TORONTO — Two days after winning a prize for a poetry collection that explored the problems of racial inequality, Ian Williams was stopped by a cop outside his home.
The Brampton, Ont.-raised wordsmith was returning to his Toronto condo building after taking a drive to the park to identify tree species. He says a police officer approached his car in the parking lot, and pointed to his B.C. license plates.
Williams tried to explain that he'd just moved to the city from Vancouver. His new Ontario license plates were sitting in the backseat, but he hadn't had a chance to swap them in.
But the officer had scribbled out a ticket before speaking a word, he says about the May incident, which occurred the weekend after he won the Raymond Souster Award for "World Problems."
Williams notes that he hadn't run a red light; he wasn't speeding. He'd seen other drivers cruising around the city in cars with plates from Florida, Saskatchewan and Quebec, apparently without issue.
"What is different about them and me?" Williams recalls thinking.
"Oh, I know."
It's a classic example of what Williams calls "Disorientation," also the title of his new book of essays, which he describes as the "whiplash effect" that people of colour experience when they're reminded of their race while minding their own business.
"We don't go through our lives processing information in terms of race. I don't go around thinking, 'I'm a Black man today.' I just go around thinking, 'I'm a human being today,'" says Williams, whose literary accolades include the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his 2019 novel, "Reproduction."
"But then we have these kinds of encounters that remind us that we belong to a category of human in a way that white people are never really reminded of their race."
"That is always a disorienting thing. There's always that moment between switching between being yourself and being a Black person."
Inspired by the essays of U.S. novelist James Baldwin, "Disorientation" frames Williams' personal reflections on race within the context of our current moment of "collective disorientation," he says.
The book is set against the backdrop of the summer 2020 protests against anti-Black racism spurred in part by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
This societal reckoning proved to be disorienting for white people who are unaccustomed to acknowledging their race and the advantages it gives them, says Williams.
"It's a real opportunity for white people to interrogate their privilege," he says. "To really say, I'm disoriented by this, because I've been stable without even noticing it ... at someone else's expense. And now that person doesn't want to participate in this dance anymore."
Williams says the goal of "Disorientation" is not to castigate anyone, but to invite readers into the "messy" conversations about race that have been rattling inside his head.
The book is less manifesto than memoir, he says, eschewing pitched political rhetoric in favour of telling a more intimate story about his experience of being Black in the world.
Unlike many narratives that centre on the African-American experience, Williams' background as a Trinidadian immigrant to Canada who has lived in the United States and Korea allows him to explore how racial dynamics shift across borders.
"There's a very global kind of Blackness that I wanted to address. And as I move through these different contexts, my body keeps getting reinterpreted," he says.
"In America, I absorb all of that American history. If I'm in Canada, there's a milder and more diplomatic racism.... And in Asia, you become this kind of slightly exotic foreign body."
Through this multinational perspective, certain universal themes emerge: the insidious influence of institutional whiteness, the constant vigilance it takes to manage racial perceptions and the loneliness of being the only Black person in a room.
To write "Disorientation," Williams says he first had to overcome his own reservations about wading into the public discourse about race, which he finds can often be polarized and unforgiving.
He imagines that some readers might share this reluctance. But through shared vulnerability, Williams hopes that he and his audience can work through some of these thorny ideas together.
"I'm after a more general spirit of compassion towards people. And there are people whose privilege protected them, and they actually want to investigate that," he says.
"My worldview is that people are generally good ... and if you create the conditions and the environment for them to do the right thing, they will take action."
"Disorientation" was released Tuesday by Random House Canada.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 22, 2021.
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press