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STARFest memoirists talk of self-disclosure struggles

"I thought if this were going to be my last book, these were the things that I wanted to say.”

Ian Williams

Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 7 p.m.

Any memoirist will tell you the internal battle of deciding how much of your life to share and how comfortable you are sharing that with the world isn't easy.

For Giller Prize-winning writer Ian Williams, the author of Disorientation, who is scheduled to speak at the St. Albert Readers' Festival on Tuesday, Oct. 25, sharing even unimportant details of his day with loved ones is no easy task, not to mention sharing a life's experience of racism, and how he deals with it.

"This book was written during the pandemic where there was a kind of solitude that descended on us that felt like we might not see each other again in the same way," Williams said.

"I thought if this were going to be my last book, these were the things that I wanted to say.”

Disorientation is as much a memoir as it is a philosophical lesson, with elements of physical creativity one should expect from a tenured creative writing professor at the University of Toronto. Occasionally, for example, whole paragraphs are flipped upside down, creating a purposeful jarring affect.

The book is divided into three parts, and features a total of 10 essays. The main subject — the feeling of disorientation — Williams defines as, "the effect of racial encounters on racialized people, the whiplash of race that occurs while minding one's business."

"It reminds you of your race, usually at a moment when your internal experience is not framed in racial terms, and reorders the pattern of your interactions around race."

Williams uses his 10-year-old niece's first experience with disorientation for an example. His niece is at school one day, Williams writes, and while trying to find a dance routine online for her group of friends to try, his niece is called a slur by another child.

Williams writes, "the moment in childhood when one realizes that one is Black is profoundly disorienting.

"Internally, my niece had been knocked off balance and wanted her dad to tell her whether the limp would be permanent."

As Disorientation was released in 2021, Williams said the overall response to the work has been positive.

“I didn’t want to be pitied, I didn’t want any of those kinds of emotions," Williams said. “The book was able to provoke things in people."

However, Williams said a common thing he is told in response is that people expected the book to be more "militant."

“We all bring our approaches to these things, we expect a certain measure of anger … and that’s all important work and somebody needs to do it, but we can still talk to and listen — a very basic kind of transaction — instead of compelling people to act and to work and to change all of those things," Williams said.

For his STARFest event, hosted by the journalist behind the Is This for Real? podcast Oumar Salifou, Williams asks attendees to come with open minds, and open hearts.

"We can simply just behold each other; it doesn’t have to be a very fraught and loaded interaction," he said. 

"We can just simply look at each other and say, ‘Hey, this is what you can go through on this planet, I’ve been going through this,' and [talk about] how can we make things better and easier and fairer — more just — between us."

Clayton Thomas-Müller

Friday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m.

Another memoirist coming to STARFest is the Cree climate and land activist, author, and film director Clayton Thomas-Müller.

With his 2022 Canada Reads finalist book Life in the City of Dirty Water, Thomas-Müller takes the reader through the first 45 years of his life, which has seen more ups, downs, chaos, pain, and beauty than many of us will ever experience. 

"One of the core themes of the book is consent," he said. "I really went out of my way to talk to as many of the folks whose experiences I shared in my memoir to get their consent.”

As much as his book is a recounting of his own life, Thomas-Müller is quick to say that his story is a shared one. 

"For me, the question was more so how much do you share of yourself in a way that doesn’t re-traumatize people you’re still on life’s journey with, in a way that doesn’t bring people back to old wounds they’re trying to heal from,” he said.

“That was a really intense — emotionally intense — process to go through as I went through writing my book.

“The biggest one was my mom, because she raised me. She gave me her permission to tell my story even though some of the material in it is very intimate, personal, private — circumstances she carries shame about."

Raised in and around Winnipeg, which translates to "dirty water" in Cree, Thomas-Müller's childhood and teen years included first-hand experiences with physical and sexual violence; drug use and gangs; juvenile detention sentences in B.C.; having and losing connections to culture, land, and family; and much more.

His young adult years were spent in Winnipeg, where he put his life experience to work in the non-profit world helping urban Indigenous youth access services, education, and support to step away from gang life. Later, Thomas-Müller became involved in large-scale organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network to, among many things, support Indigenous people around the world protect their homes from industry interests. 

With the IEN, Thomas-Müller spent time in Brazil; the U.S.; South Africa; Mexico; and elsewhere. He has also worked with the United Nations and other advocacy organizations such as 350.Org. 

There have been many Clayton Thomas-Müllers.

Now, Thomas-Müller is a father of two boys, and with Life in the City of Dirty Water, he is starting a new chapter in his life.

“Part of its goal is to provide myself with a platform to be able to talk to people across these lands they call Canada at different events, to have a conversation about the 60,000-foot question: what is it going to take for us to move through and heal from the violence of colonization,” he said.

“The best contribution that I can give is to talk about what Life in the City of Dirty Water shares and the nervous system response it pulls out from people who live in Canada or the U.S.A. or around Mother Earth, especially Indigenous people."

For his event at STARFest on Friday, Oct. 21, a short film made to accompany the book will be screened, and Thomas-Müller will do some readings.

"I'll just be speaking from the heart,” Thomas-Müller said.

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