Ian Williams has won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada's richest literary award for fiction, for his novel Reproduction.
Williams was revealed as the latest recipient of the $100,000 prize at a gala hosted by singer-songwriter, actor and writer Jann Arden in Toronto on Monday night.
"You have no idea how special this is for me," Williams said as he accepted the prize, telling the story of how the very first book he bought with his own money was one by Margaret Atwood, who was in the audience.
In an interview after the ceremony, Williams said the shoutout felt like a small token of the debt he owes Atwood, having spent his childhood summers holed up with her poetry.
"How do you tell a writer that I feel like I've known you and you've been like my literary mother and you've been here for me this whole time?" Williams told The Canadian Press.
"I'm sure a lot of people feel this exact way about her, and she gives us this sense of pride as well. It's just so much she's done for this country."
A 'masterful unfolding of unexpected connections'
Williams' sprawling tale traces the ties that bind a cross-cultural chosen family in the author's hometown of Brampton, Ont.
Jury members praised Williams for his "masterful unfolding of unexpected connections and collisions between and across lives otherwise separated by race, class, gender and geography."
Still dazed from the win, Williams said it seemed like "all my pasts are alive in this moment. " He simultaneously felt like a six-year-old child in Trinidad, a nine-year-old boy going to school in Brampton, a university student and professor, and a 40-year-old writer being feted by some of Canada's foremost literary figures.
"I feel like I'm with the people that I care about and I feel like all of those people are right here in me," said Williams. "It's almost like when you're surrounded by family, but it's just yourself. It's just your own history."
A rising poetry star
Williams is also a Griffin Poetry Prize trustee and creative writing professor at the University of British Columbia.
Reproduction, published by Random House Canada, was also a finalist for this year's Amazon First Novel Award.
Williams' short-fiction collection, Not Anyone's Anything, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award in 2012, and he's been a rising star in poetry circles. His 2013 collection, Personals, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award.
The other five finalists, who each receive $10,000, were:
- Toronto writer David Bezmozgis, nominated for his short story collection Immigrant City.
- Megan Gail Coles of St. John's, nominated for her debut novel Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club.
- St. John's writer Michael Crummey, nominated for his novel The Innocents.
- Montrealer Alix Ohlin, currently based in Vancouver, nominated for her novel Dual Citizens.
- Victoria writer Steven Price, nominated for his novel Lampedusa.
Giller Prize established in 1994
This year's jury included writers Randy Boyagoda, Aminatta Forna, Jose Teodoro and Aleksandar Hemon, as well as literary critic Donna Bailey Nurse.
Williams joins past winners of the prestigious prize, including Esi Edugyan, Alice Munro, M.G. Vasanji, Mordecai Richler and Madeleine Thien.
In 1994, businessman Jack Rabinovitch established the Giller Prize in memory of his wife, literary journalist Doris Giller. After his death in 2017, his family and the Toronto Reference Library created the Jack Rabinovitch Reading Room — a space celebrating Canadian literature — in his honour.
This year's finalists were whittled down from a longer list that included past Giller winners: André Alexis, the 2015 Giller winner for Fifteen Dogs, was a semi-finalists this year for Days by Moonlight. Atwood, who won the Giller in 1996 for Alias Grace, earned a place on the long list for The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid's Tale.
Bezmozgis has been a Giller finalist twice before: for 2011's The Free World and 2014's The Betrayers.
Crummey was previously shortlisted for 2001's River Thieves.
Ohlin was a prior Giller finalist for 2012's Inside.
Price previously made the Giller long list for his 2016 novel By Gaslight.