The young Canadian multimedia artist Jessica Mensch recommended that I read Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being (2019, Book*hug Press/Artspeak) by writer and curator Amy Fung while we were talking about the work Jessica had made for her Hunter College MFA thesis exhibition. Jessica did not have to tell me much more about the book than the title, author, and a brief synopsis to catch my interest. Shortly after I came home, I ordered it.
Toward the end of the book, I read this sentence:
Over the last decade, I learned my maternal great grandfather was Sun Baoqi, a foreign minister and premier in the Republic of China.
Along with this family history, from which Fung feels understandably disconnected, her sense of not feeling either “Canadian” or “wholly Chinese” struck a chord, and may be why Jessica recommended this book so strongly to me.
This is the first sentence of Part I of the prologue:
I was last notably called a “chink” in 2011 while living in Scotland, that land and people who still fancied calling Indian restaurants “pakis” and Chinese restaurants “chinkies.”
Fung ends the paragraph with: “Born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada, my mind has been a deeply colonized place.”
By the time I finished the first paragraph, I knew that I would complete this book in one concentrated reading, rather than adding it to my ever-growing pile of books to be finished later.
Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being is a collection of linked personal essays about language, displacement, and ownership — about being both an “outsider” and an “intruder” who is complicit in the ongoing suppression of the Indigenous population in Canada, which has a well-established system and set of laws that lead to people becoming either complicit or oppressed.
In order to advance from enemy to ally, Fung has had to counteract that soul-crushing relationship in every way that she could. In relation to Canada’s art institutions, this has meant turning down jobs, building relationships with people she is expected to ignore, and yelling at a young man who began reciting the poems of Mao Zedong at a party.
Fung’s essays begin with growing up in the British colony of Kowloon, Hong Kong, the youngest of three sisters. Later, her mother, Cho Kei, moved the girls to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada (which was once part of the British Empire), while her father, Hing Him, stayed behind and sent money. Fung examines the ways she was colonized in her different environments as well as scrutinizes the use of language in her daily encounters, from childhood to adulthood.
Attending school in Canada from 1988 to 2008, she received what most would consider a high caliber, democratic education, yet, she states, “Everything I learned I have had to unlearn.” Language is at the core of Fung’s process of learning and unlearning, of doing and undoing:
As someone who has never seen myself reflected in the nation-state image of Canada, I have ceased looking, and instead started collecting my own stories.
Fung’s stories include family histories. (For example, Cho Kei is the youngest child of the first of her father’s five wives. There would be 24 children in total, eight of whom were her full siblings.) Out of that history, Fung becomes a writer of “snappy copy” and eventually an art critic, learning that in:
[…] the 1950s and 1960s, having nowhere else to go, the American art critic Clement Greenberg began a series of visits to northern Saskatchewan, attracting a higher than normal concentration of postwar Modernist painters and sculptors to Emma Lake’s summer workshop, as they “discovered” the ideal realization of flatness in form and embodiment in the surrounding landscape,” which culminates in “reinforcing the false superiority of a European aesthetic.”
Fung has a very different sense of space, having spent her early childhood in “the cramped quarters of Kowloon.”
But here: sitting on a rock in an empty farm field in the middle of Saskatchewan. Here I was aware of the sensation of having zero personal space in which to breathe. Being in its diametrical opposite, I could learn to feel the other.
Instead of seeing the vast plains and open skies as a sign of opportunity and nature’s amplitude, Fung is reminded that “Applying ill-fitting European parameters onto these freshwater grasslands is to be blind to everything that is there.” This include Canada’s genocidal history and continuing policies.
In this chapter, the reader also learns that “Saskatchewan is […] one of the most deeply segregated provinces when it comes to Indigenous and settler rights, from the basic necessities to the court of law.”
There are so many moments in this and every chapter that leap out at the reader, as Fung comes to terms with her relationship to the various people, places, and histories where she has been invited to “write a feature on a province-wide art project,” jury a show, or be a writer in residence.
The subject Fung keeps returning to — and this is the core of the book — is summed up in this paragraph:
The multicultural myth of Canada has always been undermined by the government’s assimilation of and genocidal policies toward Indigenous Nations. Difference against whiteness has never been easily embraced, not for Indigenous Nations, early POC settlers, or Black migrants. More often than not, difference has been so effortlessly met with state violence turned law turned status quo. Diversity works only for whiteness, for those who are happy to benevolently oversee and control diversity in all its frivolous forms, but who will enforce the power of their laws the moment difference seeks actual power.
The reader of this book will learn about Residential Schools, which forcibly separated Indigenous children from their families and sent them miles away to government-sponsored religious schools in order to assimilate the children of “savages” into Euro-Canadian culture. The last state-sponsored Residential School was not closed until 1996. A private Residential school did not close until the following year.
We also learn about the “TRC” (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and the discomfort it caused among Fung’s peers: “Most of those who had begun dropping TRC into conversations were dropping it like a new band […].”
Created as one of several concrete outcomes from the Indian residential Schools settlement Agreement, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was tasked to collect and preserve the stories of survivors. Modelled after South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission, which assembled after apartheid had officially ended in 1994, the model has been used by various nations to document their own human rights violations.
Fung has written an important book about Canadian culture and its arts, and how they are bound up with “an extraction economy built in violation of Indigenous land rights and human rights.” Her dream is of a future time where “all of us who have gathered here can acknowledge where we came from and how we collectively came to this point.” Moving effortlessly from personal anecdote to unsettling recognition of her own complicity to disturbing insight and political statement, Fung’s testimony is essential reading.
Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being by Amy Fung (2019) is co-published by Book*Hug Press and Artspeak and is available online and in bookstores.