Read an excerpt from Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist Reproduction by Ian Williams

Reproduction follows the connected lives of Felicia, a teen from an island nation, and Edgar, the lazy heir of a wealthy German family. 
Ian Williams is the author of Reproduction. (Sinisa Jolic, CBC)

Reproduction by Ian Williams won the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Reproduction is a love story revolving around race, class and identity, following the connected lives of Felicia, a teen from an island nation, and Edgar, the lazy heir of a wealthy German family. 

Read an excerpt from Reproduction below.

Army raised the garage door at ten in the morning, expecting a throng of customers, the guys he had to turn back yesterday, but only Hendrix, the kid from upstairs, was outside, poking a straw into an anthill.

You want a haircut? Army asked although he had cut the boy's hair yesterday. I don't have any money, Hendrix said.

Well, go get some.

Don't have none. I could give you some ants if you want.

Army sighed. He stood at the edge of the garage on the heels of his flattened trainers, his hair-cutting shoes, holding his wrists and staring beyond Hendrix into the street. He hadn't worn a shirt in days. He had downplayed the obvious problem with his business. Sure, he had chosen Monday, July 4, as the grand opening in the spirit of big-business American entrepreneurship, advertised with a flyer on every porch for blocks, incentivized with the half-price offers, even pimpified the garage into lounge cum music shop, but people simply didn't need haircuts every day.

Hendrix placed the straw in the mailbox and clapped his hands clean on his thighs.

What were you doing to that girl yesterday? Army asked.

It was her game, Hendrix said. He explained the rules. It was called Divorce. First they get married. Then the man shouts at the woman. What do I have to say? Hendrix had asked her. Doesn't matter. Just shout. She asks for a divorce. He asked why but she said he wasn't supposed to ask why. His dad asked why, Hendrix told her. He still asks why. You're not supposed to ask why. So they get divorced. They pretend to sign papers. They divide up the assets. She wanted half the ants. He refused. If I have to give you half my ants then I want half your Barbie. She refused. She said they had to get married again if he wanted to keep the ants. So he has to propose. Then they get re-married. Then they get divorced and fight about dividing the ants. Then they get re-remarried and re- redivorced. And when she wasn't paying attention, Hendrix took her doll by the leg and stood it in the anthill.

Reliving the trauma of playing with a girl caused Hendrix to frown. She had it coming, Army said.

Hendrix's expression eased. Do you want to play upstairs?

Army shook his head. The house the two families shared was a split-level with a sunken two-car garage. Felicia's half held her car or Army's barbershop, depending on the time of day, while Oliver's half held the remnants of his former life as a married man. To the right of the garage were stairs leading up to Oliver's home. Felicia's entrance was through the garage. Her kitchen and living room were below ground and a bathroom and two bedrooms were above ground, facing the backyard. At the front of the house, there was a balcony off Oliver's living room. Also on that floor was a kitchen and bathroom, and on the upper-most level of the house, three bedrooms: Oliver kept the master for himself, gave Heather the second biggest room, and Hendrix the smallest one. Why does Heather get the big room? Hendrix had asked, emboldened by Army's advice (Your dad must, legally speaking, provide equally for you, was Army's counsel). Because she's a girl, Oliver answered. I want the big room, Hendrix said. Do you want to be a girl? Oliver said. No. Then stop whining. Ordinarily there'd be free flow throughout the house. But because Oliver was renting half (and basically sending half that money to his ex-wife in Massachusetts), he inserted a door between the two households, a black door so in the dark it looked like a portal but felt like a smack.

Hendrix sat on the swivel barstool Army had repurposed. Army, he said, if your dad's a millionaire, how come you're living in our basement?

Army continued gazing into the summer street. That's a bougie question, soldier, he said without intonation whatsoever in his voice, eyes, face.

What's bougie? Bourgeois. What's bourgeois? Bougie.

Maybe your dad's a truck driver or something. Heather thinks you just make up stuff because you don't know.

Who knows more about my dad, Heather or me? It's not just Heather.

Is that right? Army turned away from the street. He swatted at a fly and caught sight of his lats or ribs rippling in the repurposed mirror.

Because if he had a million dollars he'd have to give you and your mom half a million, like my dad.

Your dad doesn't have money for a haircut.

That's because he had to give my mom half of everything. How much?

I dunno. Half.

Army clasped his wrists again.

Did it ever occur to you, soldierbwoy, that I might be making my own million through this humble enterprise? Almost daily he had visions of himself engaged in one of the following: sunglasses, boardrooms, beepers, pagers, airport lounges, complicated drinks but always brown, firing quivering-lipped skinny blond men in tight suits. Yachts, not so much. To be sure, he liked nice things — gold chains, shoes, track suits, hats with sports logos.

You can't make a million dollars cutting hair. You'd have to cut like a million people.

Army blared a gameshow-fail sound. He had attempted to invite nearly a million to the opening — Oliver's siblings, in-laws, nephews, nieces, first and second cousins, unverifiable cousins, pets — but he suspected the word never reached the half of them.

Well, not a million. More like a thousand, Hendrix corrected himself. What's between a thousand and a million? Army tested him.

Ten thousand, Hendrix said. All right.

It goes thousand, ten thousand, hundred thousand, million, then billion, then kajillion. My teacher didn't know what came after kajillion. She didn't even know kajillion.

Yeah, so, Army said, I'm gonna make a thousand this summer, then ten thousand next summer, then maybe a couple of years to 100K, and so on. I'll have my first million by the time I'm twenty, twenty-one. Trust me.

Me too. By the time I'm ten.

Army was nibbling a slice of cheese from its plastic wrap and watching TV when the bell rang. He thought it would be Hendrix or his dripping-hot sister — aura like beads on a pop can, aura of a close-up burger shot, aura of airplane flying overhead and getting your attention, holding it, until it was gone. An imperious roaring American airline with two huge engines per wing. He couldn't believe his luck when Oliver brought his kids home from the airport. It had only been days but Hendrix was glued to him. The hot sister was a work in progress. He went around shirtless to signal his availability. He was taller than her. She was sixteen, the major hurdle. He was fourteen turning fifteen which was practically sixteen. If you rounded up. He could pass for sixteen himself. On the skinny side — lean, he liked to say — but exotic, muscled, flat, like lines drawn onto his body, no heft to the muscle.

You can't make a million dollars cutting hair. You'd have to cut like a million people.

At the door, however, was his first of two customers for the day, a Sikh boy, probably Grade 6 or 7, wearing a patka with a knot tied at the top.

I came at eight but you weren't open, he said. He reached into his pocket and placed a five in Army's hand.

Army hesitated. He was occasionally surprised to find himself in trouble after executing what at the time seemed like a good idea. In this case, however, he could clearly see trouble ahead. Yet he was curious to see under the patka and eager to expand his clientele. He could retire on all the Sikh boys in the neighbourhood.

You're sure? Army asked.

The boy was already seated with the cape around his shoulders. Could you close the garage door?

Army did. There was still enough light through the clear panels at the top. The boy looked around as Army laid out his instruments. The shop was furnished with two adjustable hydraulic barstools, exactly half of Oliver's former family, a narrow full-length mirror, a few divorce chairs in case people wanted to wait around. Army ran a divorce extension cord for his shavers and for his boombox, tuned to 93.7 Buffalo, rabbit ears alert to the best reception. On a divorce bench, he laid out a Mason jar with alcohol to disinfect the scissors and clipper combs after each haircut, a spray bottle with more alcohol for the scalps and brushes. The problem was Felicia's car couldn't be in the garage at the same time that his shop was in swing, meaning he had to set up and take down the business every day around Felicia's work and night-school schedule.

You're sure you're sure, Army checked.

The boy undid his patka. His hair was braided and coiled on the top of his head. It's clean? Army asked.

The boy lowered his head and Army instantly regretted the question. He would be gentler. He would talk him through it. I'm going to have to use scissors.

He uncoiled the braid then held it out like a tail. It was as thick as his four fingers bunched together. The boy sucked in his breath at the sound of the scissors cutting his hair.

Army knew better but he asked, Does it hurt? The boy shook his head. Shuddered. Should it? You mean you never cut your hair. Like never? He shook his head.

Army continued cutting.

I cut a little piece to test it, the boy said. I felt it but it didn't hurt.

Army made one more snip to cut the braid. The boy's hair hung in jagged pieces to the bottom of his ear. He touched it.

How does it feel? Light.

Honeys be humping your leg, Army said. He told him about one of his first girlfriends, a girl who removed her hijab at school and almost believed him when he said he was Persian but his parents didn't teach him Arabic. He told him about a Sikh boy he knew who used to remove his turban and tuck his hair into his collar and another who wore a doo-rag instead.

The boy smiled but he looked terrified. Can you make it even or is that more money?

I'm not going to leave you looking like you got cut by a lawnmower. Army hadn't intended to charge him extra but since he asked. Chief, it's a big job turning you into a playa. It's not like a regular haircut.

I only have two bucks more.

It's $2.50 but I'll give you a discount. Army dropped the braid in his lap. Bring a friend.

The braid rolled to the floor when the boy dug for money in his pocket. An hour later Hendrix claimed it. Army had recruited him to clean the shop, paid him a dollar a day for unlimited service. His first employee. Introduced a taxation system where Hendrix had to give him back a quarter on every dollar.

Why? Hendrix pouted.

That's how the world works, son. Hendrix was keeping the hair.

Ian Williams talks to Shelagh Rogers about his Giller nominated novel, Reproduction.

This excerpt is taken from Reproduction, copyright © 2019 by Ian Williams Reproduced with permission from Random House Canada.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?