A FINALIST FOR THE 2021 HILARY WESTON WRITERS' TRUST PRIZE FOR NONFICTION
Bestselling, Scotiabank Giller Award-winning writer Ian Williams brings fresh eyes and new insights to today's urgent conversation on race and racism in startling, illuminating essays that grow out of his own experience as a Black man moving through the world.
With that one eloquent word, disorientation, Ian Williams captures the impact of racial encounters on racialized people—the whiplash of race that occurs while minding one's own business. Sometimes the consequences are only irritating, but sometimes they are deadly. Spurred by the police killings and street protests of 2020, Williams realized he could offer a perspective distinct from the almost exclusively America-centric books on race topping the bestseller lists, because of one salient fact: he has lived in Trinidad (where he was never the only Black person in the room), in Canada (where he often was), and in the United States (where as a Black man from the Caribbean, he was a different kind of "only").
Inspired by the essays of James Baldwin, in which the personal becomes the gateway to larger ideas, Williams explores such things as the unmistakable moment when a child realizes they are Black; the ten characteristics of institutional whiteness; how friendship forms a bulwark against being a target of racism; the meaning and uses of a Black person's smile; and blame culture—or how do we make meaningful change when no one feels responsible for the systemic structures of the past. With these essays, Williams wants to reach a multi-racial audience of people who believe that civil conversation on even the most charged subjects is possible. Examining the past and the present in order to speak to the future, he offers new thinking, honest feeling, and his astonishing, piercing gift of language.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
With his sixth book, Giller Prize–winning poet, author, and professor Ian Williams offers an invaluable glimpse inside the Black experience. Disorientation is a collection of searing, intimate, and at times hilarious essays that discuss everything from the role of race in the works of David Foster Wallace to the literal value of white versus Black bodies (a white kidney sells on the black market for $30,000 while an African kidney goes for just $1,000). Referencing fellow Black thinkers like W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Williams offers piercing analysis into the oppressive power of whiteness—its ability to shift, adapt, and preserve itself over time. He softens his hard-hitting insights with the candour of his personal stories, including an utterly charming anecdote about meeting his literary hero Margaret Atwood, which left us liking both of them even more than we already did. This is an important read from an invaluable Canadian voice.
Novelist and poet Williams (Reproduction) delivers a probing if uneven study of racialized consciousness and the challenges of talking about race. Expressing discomfort with the "extremity of rhetoric" around the topic, Williams notes that when he tries to categorize his experiences of racism, "they come waddling back to me, shedding labels, dishevelled and unruly." Interweaving autobiographical anecdotes with discussions of 18th-century slave narratives and contemporary works by Claudia Rankine and others, Williams describes the disorientation Black people feel when they're made aware of "white dominance" in an unsuspecting moment (like the time a pair of white men repeatedly used the n-word while walking behind him on a San Antonio street), and the defensive strategies they adopt to regain a sense of equilibrium after such encounters. He also calls on white people to "habitually recognize the negative impact of their behaviour rather than excusing themselves for having neutral intentions," and draws on his experiences growing up in Trinidad and living in Korea to examine how race operates when "whiteness is decentered." In other instances, such as a discussion of ancestry and identity interwoven with details of his difficulties moving from Vancouver to Toronto, Williams's point of view seems more half-baked than fully honed. Readers will savor the flashes of insight, but wish for more consistency.