Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being: Amy Fung on Identity and Writing

Amy Fung, photo via Artspeak.

Amy Fung, photo via Artspeak.

With a matte black background and a simple serif font, the cover art of Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being—the debut collection of creative nonfiction essays from celebrated art critic Amy Fungis every bit as laid bare as its contents. Funded as one of 200+ projects by Canada Council For the Arts’ New Chapter program, Before I Was A Critic finds Fung turning her critical eye onto herself and her experience as a racialized non-Indigenous person in Canada. Through the lens of her understanding working and travelling across Canada, Fung’s essays explore colonialism, culture, and identity, ultimately asking readers to explore those things within themselves.

Jumping from place to place, each chapter focuses on a different region in Canada as well as a different time in Fung’s life. While the initial intention was to conduct more artist-style interviews across Canada, the process of writing this book caused Fung to turn inward: "I've lived and worked across the country, and I've never reflected on my own ideas and my own positioning to this level. Once I started doing that, the stories started coming out,” she said. Each story stands on its own, but taken together, Before I Was a Critic expresses itself as one long land acknowledgement.

Fung wrote, researched, and edited her book over the span of 18 months, while the stories she writes span over 30 years. In “Sprawl,” she writes about the open space of her childhood in Edmonton. In “Choke” and “Witness,” Fung observes an aloof Vancouver in her adulthood. Other chapters explore Toronto, Saskatchewan, Montreal, and Newfoundland through the lens of her career freelancing and as an art critic. In “Harbour” and the epilogue, Fung does the work of tracing her identity through her mother. “I wanted that impossibility of language to appear in the book... It couldn't be the focus of the book... but it definitely lingers throughout,  like how [my mother] saw Canada, how I learned to see Canada, and before I learned how to see it for myself,” Fung said. Embarking on this project, Fung’s process of learning to see Canada for herself was all about context, which included reading the Royal Proclamation and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, taking an online course, researching in archives, and talking to people about their own experiences with oppression in Canada.

That contextual work and its entanglement with the  intergenerational viewpoints gained through her mother is just one of many impacts of colonialism that Fung explores. In Vancouver, Fung critiques the willingness for POC to s(l)ide into whiteness, explaining that “I think a lot of [POC] do side or slide into whiteness because they want to be taken professionally, seriously, [as] respectable... all of these qualifiers... until we talk about those things, and make those things very visible, we can't ever move it or shift it.” It’s a sentiment that children of immigrants and the generations before them can easily recognize:  not wanting to “rock the boat” or to just be “grateful we’re even here.”

Fung also believes that we’re in an era of reckoning. From the art world to the literary world, people are “doing that work of digging out where they came from in a long historical arc.” While that work is hard, through Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being, Amy Fung lays bare 30 years of navigating what it means to be a racialized settler in Canada. Fung isn’t offering answers here, but encouraging readers to look within themselves and do the same work of critiquing and navigating their position in Canada. Fung says, “you have to see it moving. I’m hearing a lot of discourse about how people feel it’s so futile or useless to keep fighting... there’s climate disaster, and capitalism has completely gone off the rails, but where do you stand? How did you get here?... Do we want to repeat history or do we actually want to shift it and be aware of what's happening?”

Before I Was A Critic I Was a Human Being launches at Massy Books on May 16th - the event is free and features guest Kim Nguyen - find all the details here! Order the book online at Book*