[All this week, in honor of Women’s History Month, I’ll be highlighting some exemplary American women. This is the fifth in the series.]
On this International Women’s Day, celebrating the cross-cultural life and writings of one of the most transnational American women.
Much has been written, including by me in this space on multiple occasions, about the transnational turn in, the globalization of, American Studies. There’s no question that the field of American Studies has over the past few decades increasingly recognized international connections for and influences on American culture and identity; moreover, there is of course equally little debate that our 21st century moment and world are particularly defined by global interconnections and links. Yet those contemporary trends can at times mask a deeper and, to my mind, more defining American reality: that many of the most striking and salient American identities and stories have been profoundly transnational since the first moments of contact. From Pocahontas to Olaudah Equiano, Judah Monis to Tom Paine, the first two full centuries of American life were full of such transnational lives, and the trend only deepened into the 19th and early 20th centuries.
There are many benefits to such a transnational vision of American identity—beyond the most beneficial feature, which is that it’s accurate!—and high among them is that it can help us identify inspiring international Americans who might otherwise fall outside our national self-definitions. That definitely goes for the first documented Chinese American immigrant, Yung Wing, and for all those young men who would in the 1870s attend his Chinese Educational Mission school. But it’s perhaps even more salient when it comes to Yung’s semi-countrywoman Sui Sin Far (also known as Edith Maude Eaton): Far was born in England in 1865, to an English merchant father and Chinese immigrant mother; when she was still young they moved to Canada and settled in Montreal (where she began her journalistic and writing career); in the 1890s she moved to Jamaica for a short time; and only at the turn of the 20th century did she make the United States her permanent home, living in Seattle, San Francisco, and finally Boston (where she died at the far too young age of 49). Such a biography might seem to describe a citizen of the world, a woman and writer whose American connections were no stronger than were her English, Canadian, or Chinese ones.
Yet I would argue the opposite, and not only because Far spent her final two decades in the United States and published her best-known and most enduring works (such as the 1912 collection Mrs. Spring Fragrance) during that time. What truly makes Far a transnational, cross-cultural American writer is the sheer number of her works that powerfully and profoundly portray, critique, celebrate, and embody American histories, identities, communities, and stories: that goes for every story in Spring (and most especially the complex, funny, and striking title story); for her autobiographical piece “Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of a Eurasian” (1890); and, to my mind most perfectly and compellingly, for her short story “In the Land of the Free” (unfortunately not available in full online, although a good bit of it is in the Google books version of Spring linked above). That story does at least three very significant American Studies things: portrays the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act on Chinese Americans; measures (to paraphrase what Bruce Springsteen has recently said about his own work and goals) the distance between the American Dream and many American experiences and realities; and, least overtly but just as crucially, represents the lives and worlds of a young Chinese American immigrant couple in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the 20th century.
Doesn’t get more international, more transnational, nor more American than that. Last exemplary American woman (for this week’s series at least) tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
3/8 Memory Day nominee: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, the Civil War veteran and eloquent legal philosopher and writer who became one of the most articulate and influential Supreme Court Justices, advocating (often in dissent) for significant early 20th century causes such as workers’ rights.
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