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  • Jennifer McDougall

An Interview with Dr. Lily Cho

Updated: Jul 5, 2023

On Winnifred Eaton & the re-issue of her novel Cattle


Chinese Canadian novelist Winnifred Eaton (1875-1954) lived and wrote across North America for decades before settling in Alberta. She was the first person of Asian descent to publish a novel in the US. She distanced herself from the problematic Japanese pseudonym “Onoto Watanna” (under which she had published nine bestselling novels about Japan), by publishing two novels about ranching in southern Alberta, Cattle (1923) and His Royal Nibs (1925). Except for a brief period in the late twenties, when she ran Universal Studio’s screenwriting department in Hollywood, Eaton made Calgary her home for over 30 years.

This July Invisible Publishing reissued Cattle to mark the centenary of its publication and to celebrate this prolific writer. The new edition of Eaton’s powerful narrative about families building lives in early twentieth-century Alberta, features an introduction by University of Alberta alumna and scholar Dr. Lily Cho.


Please note, this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

 

JM: When did you first encounter Winnifred Eaton’s history and writing?

LC: Quite late in my studies, I encountered the Eaton sisters on my own, not as part of a course syllabus. I confess that I first saw them as genre writers utilizing dramatic plots and I wasn’t sophisticated enough to recognize their sophistication. At the time, I gravitated towards avant garde writers and I thought we had to make Asian literature 'legitimate." Later, I recognized how revolutionary it would have been to introduce explicitly Asian characters and Asian material in fiction for a broad readership at that time. One of the things I appreciate about the savviness of Eaton is that she knew she had to sell books. She was under no illusion that she had a commercial responsibility to herself. To know that and then take the kind of risks that she did and to introduce characters and ideas and images of people who they had not really encountered at all. Such as, Chinese women, Japanese women, and these characters who have feelings and ambitions and thoughts. That is the huge contribution that the Eaton sisters have given us. They were pioneers.


JM: Do you see Eaton’s career, or parts of her career, as embracing an experimental mode?

LC: Being formally trained, I have a pretty narrow idea of what experimental fiction is, but with Eaton, I have to expand my understanding and I think it’s important to do so. One way is to think about the kind of experiments that Eaton engaged in in terms of genre. Cattle reads like a page turner. I wanted to know what happened to Nettie, but there was innovation in how the novel situates the cattle rancher. Eaton centralizes the male character to get it by her readers, but within the first third of the novel we begin to really care about Nettie. That kind of character development and plot arc, allows the novel to be thought of as something within the western genre of man against nature and wouldn’t immediately read as a woman’s novel. It was incredibly smart.



We can also think about the ways she understood the connection between a film script and a novel. Today we have naturalized the idea that novels can be adapted to film and I think Eaton anticipated that. Cattle began as a film script. She really understood pacing and what it meant to have a compulsive narrative.


JM: In your introduction to Cattle, you wrote that Eaton shows us “what justice looks like in a place and time when…wrongs cannot be made right through formal means” and that every wrong cannot be righted.” What are we to make of this in 2023 as attempts towards reconciliation for past injustices abound?

LC: You and I are speaking on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a tragic period in Canadian history, yet grief and trauma remains very alive in the Chinese Canadian community. Recently, we have seen how the community navigated a response with the resurgence of anti-Asian racism during the pandemic. For me, it is important to understand that historical racism is very much alive in the formation of racism today and that these are connected. Part of the satisfaction of the Eaton’s novel is that there is some version of justice. She offers a comfort that we don’t necessarily get in real life. There is a lesson around creativity here, on the importance of creating communities of imagination out of the desire for justice. Without stories and the kinds of narratives that we have to tell over and over again, the search for justice is impoverished.


JM: Cattle was first published 100 years ago. Besides its ability to satisfy historical curiosity, how does this novel continue to serve us today?

LC: Although Alberta has a vibrant literary community, it's not the subject of literature as often as one would expect and was certainly not in the period Cattle was published. Yet, Alberta remains an incredibly important part of the Canadian psyche, in terms of geopolitics, history, and culture. There’s a kind of Alberta stereotype and novels like Cattle complicate it. Cattle asks its readers to think about the complexity of Alberta despite, on the face of it, being a stereotypical novel. That’s one of the really smart things about the novel. Eaton was inspired by the places she lived because she was embedded in her community. By the time she was writing in Alberta, she was an established writer, quite famous, but she still loved to ride her horse and gather stories.


I was struck by the ways in which this novel is also a plague novel and how it resonates today. It tells the story of a pandemic that was not being told: what was the impact of this global illness on a rural area. During COVID-19, we were overwhelmed with images of cities. When I read Cattle again, I appreciated that this is what happens in a place where there isn’t the same infrastructure around health care, government services, and connections to agencies.


JM: This month, scholars and members of the public will gather in Calgary to celebrate this fascinating author. Why is it important that people come together to study her legacy and what outcomes do you anticipate?

LC: It’s not often that there’s an occasion to think and read about one writer especially when that writer is a woman and she’s mixed-race. It's extraordinary. My mixed-race students talk about how infrequently they see their experience reflected in literature they're reading. And they're finding Eaton. This kind of explicit engagement with what it means to navigate life as someone who is racialized, but also has a foot in the world of whiteness is resonant for a generation of emerging scholars and students. We're at a moment in Canadian life when more of our communities are racialized in complicated ways and we don’t often discuss this complexity. The conference is wonderful for giving this kind of treatment to Eaton, but also for us as a community as a chance to think about these matters. It can, and should be, a jumping off point in thinking about how we can continue to nurture creative work about Alberta, and why it matters. There is a long arc to literature, it survives all kinds of things…pandemics, multiple technological revolutions. What do we want people to read about Alberta in 100 years?


 

Dr. Lily Cho is a Vice-Provost and Associate Vice-President, International, at Western University, and author of the award-winning Mass Capture: Chinese Head Tax and the Making of Non-Citizens in Canada (2021).


Jennifer McDougall is pursuing a Master’s degree in English at the U of C. Her program invites study and scholarship in both critical and creative fields. She is an alumna of the Haskayne School of Business and the Faculty of Arts’ English and Political Science departments. Her thesis-in-progress is a novella about professional women leading change in Western Canada’s natural resource extraction industry and the entangled issues of resource stewardship, the physical and mental well-being of workers, corporate economic production, and responsible scientific and technological progress.


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boxxawoxx
Sep 04, 2023

'If you die before you die, when you die, you will never die' -Jesus ● NOPEcantELOPE.blogspot.com ● Cya soon, miss gorgeous...

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jennifer.mcdougall
Jul 15, 2023

Thanks Chris! You are welcome to join the conference events later this month: Conference Program | The Winnifred Eaton Conference 2023 (ubc.ca)


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Chris Victor-Horner
Chris Victor-Horner
Jul 13, 2023

While I’ve only just picked up Eaton’s novel, my curiosity is amply piqued. That the story of Alberta was being written a hundred years ago from a woman’s gaze, a woman of mixed-ancestry no less, intrigues. The common historical narrative of Alberta, featuring cattlemen and cowboys, rarely embodies voices like Eaton’s. I’m eager to read and learn about Alberta from this important perspective!

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