Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton

Overview

In 1901, the young Winnifred Eaton arrived in New York City with literary ambitions, journalistic experience, and the manuscript for A Japanese Nightingale, the novel that would sell many thousands of copies and make her famous. Hers is a real Horatio Alger story, with fascinating added dimensions of race and gender.

While commercially successful women writers were uncommon a century ago, Winnifred Eaton (1875-1954) cultivated a particular persona to set herself apart even ...

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Overview

In 1901, the young Winnifred Eaton arrived in New York City with literary ambitions, journalistic experience, and the manuscript for A Japanese Nightingale, the novel that would sell many thousands of copies and make her famous. Hers is a real Horatio Alger story, with fascinating added dimensions of race and gender.

While commercially successful women writers were uncommon a century ago, Winnifred Eaton (1875-1954) cultivated a particular persona to set herself apart even within this rare breed. Born to a British father and a Chinese mother, Winnifred decided to capitalize on her exotic appearance while protecting herself from Americans' scorn of the Chinese: she "became" Japanese, assuming the pen name Onoto Watanna. While her eldest sister, Edith Maude Eaton (now acknowledged as the mother of Asian-American fiction), was writing stories of downtrodden Chinese immigrants under the moniker Sui Sin Far, Winnifred's Japanese romance novels and stories became all the rage, thrusting her into the glittering world of New York literati.

Diana Birchall chronicles the sometimes desperate, sometimes canny, always bold life of her "bad grandmother," about whom she knew almost nothing until her own adulthood. Here are the details of an amazing professional career, starting when Winnifred was a novice typist and continuing through her years as a journalist, a bestselling novelist, and a Hollywood scriptwriting protégée of Carl Laemmle at Universal Studios.

Here, too, is the personal saga of a woman who bore "a book and a baby a year" during her troubled first marriage--and who, at the age of fifty-six, wooed back her estranged second husband when her Hollywood career hit the skids during the Great Depression. Having achieved early fame as a Japanese romance writer, Winnifred later jettisoned the kimono and wrote books (including one entitled Cattle) set on the plains of Alberta, where her husband owned a ranch.

A chameleon? A desperate poseur? A shrewd businesswoman? She was all that and much more, as Diana Birchall demonstrates. Navigating the shifting boundary between life and art, Birchall probes Winnifred's conflicting stories, personal tempests, and remarkable accomplishments, presenting a woman whose career was "sensational" in every sense.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Birchall tells the story of her colorful half-caste "bad grandma," Winnifred Eaton (1875-1952), who used the pen name Onoto Watanna as part of her ongoing charade as half-Japanese. Born in Montreal, the eighth of 14 children of an English artist father and a Chinese mother, Eaton authored 17 novels (including A Japanese Nightingale, The Heart of Hyacinth, and Miss Num of Japan) and numerous short stories, mostly with Japanese characters and themes. Acknowledged by scholars as a pioneer Asian American writer and as possibly the first Asian American novelist, Eaton was rediscovered as a writer in the 1970s. Birchall, a story analyst at Warner Brothers and author of two historical novels, portrays a curiously fascinating and remarkably bold woman, best-selling novelist, and Hollywood scriptwriter who lived a life as intermingled with fact and fantasy, reality and fiction, as her novels and short stories. Because Birchall was three when she last saw her grandmother, her portrait has a sense of detachment that the reader can feel but will not find distracting. Recommended for both academic and public libraries. Jeris Cassel, Rutgers Univ. Libs., New Brunswick, NJ Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780252026072
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2001
  • Series: Asian American Experience Series
  • Pages: 296
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi
Introduction xv
Prologue 1
1. A Half-Caste Child 3
2. Jamaican Adventure 27
3. Chicago 38
4. Becoming Japanese 54
5. The Lady of the Lavender Books 68
6. A Book and a Baby a Year 91
7. Divorce 111
8. Calgary Writer 129
9. Hollywood Screenwriter 155
10. Vanquishing Mrs. Hill 180
11. Poetic Ends 193
Epilogue: Inheritance 205
Notes 213
Bibliography 229
Index 241
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