Ian Williams, recently arrived in Vancouver, was surrounded by boxes in his otherwise empty apartment. It was December, 2016, and controversy was swirling at the workplace that had brought him to this city, University of British Columbia, and erupted onto social media. But the Griffin-nominated poet had a novel to finish. So he tuned it all out, sat down at his IKEA dining table – one of the few assembled pieces of furniture – and wrote. For long, 10-hour days. “The finish line was in sight,” he remembers.
The result, his first novel, is being published this month – six years and 12 drafts after Williams began work on it.
Reproduction is the story of three generations of family. In the 1970s, Felicia, a teenager from an unnamed Caribbean island, meets Edgar, an older man and heir to a German family fortune, in a Toronto hospital room. Despite different medical issues and financial circumstances, their mothers have been admitted to a shared room because of flooding at the facility. Worlds collide.
In the 1990s, Felicia’s son Armistice – Army – is a teenager with big plans, consistently launching money-making schemes. He operates a barber shop and a burger joint out of the garage in the home Felicia rents from Oliver, a bitter divorced man, who lives in the other part of the house. One summer, Oliver’s children, Heather and Hendrix, come to visit from the United States, where they live full-time with their mother. Again, worlds collide.
Generation 3, set in the present, focuses on Chariot – Riot – an aspiring filmmaker who just can’t seem to get it together, and gets himself into big trouble at college over a scandalous video.
The book is driven as much by its relationships as its characters, and is intensified and enriched by an inventive style that borrows from Williams’s giant poet’s brain.
“I wanted to do something that was conceptually ambitious and difficult structurally. And a big-scale project, too. So the structure and the story kind of grew together,” says Williams, an assistant professor of poetry at UBC’s creative-writing program.
The story is told in four distinct parts, and its writing was a complex puzzle for Williams – who seems to enjoy a challenge, literary or otherwise. He did not write the book sequentially. “There were times when all parts of the book were alive at the same time,” he says.
He spent two years trying to figure out the final section, where the story is interrupted at intervals by tiny text, thoughts that may or may not be related to what is actually going on. He calls this the cancer text.
“I had the problem in mind: How can the book get cancer? How can the book reproduce itself? And so I was reading up on cancer, [looking for] the literary equivalent of it,” he says.
“It’s supposed to be disruptive; cancer’s not pleasant and it’s supposed to be a kind of painful experience, that text,” says Williams, who also refers to these interruptions as tumours – growths that appear on the main text.
When the discussion, in his office at UBC, turns to his teaching methods, it becomes clear that he does not approach that vocation using traditional methods either.
For instance, teaching his very first class at UBC – graduate poetry – rather than go through the syllabus or course breakdown, or explain how much each assignment is worth, Williams had students arrange the chairs in two rows, a couple of feet apart, facing each other. There was nothing between them – nothing to hide behind, he explains. Then the students sat looking into each other’s eyes for a minute at a time, no words, Marina Abramovic-style, before switching chairs and repeating the exercise with another student. Homework that night was to write a poem titled something like To See or Be Seen.
“You know, we can fix commas or we can do actual artistic practice and work which involves the self,” Williams says, sitting on his office couch.
“We’re not just poets or writers in a slice or segment of our lives. Everything we do is a kind of expression of that sensibility. So the colour of this couch” – orange – “is a statement or an expression; [so is] the colour of this wall” – peachy-yellow. When Williams approaches the building from a certain angle at a certain time of day, he can see that wall glowing in the sunshine. His office does indeed feel like an artist’s expression with, no surprise, many bookshelves and some text-based art.
“There are so many reasons to be happy,” one framed print reads. And under it, another: “There are so many reasons to be unhappy.”
Williams was born in Trinidad in 1979 and moved to Brampton, Ont., with his parents and slightly older brother when he was about 9. He had skipped a grade back home, but was placed back with his age group in Canada. After that, he blitzed through every level of schooling – completing five years of high school in four, a four-year undergraduate degree in three, his master’s degree in one year and his PhD in four years. By the time he was 25, he had his doctorate in English from the University of Toronto.
He was always drawn to books. At 13, already writing poetry, he bought his first book with his own money at a used bookstore in Brampton. It was Margaret Atwood’s The Circle Game, and it was transformative.
“I read it until the binding fell apart. I read it until certain parts were memorized,” says Williams, who still has that copy back in Ontario, with Atwood’s photo on the pink cover. “I spent a lot of evenings with her, so I really feel that soft spot for her.”
Williams explored her other work and Atwood became an unwitting mentor. “For me, her voice is like the stern mother in the back of my mind,” he says. “I hear that real sort of authoritative [voice], like, ‘Ian, you’re not going to do it this way.’ … She might be out of fashion right now but I have a deep love for Margaret Atwood. And that’s personal, that’s not political.”
In 2010, Williams published his first poetry collection, You Know Who You Are, which was a finalist for the ReLit Prize for poetry. His short-story collection, Not Anyone’s Anything, won the 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award for best first collection of short fiction in Canada. His second poetry collection, Personals, was shortlisted for the prestigious Griffin Prize in 2013.
And that’s how he met his inspiration-from-afar. Atwood, a Griffin trustee who helped found the Prize, was at the Griffin events.
“She came over and she put her hand on my shoulder, one of the happiest moments of my life, and said, ‘I really enjoyed your reading last night,’” Williams says. “I felt like her touch on me was a blessing. And it was a pretty polite and banal kind of thing to say, sure. But I imbued it with meaning.”
His comment that Atwood is out of fashion arises out of the resistance she has attracted as a signatory and vocal defender of UBC Accountable, the controversial open letter calling for Steven Galloway’s right to due process, after Galloway was fired as head of the program where Williams now teaches.
In Reproduction’s final section, Riot gets himself into trouble with his own postsecondary institution, thanks to behaviour the school fears will blow up into an all-out sex scandal. “The university didn’t want to face their own Duke basketball trial or Dalhousie dentistry publicity nightmare or be hashtagged all over Twitter,” Williams writes.
The author could have included a third real-world example, the one raging at UBC as he was finishing the novel. Williams’s hiring by UBC was announced in October, 2016, the month before that open letter helped ignite a CanLit war that had the Creative Writing program as its ground zero.
This is what Williams walked into when he moved to Vancouver from Toronto that December and began teaching in January, 2017. He says it was a bit rocky for a semester, describing tension in the classroom and an unstable dynamic between faculty and students, with no information reaching the students. (There were confidentiality issues.)
“When I started, I felt a slight distrust [from the students],” he says. “It’s hard to kind of tease out what’s the source of that distrust. Partly it’s the Galloway thing. Partly it’s the novelty-of-me thing. And partly – this has happened at every single job – there’s the kind of sussing-out-of-a-black-man thing too, just-trying-to-figure-out what’s-this-guy’s-about thing.”
While Williams walked in expecting “thorn bushes everywhere,” he says the program, co-chaired in the interim by novelists Annabel Lyon and Linda Svendsen and now by Alix Ohlin, turned out to be the healthiest place he has ever worked.
"And a lot of that was because of the invisible emotional work that women do; what Linda and Annabel were doing to keep this department healthy at their cost and their expense. And I was seeing that. And that kind of stuff is invisible. … I feel like there needs to be some record of that kind of thing; the things that people absorb to protect other people.”
In my reading of Reproduction, the female characters come off far more sympathetically than the men. When I share this with Williams, it takes him a moment, but he ultimately acknowledges that is a legitimate interpretation. “The men come across as kind of a little bit slimy, a little bit failed,” he says, and pauses. “True. They’re jerks.” Then he laughs.
But there is something more to this, explains Williams, who is now working on a novel, Disappointment, that grew out of Reproduction (they were, in fact, initially one book).
“We have this de facto kind of inclination to identify with a white male protagonist and with whiteness and with maleness,” he says. “And I don’t want to do either of those two things.”
Ian Williams launches Reproduction in Vancouver Jan. 24 at the Vancouver Film School Café and Jan. 29 in Toronto at Another Story Bookshop. On Feb. 17, he interviews Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James at a Vancouver Writers Fest special event.
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