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Disorientation in conversation: a look at Ian Williams’ upcoming book

U of T creative writing professor’s essay collection highlights the Black experience
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Author, alum, and instructor: Ian Williams speaks with The Varsity COURTESY OF JUSTIN MORRIS
Author, alum, and instructor: Ian Williams speaks with The Varsity COURTESY OF JUSTIN MORRIS

In the ever-expanding world of Canadian literature, there are few contemporary voices as celebrated as the voice of Ian Williams. 

This year, Williams, the Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of Reproduction, joined the U of T faculty list. Williams is juggling his teaching schedule and his writing deadlines while working on his forthcoming nonfiction essay collection titled Disorientation: The Experience of Being Black in the World.

Disorientation: melding personal experience and current tensions on race

Williams’ creative muscles are always at work, and they have been particularly exerted over the last few months while working on Disorientation, which will be published in the fall by Penguin Random House. 

He described Disorientation as a book about race, “but not in the ways that we have conversations about race these days.” 

“Race tends to be very controversial and charged and polemic and fraught with defensiveness,” Williams said. “What if your racial experience was a little bit milder?” 

By looking at the issue of race outside of an American context, Williams hopes to foster a productive discussion about twenty-first-century social relationships and identity. He draws on personal experience while approaching current tensions analytically. 

Disorientation is underscored by the Black Lives Matter protests of this past summer, which compelled Williams to “put aside what [his] pet project was at the time to focus on something that is actually timely and urgent.”

Williams shared the message behind the title of his book: “This project is called Disorientation because the key idea is that, [as] Black folks, we go about living our lives every day, and then, suddenly, something just bonks us over the head.” At the heart of this collection is the issue that “We’re constantly disoriented by race.” 

At first, the framework for this book was not obvious. “On one hand, I want to represent [the] Black experience accurately and fairly and well, which might involve saying really painful things about another group, white folks. And the other side of that is that the reality is that some white folks have been very good to me.” 

In his book, Williams resolves this tension by differentiating between “whiteness as an institution” and “white people” to illustrate that “we need to separate people from the mechanisms that give some folks power.” 

Williams’ pedagogy

Although this is his first semester at the university as an instructor, Williams knows U of T quite well. He began his undergraduate degree at the university as a science student but quickly found his way into the psychology department. 

Now, as an associate professor teaching creative writing, Williams is crafting courses he wishes he could have enrolled in as a student himself. “We’re building programming in the English department about what creative writing could look like across [the] St. George campus. I and some other professors will be involved in that process.” 

With this initiative, Williams is looking to “situate creative writing in our present moment and make it attractive and lucrative and still important.” 

Williams is not just here to train future authors — he also hopes to help students balance their analytical and creative abilities through education. He believes that everyone can derive value from setting time aside for routine creative expression. 

When it comes to education, Williams said, “The analytical tends to dominate and so the other muscles — the creative muscles — atrophy over time. We want to get those muscles developed again.” 

Although we have no shortage of talented and inspiring professors here at U of T, Williams’ contributions to both our university and Canadian literature should make every student proud.

While Williams waits out the Toronto stay-at-home order, he is reading for both research and pleasure. Some of his current favourite authors include Souvankham Thammavongsa, Kaie Kellough, Zadie Smith, and Claudia Rankine.