Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being
Published: May 7, 2019 by Book*hug Press
Sometimes, a question is more meaningful than an answer. That’s certainly the case in Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being, a collection of essays by art critic Amy Fung. Denoted as a “very long land acknowledgment,” the 200-page book explores multiculturalism through the eyes of a first-generation Canadian.
Fung was born in Kowloon, Hong Kong. She moved to Edmonton when she was seven years old. The fact that Fung moved from one British colony to another is not lost on the reader. It’s these experiences which led her mind to becoming “a deeply colonized place.” She writes about two types of racism. The first, a blatant, on-the-surface kind she experienced while doing an artist residency in Scotland (she was called a “chink” by a young boy). The second, an insidious, below-the-surface kind deeply entrenched in the Canadian psyche. The latter, she says, is more harmful to her existence.
In the last few years, phrases like “white privilege” and “white guilt” have entered the collective conscience. More people are searching for these terms on Google than ever before. Fung’s book was published in May 2019, one month before the final report of the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls was released. In October 2019, a study from Environics Institute found non-Indigenous Canadians are less likely to support policies that improve the lives of Indigenous Peoples. It’s not like Fung is offering a clear set of actionable steps for how settlers can decolonize their thoughts and behaviour. The magic of Fung’s work is we get to see a real person work through complex and highly emotional ideas. There is no easy road to reconciliation. There is no one answer to decolonization. But what Fung does ask, albeit subtly, is for the reader to do to the work. She wants readers to ask the same questions like when she questions her partner’s decision to provide resources to Indigenous kids as a non-Indigenous person. If Fung can ask these questions as a racialized settler, then why can’t white settlers ask them too?
Another theme of Fung’s book is the Canadian identity through the lens of different cities. We see snippets of her experiences from across Canada: the artist suicides in Edmonton, the anti-Asian sentiment in Vancouver, the visible violence in Winnipeg, the lack of diversity in Newfoundland, and the fake wokeness in Montréal. Together, these experiences suggest one overarching idea: multiculturalism is a myth that keeps white people complacent in systemic racism.
The 12 essays are starkly different in their place, location, and time. We see Fung in intimate moments: as an adult, lying in bed with her lover, and as a child watching footage from Tiananmen Square while her mom cries in the background — it all reads like a diary. She doesn’t give introductions to names. She doesn’t outright say what her relationships are with others. When she first mentions her partner Billie, it’s just Billie. No introductory phrase. She expects the reader to read closely, to be absorbed into her world. In that way, she isn’t writing for us, she’s writing for herself. In her final essay, Fung tells two white people she’ll be writing about them in her book. They tell her they’re excited to read it. “Fuck,” Fung writes, “now I have to write this story for these white people to read.”
Fung defines a parallel between her proximity to whiteness and the number of Indigenous folks in the room. She cites a specific moment, when an Indigenous man was turned away from an exhibit featuring contemporary Indigenous artists, as being the first time she felt “closer to whiteness than not” and like “a real Canadian.”
This is a book about intersections, not just of race, class, and gender, but also of language, location, and accent (or lack thereof). She’s not playing “Oppression Olympics” when she compares her experience as a woman of colour to that of an Indigenous person. What she is doing is acknowledging that settlers – racialized or not – will never have the same history of trauma and colonial violence as an Indigenous person living in Canada.
Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being serves as a reminder to not just act in our best interests, but in the interests of those whose land we occupy. We can no longer let the trope of the “kind Canadian” overshadow our disturbing and racist history. We need to ask questions, listen more, and take real, tangible steps toward reconciliation. After all, a land acknowledgement means nothing without action.