Ian Williams is a Canadian poet and fiction writer. His first title, You Know Who You Are (2010) was shortlisted for the ReLit Awards. In 2011, he published a collection of short stories, Not Anyone’s Anything, for which he won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. His book of poems, Personals (2012) was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Add to this list, his most glorious one so far: 2019 Giller Prize for his debut novel Reproduction (2019). He currently teaches Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.
Reproduction is a lengthy novel (I know, it’s 446 pages, but hear me out). It revolves around the uncongenial family life of Army, a biracial man from Brampton, Ontario, from the time of his conception, through to his adulthood. Army is the result of a short-lived affair between a white father and a black Canadian mother. In the first chapter of Reproduction, we meet xx and xy. We realize they are in the hospital for the same reason: their mothers are dying. Except that xy’s mother survives and xx’s mother passes away, and this is the beginning of chain effects around life and death. Felicia and Edgar are from two different backgrounds, geographically and genetically. Yet they create a life through their mourning for the dead. As Williams puts it, it is fascinating how two strangers become family. Throughout the book, there are many deaths and births and the contradiction between them creates life. There are also other characters, who play substantial roles in expansion of this dysfunctional family.
The family tree at the beginning of the book, although fading gradually, engages readers with a puzzle for them to follow and solve. The organization of the chapters and sections (their numbers based on 23 chromosomes of humans), the unforgettable dialogues, the wit, the sense of humour, and the narrative, they all create an experience unique for the readers. In the second chapter, here come four new voices/characters and four times four, there are 16 sections. In the third chapter, everything grows exponentially again and 16 times 16, now we have 256 sections. Williams experiments with various forms and styles, such as diary entries, poems, and charts. At times overwhelming, Reproduction weaves a skein of narratives, events, and emotions. At the end, we are left to rediscover the notion of family; the one we are born into and the one we are to make in the future.
It is a profound read, which touches upon notions of nature vs. nurture, love vs. loss, and death vs. reproduction. He writes about race and culture and sex and is not afraid to tell a love story. This is what Williams wants to do. He spent seven years writing it. He is stepping on unfamiliar grounds, though he knows his material and his crafts.
In a January 2019 interview with Suzanne Alyssa Andrew, Williams described what drew him to the theme of reproduction and his future book: “My first book, You Know Who You Are, is about identity and Black masculinity. The second book, Not Anyone’s Anything, is about being alone. And then there is Personals, which is all about connections. This follows my concerns over time. I’m aging alongside my books. Reproduction is the book of my 30s. My next novel is called Disappointment, and I feel it’s my midlife book, my early 40s book. The question is, how do you go forward when you are just a disappointment to everybody? What I’m discovering is that in disappointment there’s incredible freedom.”