There’s something uncannily relevant about a scene from an Edith Maude Eaton story published over a century ago. Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown—then the only part of the city Chinese Americans could survive in—the story includes a key moment of a character defending the neighborhood. In reply to a white journalist who casually terms the crowded streets “unbeautiful,” a woman raised there affirms her pride in both the place and its people in a succinct turn of phrase. “Perhaps it isn’t very beautiful,” she says. “But it is here I live. It is my home.”
There are enough similar instances in the works of such a wide swath of Asian American writers that they could easily fill a year. Yet with Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month underway, now is also the chance to appreciate the complex relationship between these writers and notions of home and roots. It is a relationship that is significant to Asian American literature—and American letters as a whole.
The long history of travelers coming to California from Asia—stretching back to Filipino explorers whose ship landed in Morro Bay as early as 1587—is complicated by legal injustices like the 1854 California Supreme Court decision of People vs. Hall, which ruled that testimony against a white man by a Chinese man was inadmissible in court; and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended immigration; and, of course, the mass internment of Japanese families during World War II. Several Asian American writers who followed in Eaton’s footsteps wrestled with these histories, including Carlos Bulosan, Hisaye Yamamoto, and Maxine Hong Kingston. In each case, California had a role—as home, as exiler, and as crucible.
Eaton’s story, published under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far, the pen name she had taken on to proudly claim her heritage, was released as part of a collection of stories called Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Raised largely in Canada by her Chinese mother and white British father, Eaton was never far from the Chinese community; in fact, she may have even helped her father smuggle immigrants across the Canadian-U.S. border.
In Canada, Eaton had also worked as a journalist and had covered Chinese communities there as an anonymous contributor. But starting in 1898, the year she moved to San Francisco, and continuing for the next decade, she wrote short stories inspired by what she saw in immigrant communities in California and other parts of the West. With autobiographical texts scarce, it’s unclear exactly how she decided to write fiction. But it is evident that she saw it as an opportunity to imbue her representations of immigrant communities with a kind of empathy and nuanced awareness that were in short supply at the time. The time she spent in California laid the groundwork for Mrs. Spring Fragrance, the first work of fiction ever to be published in English by a woman of Chinese descent.
Today’s California writers work in the same spirit as Eaton as they engage with the racism Asian American Pacific Islander communities continue to face. Writers including Viet Thanh Nguyen, Charles Yu, Elaine Castillo, Vanessa Hua, and C Pam Zhang have each confronted immigration, nationalism, and bigotry through their own unique voices. With the deep challenges America still grapples with, their talent and imagination are absolutely necessary.
Which Asian American writers have you read recently, and what has their work meant to you? Let us know and your comment may be included in a future newsletter.•
This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.