Pictures and posters of "Winnie."
For the first six months after Peter's death, I didn't feel able to travel. But I looked forward to the important, epochal, exciting conference commemorating my grandmother Winnifred Eaton (pen name Onoto Watanna) on the centenary of her Calgary novel, Cattle. "Winnie," as we call her, born in 1875, has become an increasingly fascinating academic subject. She was the first Asian American novelist, and adopted a unique strategy for publishing her novels: Half English Canadian, half Chinese, she took on a fake Japanese persona as a device for publishing the romantic Japanese-themed novels she wrote, beginning about 1900, with titles like A Japanese Nightingale and The Heart of Hyacinth. Later she regretted the deception, and after working in Hollywood in the 1920s as the first Asian American screenwriter, she ended up in Calgary as the wife of a cattle rancher and oilman, dropping the Japanese identity, and engaging in social and literary activities. After her death in 1954 her archives were housed at the University of Calgary, and a theater was built in her name there. That is where I spent time researching her life when I came to write her biography, which was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2001.
As her granddaughter and biographer, I was invited to be keynote speaker at the conference. Other family members (my son Paul, and cousins Frank and Elizabeth Rooney, all great-grandchildren of Winnie) would be there, and so would many of the academics I had known and researched with, twenty years earlier when writing my book. We called ourselves "Winniers," and were a happy, congenial, mutually helpful band, excitedly sharing our discoveries. I would see Dominika Ferens again, a UCLA graduate student from Poland, who basically taught me how to research, now a professor herself at the University of Wroclaw, and author of distinguished books. Karen Skinazi who wrote an introduction to Winnie's novel Marion, and was my good friend though we had never met, would be there too; when we worked together she too was a grad student and is now a professor at Bristol University and mother of three. There was also Professor Mary Chapman of the University of British Columbia, who had contributed so much to the growing study of the Eaton sisters, with her major discoveries and writings. She was the wizardess behind this conference's inception and execution, along with brilliant Calgary literary historian Shaun Hunter. And a host of other vital and wonderful scholars, new to me, were attending this, the very first conference ever devoted to Winnifred Eaton! No one would have thought such a thing possible twenty years ago, but it was happening; and of course I had to go.
Tuesday, July 25. Flight was a bit fraught. Our already late hour departure was delayed two hours by bad weather at the Calgary end so the plane arrived late. It's only a 2.5 hour flight, but they announced that there'd be "severe turbulence" descending into Calgary, and that kind of announcement always does comes true. As we dived into a cloud with the consistency of mud, the whole plane shook like an electric eggbeater. Half the passengers screamed, even Paul looked white and said he'd never known such bad turbulence, but oddly I, who hate flying and had feared an in-air panic attack, remained calm. We arrived at International House on the Calgary campus past midnight, but luckily we'd brought sandwiches, and thankfully settled down in our comfortable suite with the big sky dark prairie view.
Wednesday, July 26. In the morning it was hard to find coffee and food - the campus is large, my knees are bad, and it was the equivalent of several blocks walk to everything. But we got back in time to take an Uber to the rehearsal of our play reading, at the Chinese Cultural Center in Chinatown, a wonderfully flamboyant setting for anything theatrical and Winnyish. The play was an excerpt from a script Winnie wrote from her 1910 novel Tama, about a half-Japanese, half-white blind girl whose parents were murdered because of their mixed marriage. She wandered the woods, raiding villagers' food, and was considered to be a Fox Woman witch-like spirit. A visiting teacher, the American Tojin-san, was her friend and rescuer, and they fell in love; he arranged for an operation to restore her sight, even though he feared her ever being able to see him, because he was ugly. I played Tama, and Paul was Tojin-san! My cousin Frank was Prince Echizen, and Professor Colleen Daniher was the servant Junzo. The play was conceived, directed, and narrated by the brilliant Professor Rena Heinrich of USC.
At the gorgeous Chinese center, the rehearsal went promisingly well! Rena was so adept at fine-tuning the nuances of our performances, in tone and manner. Though my Tama basically chewed the scenery and was great fun to play. I had lines such as:
"It is I you want - I-I-I, the Fox-woman! [She holds out her hair with her hand, letting the glittering strands slip through her fingers. The mob see her. They shrink back.] Look, look! See my face - my -hair, my body! Behold, I am the Fox-woman of Atago Yama. It is I you have come to take - not he! Not he!"
As Rena wrote to the cast afterward, "Thank you for making this researcher's dream come true. A hundred-year-old script, plucked from the archive, and read by Eaton's descendants? It truly does not get much better than that." I know we all felt the same about what a remarkable event it was! I had been advised not to wear a kimono, as that might be seen as culturally inappropriate (though that was arguably a quality of my grandmother, perhaps part of the reason she was called the "bad sister" compared with her sister Edith Eaton, Sui Sin Far, who wrote about the Chinese and half-Chinese and was the "good sister"). But I wore a very pretty, vaguely Asian-style floaty black top for the performance. Paul later said, "You never actually got out of kimonos!"
Thursday, July 27.
This was my big day, starting early, as my keynote talk opened the conference. It was at the campus library gallery hall, and we were welcomed by a First Nations elder, Florence Kelly. I don't know that I've ever seen or met a lovelier person. She spoke so evocatively and humbly about her life and experiences, growing up in a residential school where she was removed from her reservation and family and ill-treated, even having her teeth knocked out by a nun to keep her from speaking her native language. This only made her more determined never to forget her heritage, and she later graduated from the University of Calgary, studying English, and working with her people. To this day she visits her old home, and with her children and grandchildren travels in a canoe, eating native foods (beaver), and picking wild rice. When I asked about the rice she said she'd come back later and bring me some - and she did. I think I may cherish it too much to eat it!
Then I gave my talk, about my experiences learning about my unknown grandmother, and writing my book. Paul videoed it, and it's posted on Facebook, where to my amazement 500 people have viewed it so far! (We've also put it on YouTube, under my name.) It was warmly received, which was inexpressibly gratifying! I was followed by plenary speaker Spencer Tricker from Clark University, who gave an interesting and very complementary talk about Winnie and the equally flamboyant Sadakichi Hartmann's "Japanese atmosphere" in New York.
We had a lovely relaxed fish and chips lunch with a happy bunch of conferees, including Rena, Dominika, Shaun, the performance artist Karen Gummo, Shoshanna Ganz, and my cousins. Next talk was a fascinating panel describing the digitalization of the Winnifred Eaton Fonds, the archive I worked with when researching my book. Then it consisted of many boxes of delicate, messily assorted documents, which have now been completely digitized. Jason Wiens of UCalgary chaired the panel with librarian Annie Murray, technical director Joey Takeda, and Sydney Lines (who was project manager and major academic discoverer - more to be announced later!) There was also a video talk from my old Winnier friend Jean Lee Cole.
The next panel was chaired by Rena with Hedy Law and Sydney Lines of UBC, and Colleen Daniher (of Wilfrid Laurier University), discussing Winnie's performing heritage and Canadian theatre historiography. This was followed by a public lecture (some talks were only open to registrants, this was open to the public) by Nancy Yunhwa Rao of Rutgers, author of Chinatown Opera Theatre in North America, discussing the importance of theatre to Chinese immigrant communities.
Paul and I (the former Miss Reeve!) at the Reeve Theatre
This already packed day was capped by what was for us an incredibly thrilling event - a tour of the Reeve Theatre, which was funded in part by a million-dollar donation from the Reeve Foundation, by Winnie's husband Frank Reeve. It's a beautiful performance space, and my pride is partly due to (full disclosure) my having once been a Miss Reeve - as a matter of fact I was born Winifred Diana Reeve, though I reversed the names as a teenager. Now I wish I could change back to Winifred again!
After the tour (during which I longed to borrow a long golden wig displayed backstage, which was eerily identical to the book illustrations of Tama!), there was a lovely reception. The buffet included a fabulously imaginative and artful display of shortbread cookies baked in the shape of some of Winnie's books! Socializing, eating, book signing - and then we retired exhausted and slept the sleep of the just (and busy).
Friday, July 28
First up was a scholarly panel on Winifred Eaton's Alberta novels, with Dominika Ferens from Wroclaw, who talked about the cultural politics of "unfeeling," comparing the brutish bully in Cattle with Thomas Savage's The Power of the Dog. Joey Takeda of Simon Fraser University talked about the reinvention of identity in Winnie's final novel, His Royal Nibs. The second panel was "On Affect in Eaton's works", chaired by Shoshannah Ganz of Memorial University. Xine Yao of University College, London, spoke on Asian Diasporic fiction and coquettes and seduction in Miss Nume of Japan, Shelley Hulan of Waterloo on the heroine of Me and her "strategic naivety." And Karen Skinazi talked about "Suicide Girls of the Progressive Era."
After a quick fish-and-chips lunch, Paul took part in a Transcribe-a-thon, "Transcribing Texts in the Winnifred Eaton Archive," organized by Joey Takeda and Sydney Lines. In the digital lab, participants tried their hands at transcribing Winnie's gossippy Hollywood correspondence, and a fascinating and jolly time was had by all. I enjoyed watching the youngest conference participant, Professor Lily Cho's daughter Hattie, an incredibly precocious, deft, and enthusiastic transcriber!
Next was a panel on "Winnifred Eaton in Hollywood," chaired by Louisa Wei, with Vito Adriaensens of Columbia University and Karintha Lowe of Sarah Lawrence, who talked about the ephemeral melodrama of Cattle, which Winnie hoped would be a film. This was followed by an enjoyable public screening of the 1925/1929 Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera, a draft of which script Winnie worked on, though uncredited. Afterwards Paul and I wanted a light dinner and Shaun and her husband kindly dropped us at the Chinese restaurant Ginger Beef where we picked up some wonton soup and dumplings. And then to sleep.
Saturday, July 29. Events were held today not on the UCalgary campus but at the beautiful, bedragoned Calgary Chinese Cultural Center, and it all began with our play! The reading went very well and we were most enthusiastically applauded, to our delight. It was filmed, and will be posted when available.
Paul and I had lunch with Shaun and Karen at a nearby Korean barbecue restaurant in a Chinatown mall, which was delicious and great fun. Then back for a public lecture by Lily Cho of Western University, "Mass Capture and Chinese Canadian History," about the issuance of documents (CI 9s) to determine citizenship among Chinese immigrants following the passage of the Chinese Immigration Act.
Next was the screening of Golden Gate Girls, award-winning Louisa Wei's documentary about groundbreaking Chinese American filmmaker Esther Eng.
The day's finale was a truly spectacular ten-course Chinese banquet, traditionally served, with some dishes inspired by Winnie - with her book titles on the tables! It was a fitting fireworks of a conference ending with eclat, and pictures will describe the event better than words.
Still, this wasn't the end of our trip, for on Sunday, Paul, Elizabeth and I picked up my nice little cobalt blue Toyota rental car and drove, ready for adventure, into the Canadian Rockies for a couple of days! We've enjoyed many hiking trips in the past to the spots Winnie knew and loved - her ranch was halfway between Calgary and Banff, and she used to visit Num-Ti-Jah Lodge at Bow Lake. That is such a beautiful place, with so many family associations (Peter, Paul and I stayed there with cousins Tim and Mary, Elizabeth and Frank's parents, years ago), that we longed to see it again. As it happened, it rained the evening we arrived, and although the lake was still lovely, we couldn't hike. So we proceeded to our hotel, The Crossing Resort on the Icefields Parkway, for a comfortable steak dinner.
After a short rest and a bit of internet at The Crossing (most of the region was a wifi black-out hole!), we had our next adventure, driving 50 miles to the hamlet of Nordegg, where my friend Nancy Vermette of the Lord Peter Wimsey group lives with her husband Dennis in the most beautiful mountain log home I've ever seen. Nancy and I have known each other for years, but hadn't yet met in person, and it was such a delightful and happy encounter and evening! We admired the house and the beautiful art structures Dennis has created in the garden, Nancy took us on a short tour of Nordegg (Paul especially wanted to see the new library), and then - Dennis, a chef, prepared a truly delicious and memorable meal for us. Venison roulade (stewed with bacon, pickle and red wine), with baked polenta, and ratatouille, followed by his homemade apple galette! A perfect meal, and perfect company. We drove back to the hotel watching a blood red moon setting; apparently that color due to recent wildfires, though the air was clear.
Tuesday morning we drove from the Icefields to Calgary, rather speedily as our flight was to leave at 2:30 PM, and it was a 175 mile drive! In fact, I did it in 3 hours flat. Then we had to wait an hour at Customs, the result of it being high tourist season. But we made the flight, and were soon whisked happily home, after a truly wonderful and memorable Canadian trip.
Paul and I both felt that it had all done us so much good: I'd been anxious and uncertain before, not sure if grief had somehow rendered me incapable of doing so much - but I was completely reassured on that score! My talks went well, I was so happy with friends old and new, family, celebrating, and being given such absolutely royal treatment, and Paul said he was so proud of me. But I'm happy now to be back with the cats, in the dear and quiet home that my darling Peter and I made together.