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Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being

by Amy Fung

The cover of Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human BeingIn her new book, art critic Amy Fung does what a lot of BIPOC thinkers, especially Indigenous ones, ask us to do: deliberately situate ourselves in our narratives, clearly positioning ourselves vis-à-vis colonialism and the colonial project of the Canadian nation. 

Touted as “a very long land acknowledgement,” Fung’s collection – which she describes interchangeably as chapters, short stories, and fictionalized non-fiction – is relevant and needed. First, as an attempt to unpack Canada’s national myth of the multicultural state without neglecting to see multicultural immigration as a form of continuing colonialism. Second, as an effort to join Indigenous writers such as Chelsea Vowel (Métis) and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg), among others, who should not be the only voices holding the settler-colonial state to task.

Fung’s story begins in childhood, with a first-person narrator who could be the author or a child whose life parallels Fung’s in certain ways. While the choice to fictionalize some of her material – changing some names to protect privacy and ensure that Fung has the right to tell the stories she is telling – is valid, at times these chapters read purely as fiction. The muddying of what is truth versus imaginative narrative risks diluting some of the material’s power, given that readers may easily dismiss what they read as “just stories.” 

Yet, these could-be-fictions-could-be-real narratives often break open and announce themselves regardless. Take, for example, this passage, which contains within it the force of truth: “People disappear. Historic events vanish. History books are wiped clean. This is what countries do, when the past is too frightening to bear. Our inability to speak about the past leads to a break – a rupture – in understanding everything that comes after.”

Another theme winding through Fung’s book explores how we learn to see ourselves. This is enacted through both the form and content but also in the way Fung navigates the lands she lives on and visits. This line, about Fung’s grandmother, echoes outward: “I have seen photos of her on my mother’s mahogany dresser, and have realized, more than once, that I don’t know how to recognize my own features.” 

In finding a way to recognize our own features and our full selves – our conflicted histories, positions, and relationships to the land – we are better able to see and understand our connections to and impositions on the places we live, visit, and claim. Fung outlines this process through personal narratives that encompass 30 years of living on and travelling across this land and identifies her consequent responsibilities as a critic and a human being. 

That is, after all, what a land acknowledgement amounts to: an explicit vocalization of our minimum obligations to Indigenous nations whose lands Canadians violently occupy.


Reviewer: Jenny Ferguson

Publisher: Book*hug


Price: $20

Page Count: 200 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 978-1-77166-505-6

Released: May 2019

Issue Date: June 2019

Categories: Art, Music & Pop Culture, Criticism & Essays