Sui Sin Far was a writer born under the name Edith Maud Eaton to a Chinese mother and English Father. Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian is an autobiographical essay that Far wrote describing many of the events of her life and the discrimination she faced as an Eurasian. This essay was written in 1890 and published in 1909.
For my presentation, I focused on the text in terms of its historical moment. Before I get into that, however, I just would like to point out that this is a text written by a woman in the late 19th century and, therefore, I’m sure on the test you would be able to read this text through a feminist theoretical lens and connect it to other texts in that way. Additionally, in terms of genre, this is an autobiographical work as well as being an essay which could set it apart from other works. Just some food for thought if you would like to use the text in a different way from how I will be discussing it.
So, I wanted to begin by pointing out that something a bit obvious if you have read the text, yet essential for understanding it: there was a lot of discrimination towards Chinese immigrants in the United States during the late 19th century into the 20th century. As a result, there was a significant effect on Chinese immigrants and, for our purposes, on Chinese-American and Eurasian writers during this time. It is this discrimination that Far mostly focuses on in her essay.
At many points in Far’s essay she explains that as a result of her English ancestry, she did not appear to be Chinese. This brought attention to the idea of “passing” as someone of a different race in order to avoid discrimination. She had the capability to “pass” as someone with no Asian ancestry and calls attention to others who were urged to “pass” as Japanese instead of Chinese in order to avoid discrimination.
An interesting result of this is that Far was actually encouraged to brand her nationality by her editors. They believed that her embracing her Chinese heritage would make her more interesting and would make her writing sell better. An example of this can be seen on the bottom of page 122 onto page 123 of Far’s essay. Here, Far is encouraged to embrace many Chinese stereotypes. In some ways, this branding was resisted as seen in many of the events described in her essay, but according to Martha Cutter’s essay, Sui Sin Far’s Letters to Charles Lummis: Contextualizing Publication Practices for the Asian American Subject at the Turn of the Century, some influence can be seen when letters between her and her editors are read. As professor Tougaw pointed out in an email to me, even the changing of her name could be seen as an example of this branding while also combating stereotypes and discrimination.
One of the reasons I believe this text is on our list is because Far struggles against many of the limitations placed on her by the time in which she was writing. In her essay she recalls one experience on pages 117-118 where her boss is saying many racist and derogatory things towards Chinese people, not realizing that Far is Chinese. When asking her why she is so quiet, Far has a moment of conflict not knowing whether to stand up for herself or quietly avoid the uncomfortable situation. In the end, she does stand up for herself. It is important to note that in uncomfortable situations she does not pass by unnoticed, but recognized her nationality. This is not for branding purposes. It should be remembered that she recognizes her nationality when it is beneficial to do so and when it is not. In regards to this, Cutter writes about Far’s authorship in her essay. She points out the significance of a woman of this time standing up to her editors, friends, and fellow literary people in writing as the person she is despite the social ramifications.
To sum up, I believe this is not a text that we will be able to use by itself on the test, but it is good to use with something else. There is a lot of flexibility with this text in terms of theory as well as genre as I have already pointed out. I think, above anything else, this text could be used to boost an essay you are writing primarily about a different text.