“White folks get to erase or occlude parts of their history”: Ian Williams on race, language, and his new essay collection, Disorientation

In the opening lines of her 1978 poem, “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend,” American writer Pat Parker sets up an apparently irreconcilable dichotomy: “The first thing you do is to forget that I’m Black. / Second, you must never forget that I’m Black.” It’s not hard to imagine author Ian Williams reading Parker’s words, and their inherent paradox, with tacit approval. The Scotiabank Giller Prize winner’s debut work of nonfiction, Disorientation: Being Black in the World, comprises a series of personal essays that undertake an excavation of the attitudes and approaches underpinning discussions of race, and specifically anti-Black racism, in North America over the last several years. Like the author’s award-winning 2019 novel, Reproduction, along with his short stories and poetry, Disorientation offers a lively, provocative, and stylistically adventurous exploration of his material – an exploration that refuses to reduce itself to simplifying tropes or language.

This refusal begins with the book’s title, which implies a kind of uncertainty, a feeling of being unanchored or unmoored. For Williams, the lexicon that has developed around discussions of race – terms like anti-racism, microaggressions, white fragility, and the like – while valuable, seems insufficient to describe the complexity of lived experience among Black people. “Disorientation refers to the reaction people of colour – Black people – have when we are constantly reminded about our race,” he says. “We’re just trying to live our lives as usual, and then we get this reminder that, no, it’s not as usual. You’re living life in this moment as a Black person.”

In his book, Williams uses the word whiplash to describe the sensation of going about one’s daily life until, without warning, one is confronted by a reminder of race and its implications. Williams suggests that the invocation of race – whether implicit or explicit – conjures an unwritten script around social interactions and responses. “There are big moments of being profiled, of being tracked by a cop. But in Canada, there are lots of more quiet and subtle moments,” Williams says. “As Black people, we recognize them when they happen.” As an example, Williams imagines a group of white people engaged in a conversation freezing when he attempts to join the discussion. “These very slight and subtle things that constantly remind you that you are different, and no one will let you forget that.”

For a writer so inextricably involved with language and its relative ability to capture nuance and cadence, it’s unsurprising that Williams hesitates over the blunt instrument of the word “racism,” which is used to describe a wide swathe of ills, from moments of unthinking carelessness to systemic oppression to neo-Nazi violence. The use of language to disguise or excuse acts of implicit racism is one aspect of discourse, especially in a supposedly tolerant and multicultural country such as Canada, that makes confronting these issues that much more difficult. “The other part of disorientation here is the recovery that we need to have after these interactions,” he says. “That recovery involves thinking, was that in fact a racist act, or was that me being overly sensitive about something? In Canada, that is a particular kind of problem because it’s hard to pin it down objectively.”

One issue at the heart of Williams’s disorientation involves the bifurcated nature of Black people in North America, who are rendered either invisible or hyper-visible depending on the situation. While Black North Americans have historically been forced to bear the brunt of this themselves, Williams aims to make clear that the systemic forces driving this dilemma are the product of white supremacy. To this extent, he includes a chapter in Disorientation called “Ten Bullets on Whiteness,” the first of which is, “Whiteness Exists.”

“It was important to have that conversation, as I was writing a book on race, with a white person.” (Photo: Justin Morris)

This recognition is germane, Williams suggests, in interactions that attempt to exoticize Black or racialized people while white people are left to form a kind of unstated baseline of normalcy. A question like “Where are you from?” should apply equally to white people, Williams says, if the presumed answer – Canada, say – is deemed insufficient. But whether a white person’s ancestors originated in Germany, Ireland, or Australia is rarely required information in the way it may be for Black people, regardless of how long their families have resided in the country or where they themselves were born. “White folks get to erase or occlude parts of their history and put on a kind of accepted and neutral and universal coat that the rest of the world can’t put on,” Williams says. “That chapter on whiteness aims to say, ‘Hey, white folks: just look at yourselves. You are as exotic as you make us out to be.’ ”

While the content of the book is urgent, and Williams realizes that’s where the focus of most conversations will land, Disorientation is also of a piece with Reproduction and his poetry and short fiction, in that it marries a piercing intelligence with stylistic inventiveness and a pervading sense of play. Different chapters take up different formal approaches, from lists to imagined dialogues to diary entries; for the author, while creating a useful text that communicates core ideas about race and Blackness, he is also adamant about wanting the book to exist as a work of art, an ambition that has been validated by the volume’s recent nomination for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction. “It was actually more ambitious stylistically before, and then – as usual, this always happens with me – publishers and readers will say things like, ‘You’ve got to pull this back, you’ve got to tone this down a little bit more,’ ” he says. “There were cubes moving down the page at one point, and they said, ‘No, that’s not going to work for an ebook.’ ”

The chapters of the book were not conceived as discrete essays, Williams says, but rather there was much overlap in their composition. Two successive chapters – “Sighting,” written as diary entries originally composed on Williams’s phone, and “The Only,” which resembles more of a conventional essay – were conceived as a single piece, with the first running down the left side of the page and the second running down the right, but it was decided in the editing process to break them up into separate entities. “Ten Bullets on Whiteness” was originally broken down into much more granular points – 1., 1A., 1B., etc. – but Williams’s editor felt it read too much like a legal contract.

Disorientation was edited by Anne Collins, publisher of the Knopf Random Canada Publishing Group, whom Williams cites as a significant influence on how the volume ended up coming together. “I think it was important to have that conversation, as I was writing a book on race, with a white person,” Williams says. “A Black person would lean into the book and get it instantly. Anne is a reader I really admire and respect – an intelligent and compassionate woman. I’m writing this in conversation with her. If she doesn’t get something or understand something, I take that seriously.”

Though race has featured in all of Williams’s work, the nonfiction allows him the opportunity to address the subject more directly that he has in the past. This is equally true on the level of style – the 2020 poetry collection, Word Problems, featured spiralling text and words running down the gutters on various spreads – as content. “In this one, I wanted to do it in a more direct and intimate way, without the screen of fiction or poetry, without that curtain that goes up,” he says.

The result is a series of chapters that feel conversational rather than hectoring; Williams prefers the radical empathy of James Baldwin to the fiery rhetoric of Malcolm X. “I’m not interested in being the kind of Black writer who wags his finger at white folks, or wants to educate them or correct them. Because instantly you get that kind of moral superiority over your partner, and I don’t want that. There are people who do that fire and brimstone thing very well,” he says. “I picture it more like here we are having a scone and some coffee and we’re talking about this thing. And at the end of it, we’re still going to be friends.”

“White folks get to erase or occlude parts of their history”: Ian Williams on race, language, and his new essay collection, Disorientation
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