Writer Ian Williams hopes to inspire a national conversation with his 2024 CBC Massey Lectures

IDEAS is pleased to announce that Canadian writer Ian Williams is the 2024 CBC Massey lecturer. The award-winning author will focus on conversations as his theme. He says we urgently need to relate to one another, and make room for listening.

The Canadian writer says we urgently need to relate to one another, and make room for listening

Ian Williams
Why can't we talk to each other? How can we talk to each other? And what do we need to talk about right now? These are questions the award-winning writer and English professor Ian Williams wants to explore as the 2024 Massey lecturer. The Massey Lectures will be on tour stopping in five provinces in the early fall. Tickets will be available in August. (Justin Morris)

Award-winning poet and writer Ian Williams is the newest name to join a long list of contemporary thinkers, writers and scholars, as the 2024 CBC Massey lecturer.

Since 1961, the Massey Lectures — created by CBC, and now in partnership with House of Anansi and the University of Toronto's Massey College — have explored pressing issues of our time. Former notable speakers include Martin Luther King Jr., Ursula Franklin, Jane Jacobs, and Thomas King. 

The annual five-part lecture series has become a Canadian institution since its inception and Williams says he's excited to be added to the distinguished list of former Massey lecturers. 

Q host Tom Power spoke to Ian Williams about his upcoming Massey Lectures and asked him why he chose to focus on the theme "conversations."

 "We're living at a point now where we can barely talk to each other, right? Like it seems incredibly urgent these days, with increasing polarization, and online forms of talking," Williams said.

"It seems really timely that we kind of step back and say, 'Why can't we talk to each other? How can we talk to each other? What do we need to talk about right now in 2024? And create an environmental space to make that happen."

WATCH | Ian Williams's conversation with Q's Tom Power:

Williams hopes to ignite a national conversation with his lectures. As he told Power, he wants to make space for "conversations without agenda. Conversations without the intent to persuade and to convert — just conversations for the sake of relating one human being to another."

He adds that understanding the importance of what he calls "courageous silence" and working at creating the right balance in a conversation can be revolutionary. 

"We ought to realize that one-half of our conversations is, in fact, listening," Williams said.

"Is it courageous to speak or courageous to hold your peace until someone else has said something contradictory to you and not rush in to contradict them to prove your point, but to just listen graciously, to let it settle, to offer no comment or whatever and just let it be."

Every year, the five Massey lectures are recorded on a cross-Canada tour. Details about the 2024 tour, including cities and ticket prices, will be available soon.

Ian Williams's lectures will be published in book form by House of Anansi, available in early fall. As always, IDEAS will air the CBC Massey Lectures on CBC Radio One and as a podcast in November.

Award-winning freedom

Williams has published six books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. His most recent book, Disorientation: Being Black in the World, is an essay collection that was shortlisted for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.  

The accomplished author has won several awards for his work, including the Raymond Souster Award from the League of Canadian Poets and the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best first collection of short fiction in Canada. His collection Personals was also shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize.

Winning the Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Reproduction in 2019 gave him the unique opportunity to publicly thank a former Massey lecturer for their inspiring work in his acceptance speech.

"You have no idea how special this is for me. So I've got notes… but I'll start with my heart first. Margaret Atwood, over there, is the first book I bought with my own money at a bookstore in Brampton," Williams said at the Giller Prize ceremony.  

That book was The Circle Game, Margaret Atwood's poetry collection published in 1964. He added that reading Atwood's writing over decades and following her progression felt like an intimate relationship that Williams says all readers can have with writers — without writers ever knowing.

Williams admits that winning the Giller Prize was liberating, as it gave him the freedom to be deeply himself without limiting his behaviour to please anyone.

"To know that you've achieved something that you don't need to achieve again, or you don't need to prove X or Y. I'm rolling my eyes at this comparison I'm about to make, but does Beyoncé need to win a Grammy again? Right? You know, I feel there comes a point where, okay, you have been granted permission to do whatever you want to do with your mind in your life. And that is the greatest gift," Williams told Power.

"I mean, to symbolize it in the form of an award — that's one thing. But I wish we could bestow this on people without the actual material award or cheques or whatever to say, 'Hey, you are free to live your life and to do whatever you want with your life. That's a big, big gift of the Giller for me." 

Listen to the full conversation with Ian Williams and Tom Power by downloading the Q podcast from your favourite app.

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