Ian Williams aims to make sense of a racialized world in the essay collection Disorientation
'I had a lot of conflicting feelings and thoughts about race'
Ian Williams is a poet, novelist and professor from Brampton, Ont., who is currently teaching at the University of Toronto. His debut novel, Reproduction, won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. He is also the author of the poetry collection Personals, which was a finalist for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize.
In his first essay collection, Disorientation, Williams captures the impact of racial encounters on racialized people, especially when one's minding their own business. Sometimes, the consequences are only irritating, but other times they are deadly. Driven by the police killings and street protests of 2020, Williams realized he could offer a Canadian perspective on race. He explores things such as, the unmistakable moment when a child realizes they're Black, the 10 characteristics of institutional whiteness, how friendship helps protect against being a target of racism and blame culture.
Disorientation is a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. Williams spoke with CBC Books about why he wrote the book.
What is Disorientation all about?
Disorientation's subtitle is Being Black in the World. It's a book that came out of last year's unrest and the social progress and advancement with Black Lives Matter, police reform and all of that. A lot was happening last summer — a virus was starting to take over — and in that period, I'd been pretty silent on the subject of race.
I think a lot of Black people have been silent, just like a lot of white people have, but for different reasons. White folks don't want to see their lives explode or say the wrong things and cause offence — and Black people have to negotiate and navigate a kind of game that involves very powerful white people. So it's very important for us to "behave" or to "play nice" with power.
White folks don't want to see their lives explode or say the wrong things and cause offence — and Black people have to negotiate and navigate a kind of game that involves very powerful white people.
I had a lot of conflicting feelings and thoughts about race. I needed to clarify what I thought about all of these issues for myself. The other part of it was these conversations that were happening were largely American-driven conversations. Even when they were happening in Canada, they were like this offshoot or satellite of talking about race in America. The foundation of this book is that being African American is only one kind of Blackness — there are so many other kinds of Blackness throughout the world, and here in Canada, that need attention. The Black Canadian experience is not identical to the African American experience — much like being a Black Jamaican or a Black Trinidadian or a Black British person have their own different contexts. So what about those stories? And what if your story doesn't involve, say, gun violence or anything like that, but it involves smaller forms of violence and aggression? What can we say about those?
That's a lot to unpack.
The book title comes from the second essay in the book. Disorientation refers to the effect of constantly being confronted by race when you're trying to live your life. So we go forward, just as human beings, just trying to buy our produce at the store: "What are the costs by the pound?" and regular stuff like that. Then there will be some kind of interference that runs between me and the world, something that is racialized and charged. It snaps me from the thing I'm doing out of the thing I'm doing. Suddenly, I'm a racial object — and I need to process this in racial terms and behave in a certain way.
Disorientation refers to the effect of constantly being confronted by race when you're just trying to live your life.
That kind of action, I think, happens to a lot of racialized people. It burns up way too much of our energy. So the book centres on these moments of disorientation — being the only Black person in the room, being called the N-word, stuff like that.
It's these moments, where you're just trying to be, and you are whacked across the face with race.
A lot of Black authors could potentially grapple with the issue of writing a book on race — a question like, "Do I have to get my 'Black book' out of the way so I can then write the stuff that I really want to write?" Did you have that mindset?
White authors don't have their "white book" that they write. I don't think about it like that. I needed to do it for myself. It's less of a project and more of a place in life. I recently turned 42. I came to this place with a slight midlife "pause" or reflection.
But race has been present in my work throughout, right from the beginning, in different kinds of ways. But to foreground it, I think maybe it's a bit different. So it's been foregrounded in this book, it's more integrated in my previous work.
The book is mindful, in that it is a conversation, a two-way interaction versus being performative. Why did you want that kind of framing?
The book aims to address our cultural moment. It's because a lot of us don't know how to enter that conversation. We hear it going on — so instead of being spectators to these conversations, how do we enter and what's at stake when we enter? The first essay looks at the risk of speaking, the risk of taking the chance and saying something wrong or saying something inappropriate. The consequences of that are severe these days, probably worse than they've been.
The book aims to address our cultural moment.
There's a kind of social death that people face from saying the wrong thing or holding the wrong point of view. And yet I still think it's important to take that chance. You may say the wrong thing. You may screw up. But then even so, how do you recover from that?
Who is this book for, then?
That's a really hard thing. Is this a book for a Black audience or a book for white folks? I wanted the book to address the difficulties of both sides. I can only speak out of my experience — but my experience is in a world that has been dominated by whiteness. I tried to speak to racialized people and white people, but I also want to speak through this environment of whiteness that we all participate in right before we can even get to each other. Sometimes even to get to another Black person in a group of white people, we have to go through these layers of whiteness until we can get to each other.
How can Black people find success and thrive in a racialized world?
I think in the 1970s, the 1980s, success for Black people my age in Canada looks like clean assimilation — it was a time where traces of Blackness got swallowed up. The way we talked, dressed and ate, all of that got swallowed up into a convincing performance. So convincing, in fact, that it became an identity.
It means going back to an identity that was scrubbed clean and trying to unearth it again.
Now, that is no longer the case. So those of us, who grew and were educated under the spectre of total assimilation, now we have to do a kind of a reorientation or a reconfiguration of ourselves. So now it means a kind of reclaiming of that lost thing. It means going back to an identity that was scrubbed clean — and trying to unearth it again.
Ian Williams' comments have been edited for length and clarity.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.