Why We Should All Read Sui Sin Far

A century before Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, and Gish Jen, Sui Sin Far wrote fictional, autobiographical, and journalistic works that portray Chinese American identities and communities, experiences and worlds, discrimination and successes, with nuance and power.

Far, christened Edith Maude Eaton before adopting her Chinese pen name for all her published writings, was born in England to an English father and a Chinese immigrant mother. The family moved to Montreal a few years later, and she grew up in that multi-cultural Canadian city before spending a lifetime traveling and living throughout the Americas, including extended stints in the Caribbean, San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston.

Far wrote and published journalism and creative nonfiction in each of these settings, producing both travel and autobiographical writings about these communities and about the lives and identities of Chinese Americans (herself and many others) in them. Her 1909 essay “Leaves from the Mental of a Eurasian,” published in the New York magazine The Independent, exemplifies these nuanced, thoughtful, and groundbreaking works of nonfiction. The essay remains one of American literature’s most vital engagements with the defining role played by racial and cultural mixture in our identities and communities.

Far was also a prolific and talented writer of fiction, in two distinct but complementary genres. She wrote a number of children’s stories, such as those collected in “Tales of Chinese Children,” the second half of her book Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings (1912). These tales, like all of her children’s stories, are not only aimed at young audiences but engage with sensitivity and power with the experiences of childhood, both in China and in the Americas. Indeed, like Far herself her fictional children often grow up within multiple worlds, as even the titles of tales such as “Pat and Pan” and “A Chinese Boy-Girl” illustrate. As is so often the case, then, Far’s children’s stories have a great deal to tell us about both her worlds and our own.

Far also wrote multiple novels and short story collections aimed at adult readers, as the stories collected in the first half of Mrs. Spring Fragrance illustrate. These fictions have often been described as romantic or sentimental, and they do consistently and potently use universal themes of love and family to guide their portrayals and investigations of identity, community, and culture. Yet as exemplified by “In the Land of the Free,” a story from Mrs. Spring Fragrance that should be required reading for all Americans, Far wedded these sentimental themes to unflinching examinations of the legal, social, and historical realities of Chinese and Asian American life in the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the “Yellow Peril” fears.

That late 19th and early 20th century era was hugely distinct from our own, and Far’s writings help us return to and better understand that period. Yet her themes of immigration and exclusion, cultural identity and mixture, and the relationship between America and China, among many others, continue to echo and evolve into our own moment, making Far’s works as contemporary and crucial as any in American literary history.

Ben Railton

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