“As to her race, its secret is loudly revealed”: Winnifred Eaton’s Revision of North American Identity

“As to her race, its secret is loudly revealed”: Winnifred Eaton’s Revision of North American Identity

Volume 32, Number 2 (Summer 2007)
pages 31-53

Karen E. H. Skinazi, Instructor of English
University of Alberta

At the tum of the twentieth century, Quebec-born Winnifred Eaton, a Chinese British woman who used the pseudonym “Onoto Watanna,” was writing romances in New York, experimenting with the popular genre of Japonisme—the craze for all things Japanese. As Eaton advanced in her career, however, she became disgruntled with her writing, observable both by virtue of her shift in focus and in reading the words of her alter ego, Nora, in her autobiographical novel. Me: A Book of Remembrance (1915). Nora frowns on her own success, “founded upon a cheap and popular device,” and declares, “Oh, I had sold my birthright for a mess of potage!” (153-54). As Me reveals, Eaton had a new project, one that was her true birthright. Without specifically identifying her own Chinese heritage, or retuming to her fabricated Japanese identity, she nonetheless created clearly non-white Canadian characters in Me and its spin-off, Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model (1916), auto/biographical tales of American immigration and adventure. In doing so, Eaton extended and revised the Canadian American rhetoric—and literature—that focused on the white, Anglo-Saxon bond or “brotherhood” between Canadians and Americans.

Eaton was not a political novelist, and her characters face neither head taxes nor Chinese Exclusion Acts when they cross the Canadian-American border. Yet Eaton made an important innovation in Canadian American immigrant literature by revealing the experience of immigrating as a double outsider: as a racialized figure, and a Canadian. Some critics, knowing Eaton’s background, wonder at the seeming “whiteness” of the characters of Me and Marion. In her study of Eurasian writers, Carol Spaulding, for example, notes: “The . . . narratives [apart from Diary of Delia] written in the first person are Eaton’s autobiography. Me, and her sister’s biography, Marion. All of these are white narrators” (198). Similarly, Dominika Ferens, in her excellent account of the two well-known Eaton sisters, Winnifred and Edith, says Marion, written by both Winnifred Eaton and her sister Sara. Bosse, is “a novel that paradoxically has an all white cast, although we know now that the title character was based on Winnifred’s older sister [Sara]” (141). As Ferens also points out, however, the protagonist of Marion is clearly marginalized because she is not white; both Eaton and Sara/Marion “performed the exotic difference that mainstream society inscribed on their bodies, but they tried to maintain a distance between the role and their sense of self—a distance that allowed them to always keep in sight and occasionally parody the sexist/orientalist frame within which they posed” (142)…

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