When Ian Williams learned his debut novel Reproduction had been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, he says it felt like multiple rows had lined up in Tetris.
“It starts pinging and flashing,” he says. “It felt like everything had clicked – slightly surreal, slightly by chance and slightly by skill.”
Whatever it was, it worked. On Monday, Williams was named the winner of the Giller, considered Canada’s top literary award for works of fiction.
The jury described Reproduction, Williams’s fourth book and first novel, as many things at once: “It’s an engrossing story of disparate people brought together and also a masterful unfolding of unexpected connections and collisions between and across lives otherwise separated by race, class, gender and geography.”
Elana Rabinovitch, executive director of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, says Reproduction “resonated deeply with the jury, evoking time, place and character that only the best works of art can achieve.”
Williams, a three-time graduate of U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science, initially planned to be a doctor. His first-year undergraduate schedule was full of science courses – and one English course. Professor Julia Reibetanz taught the introduction to poetry class and had such an impact on Williams that he switched to a double major in psychology and English after his first year.
“Ian was a joy to have in the class because he always responded so genuinely to the poetry we were reading,” says Reibetanz. “I tried to show my students that reading poetry is – must be – a very personal act if it is to be meaningful. The classes where students were willing to take risks with their readings were quite wonderful. And Ian was one of the students who made that happen. He was the kind of student who makes a class come alive.”
Williams went on to obtain his master’s degree from the department of English, followed by his doctoral degree under the supervision of Professor George Elliott Clarke.
“It was a pleasure to work with him as a student, and now to watch his work become de rigueur for anyone who wishes to engage with the best of contemporary, African-Canadian letters,” says Clarke.