustration rather than as searchable text.”

Chapman is planning to publish three books on Eaton. The first, a collection of the author’s lost Canadian material (McGill-Queen’s University Press), includes a fascinating series of articles about crossing Canada by train, written for the LA Express. A second collection will reprint all of Eaton’s uncollected U.S. publications, while a final volume will draw on Eaton’s colourful family history of circus entertainers and smugglers to explore themes in her fiction. Eaton had relatives in England, Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal.

In the meantime, Chapman says, her literary detective story continues.  “A letter Eaton wrote before she died suggests she wrote a novel, but it has never been found,” she says, smiling. “So the big one is still out there.”

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UBC Reports | Vol. 59 | No. 2 | Feb. 6, 2013

UBC English Prof. Mary Chapman found pioneering Chinese-American author Edith Eaton’s lost works -- one of the largest literary discoveries in 20 years. Martin Dee Photograph

UBC English Prof. Mary Chapman found pioneering Chinese-American author Edith Eaton’s lost works -- one of the largest literary discoveries in 20 years. Martin Dee Photograph

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“Her works depict a truly transnational author, even more skilled than we knew, writing about many countries and cultures.”

Edith Eaton (1865-1914)

Born in England, moved to Montreal at the age of seven.

In her 20s, became one of Canada’s first female journalists, contributing to the Montreal Star and the Montreal Daily Witness

Moved to San Francisco in her early 30s to pursue writing, eventually moving to Seattle and Boston.

Considered the mother of Asian North American literature for her collection of short stories, Mrs. Spring Fragrance.

Mother: Eaton’s mother Grace was in the first troupe of Chinese acrobats that toured North America in 1851. She met her husband, a British merchant, in Shanghai.

Father: Prof. Chapman says she has found evidence that Eaton’s father Edward smuggled Chinese immigrants into the U.S. from Montreal during the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Era (1882-1943), during which only Chinese merchants were permitted to immigrate.

Sister: Eaton’s younger sister Winnifred was also a writer. With Imperial Japan in vogue, she wrote under the Japanese pseudonym Onoto Wattana. Her novel A Japanese Nightingale was adapted into a Broadway play and motion picture.

Lost and found: Chapman found Eaton’s stories and family history in archives and libraries across North America, including the Library of Congress and the National Archives (Washington, D.C.), the Seattle Public Library, the Newberry Library, the Toronto Public Library, and at the London City Mission Archives.

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