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Whose land is it anyway? A Q&A with the author of 'Before I Was a Critic, I Was a Human Being'

Last Updated May 12, 2019 at 1:00 pm PDT

(Source: Book*hug Press)

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Taking a long, hard look at multiculturalism, settler colonialism, and identity; the author of a new book challenges some long-held Canadian beliefs. Before I Was a Critic, I Was a Human Being is a collection of non-fiction essays by former art critic Amy Fung, who came here from Hong Kong as a child.

NEWS 1130’s John Ackermann spoke with Fung by phone from her home in Toronto earlier this week.

Q: First of all what inspired this collection to come together?

A: “Well, I have been a critic in Canada for about 15 years and living across the prairies, Vancouver, now Ontario, and each region is very different from each other. But, we’re all grouped under the umbrella of Canada, or Canadian arts, and I wanted to tease out some of the nuances and differences across this country through its contemporary art scene.”

Q: And I was wondering where did the title come from? Do critics somehow lose their humanity once they become critics?

A: (laughs) “Well, I mean, we’ll have to ask each one of them, but I would say that I’ve been using this title for a number of years as a series of talks and other texts as a way to kind of remember, for me at least, why I started writing about art. The title is suggesting that I feel disconnected from why I got into art writing in the first place and that was to connect with people and to understand someone else’s perspective on the world through their lens. And increasingly, I felt detached from that. So, I want to remember why and I had to ask myself how I got here.”

Q: You spend some time exploring settler culture, reconciling your identity as an immigrant from Hong Kong to your identities as a Canadian and a settler. How do we unlearn settler culture?

A: “Well, I think going back and really learning where we came from is one way to battle the story that we’ve kind of grown up with, en masse, through the education system, through the media, because never aligned with my own story. Like, I moved here as a kid, I went through the whole public school system, went and did my undergrad, did my master’s, all these things. And the whole time I was trying to see myself in the stories, in the history, and it was always like a footnote, it was always like this one little thing that happened. But as I got older, you learn that there’s all sorts of stories that have been sidelined and marginalized, but didn’t fit the grand Canadian narrative of the two founding nations, of the War of 1812. There’s so much out there that is actually in this country already that we still see as newcomer stories or, like, this thing that happened 300 years ago and that we should just move on from it. [But] these things are all living cultures that bring us back to where we are [now]. [If] we can have a little patience to hear these stories, then maybe we can all be in a bit more of an honest place with each other.”

Q: I have to say, as an aside, I was fascinated about the anecdote about how the Syrians don’t have a word for settler and that the closest thing to it is “Israeli.” Was that kind of like an “aha” moment for you too?

A: “Well, because I don’t speak Syrian, I can only say that that was like anecdote that was very reflective of how I first understood the land acknowledgement as I was hearing it. Yeah. In the arts, I feel like we do these acknowledgments all the time, left and right, people reading off a piece of paper. And while it’s meaningful, it’s also not meaningful, for me at least, someone who came here. And it’s like, ‘Okay, so whose land are we on and then who’s laws and worldviews are we following. But, yeah, that moment, I think, really hits home, perhaps, the point that was a double speak that’s happening in Canadian culture, where we acknowledge indigenous nations and land but we actually aren’t doing anything on the policy level to change how we operate.”

Q: You also explore cultural imperialism, how we’re not just victims of it, but perpetrators as well. Who are we ignoring or actively erasing?

A: “I guess, like I had mentioned, we are ignoring a lot of our own stories, right? Like, for sure, we are oppressing a lot of stories that happen in this country, relegating them to say like a hyphenated category, you know? Like, let’s say someone who comes here from another country, that has lived here for generations, it will always be a hyphen-Canadian stories, they will never be considered just Canadian stories, unless they are either Franco or Anglo. At the same time, a lot of these stories that are happening within this country called Canada that are from the indigenous nations that are all over this country, they’re always kind of relegated to some kind of specialized interest. And, that way, it’s centering Anglo Franco Canadian as the only acceptable narrative of what Canada is, when there are so many different tangents happening and I think that’s what makes Canada interesting.”

Q: By the end of the book, Fung admits she’s never really felt like a Canadian as, to her, that is really just a term for a polite white person who is not an American.

A: “I’m looking a little bit deeper into the history of Canada, which was formed as this idea for, like, hardy folks from Northern Europe to combat this idea that America has become this republic for everyone, whereas Canada was formed from this idea that, ‘Oh no, we are just for, like, hardy white people. That narrative has been twisted into this polite narrative of we love the outdoors and hockey and all these things, but it comes from quite an insidious background that we don’t talk about. And [if] we don’t talk about it, we can’t ever confront it and deal with it, and deal with the ramifications of what that has meant for everyone else who lives here.”

Fung also doesn’t feel wholly Chinese anymore either, but does regrets not “seeing” Indigenous people and their experiences sooner. She certainly does now.

Before I Was a Critic, I Was a Human Being is available from Book*hug Press. Fung will appear at Massy Books in Vancouver at 7:00 p.m. on May 16th and at the Richmond Public Library at 1:00 p.m on May 18th.