Ian Williams says “Reproduction” is the closest thing he has to a child.
The Vancouver-based writer has spent six years swaddling his first novel in the cocoon of his care as he unspooled a labyrinthine tale of boy meets girl, meets cross-cultural chosen family.
With “Reproduction” (Random House Canada) set to hit bookstores Tuesday, Williams said he feels like a parent watching his toddler waddle off into kindergarten – torn between the impulse to protect his creation from the outside world, and the pride of knowing his novelistic offspring can survive on its own.
“Already, I feel him spinning away into other social circles, and not just in the little warm embrace of my love,” said Williams.
Williams, a 39-year-old creative writing professor at the University of British Columbia and a Griffin Poetry Prize trustee, said each of the books he’s written can be read as a chapter in the progress of a life.
With his debut poetry collection, “You Know Who You Are,” in his early 20s, Williams said he was coming to terms with his identity as a black man. That was followed by his 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award-winning short story collection “Not Anyone’s Anything,” in which Williams said he was letting go of the adolescent self-delusion that he was special.
In “Personals,” shortlisted for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize, he explored the search for external connection through poetic riffs on the personal ad.
When he first set out to write “Reproduction” in his early 30s, Williams said he was seized by a fascination with how children come into the world, a symptom of the “biological clock” that is often ascribed to women, but he believes affects men too.
At its core, Williams said, “Reproduction” is a love story. It begins with a simple geometry problem: “If two people travelling in a straight line meet in a hospital room, is that a vertex or an intersection?”
But this isn’t your average one-plus-one romantic equation. His artistic goal, embedded in the book’s “biology,” was to write a novel that could “reproduce itself” with a plot that sprawls exponentially outwards.
Let’s break down the math.
The novel is comprised of four parts, set in the multicultural petri dish of Brampton, the Toronto suburb where Williams was raised, over four decades between the late 1970s and the present day.
In part one, Felicia, a sober-minded teenager from a small island nation, and Edgar, the listless heir to a German family fortune, meet in the hospital room where their mothers lay dying. The first act of their relationship unfolds over 23 subsections — which, as Williams explains, is the number of chromosome pairs contained in human DNA — culminating in the birth of their son, Armistice, or Army.
In part two, Felicia and a teenaged Army move in with Oliver, a Portuguese divorcee, and his children, including the sexually precocious Heather. The four (two times two) central characters become unrelated relatives over 16 (four times four) subsections, until violence upends the family dynamic.
Part three follows the fallout over 256 (16 times 16) subsections told from each member of the main quartet’s point of view as a new life enters the world.
In part four, Williams realized he didn’t have room to keep multiplying the story by itself, so he invoked another form of reproduction — cancer. This manifests on the page with subscript and superscript interruptions that begin to sprout up like tumours mid-sentence, until the unchecked growth threatens to overtake the main text.
Williams said the book’s Rashomon-like toggling between characters’ perspectives allowed him to explore identity as it is both experienced and projected by others.
As a man writing as a feminist, Williams said he tried to be cognizant of the limits in his ability to understand the female experience, while faithfully representing the inequities women face and male responsibility in that.
Williams said he also wanted to show how “ordinary” the racialized experience can be without the intrusion of outside biases.
“When we enter the public domain, there’s like this wave of radiation that greets us,” he said. “But left to ourselves, we don’t construct our identities in terms of race.”
One day, Williams hopes to have a child that isn’t just a bound bundle of pages. But until then, he is proud of the book he’s raised. Sure, at more than 450 pages, “Reproduction” is a little on the chubby side, and maybe it gets into trouble every now and again. But Williams said the novel is well loved, and it shows.
“I really feel like this book has become its own thing and its own person, and I just needed to be patient and to listen and to guide it,” said Williams. “He will have his own life, right now. And that life is separate from me.”
Adina Bresge, The Canadian Press