Authors: Michael Ondaatje

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Sri Lankan–born Canadian novelist, poet, and scholar

September 12, 1943

Colombo, Ceylon (now in Sri Lanka)

Biography

Philip Michael Ondaatje is a popular and critically acclaimed Canadian writer. Known for their lyrical prose and unusual blending of genres, his works have been translated into more than a dozen languages throughout the world, won numerous awards and have, in the case of The English Patient, been made into an Academy Award–winning feature film. Ondaatje’s background is almost as unusual as his prose. The youngest of four siblings, he was born to Philip Mervyn and Enid Gratiaen Ondaatje in the richly diverse culture of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), an island that he claims, “seduced all of Europe.” An early ancestor, who took the name Ondaatje, arrived there in 1600, stayed, and intermarried. Ondaatje’s grandparents were wealthy planters and socialites in Colombo and Nuwara Eliya, where “[e]veryone was vaguely related and had Sinhalese, Tamil, Dutch, British, and Burgher blood in them going back many generations.” His father managed to squander his money and social position through heavy drinking and gambling. His parents separated in 1948; in 1954 Ondaatje followed his mother, sister, and brother to London. Although he did not return to Ceylon for twenty-five years, two of his most powerful works, Running in the Family and Anil’s Ghost, are based on the social dynamics and political machinations of his native land.

In 1962 he followed his brother to Canada and enrolled at Bishop’s University in Quebec, majoring in English and history, and finished his B.A. at the University of Toronto in 1965. Two years later he completed his M.A. at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and became an instructor in English at the University of Western Ontario. During these years Ondaatje married, had two children, came into contact with a number of Canadian poets and poetry teachers, began writing and publishing poetry, won his first poetry awards, and began his long association with Coach House Press, which published his first book, The Dainty Monsters, in 1967.

Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient" speaks for the Tulane Great Writer Series presented by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English. Dixon Hall; October 25, 2010

ext-link-type="db-image"

xlink:href="cwa-26639810003343-150678.jpg"/>

By Tulane Public Relations (Flickr: Michael Ondaatje) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Michael Ondaatje, author of "The English Patient" speaks for the Tulane Great Writer Series presented by the Creative Writing Fund of the Department of English. Dixon Hall; October 25, 2010

ext-link-type="db-image"

xlink:href="cwa-26639810003343-150679.jpg"/>

By Tulane Public Relations (Flickr: Michael Ondaatje) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It was the beginning of a long series of books of poetry remarkable for their unusual, startling imagery and experimental discontinuous forms. Whether lyrics, ballads, or prose poems, his works have found favor with critics and the public alike. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems, an avant-garde mixture of poems, prose, blank pages, photographs, illustrations, and legends about the American outlaw, won the Governor-General’s Award and has been widely praised for drawing attention to inherent tension between life and art. His poetry has continued to evolve over time, varying greatly in form and subject. The Man with Seven Toes describes a shipwrecked woman living among wolves, aborigines, and an escaped convict; The Cinnamon Peeler gives a glimpse of old Ceylon. What such diverse poems have in common is their haunting imagery and passionate lyricism.

In 1971 Ondaatje became an assistant professor at Glendon College, York University, Toronto, where he soon began work on Coming Through Slaughter, for which he won the Books in Canada First Novel Award. Even more than his poetry, Ondaatje’s novels seduce and puzzle through his artful refusal to adhere to a strict story line with a beginning, middle, and end. The subject of this novel is Buddy Bolden, an early legendary jazz musician. In exploring the life and trials of this shadowy figure, about whom little is known for sure, Ondaatje creates a tale that is as much about art as it is about this particular artist. The introduction notes that he has not felt constrained by historical data but has stretched facts “to suit the truth of fiction.” He creates a historical novel that is part documentary, part imaginative recreation. He continues this imaginative slight of hand in Running in the Family, an autobiographical work based on his return to Sri Lanka in 1979 and 1980. It is a richly evocative work that recreates the physical and social milieu of his parents and grandparents, a world both exotic and familiar, based on the author’s imagination as much as family stories, church records, photographs, local anecdotes, and his recollections. It is a winning account, not so much a history, he notes, as “a portrait or gesture.”

During these years he was also busy writing poetry (There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do won the Governor-General’s Award in 1979), making short films, editing anthologies, serving as visiting professor at the University of Hawaii (1979), living in Australia as winner of an exchange award (1981), and working at Coach House Press. He separated from his wife in 1980, an experience that contributed strongly to Secular Love (1984). In these lyrics Ondaatje explores the many aspects of romantic relationships, from the loss of an old love to the discovery of a new one, and the language necessary to capture them fully. The same year that Secular Love was published, Ondaatje received a Guggenheim Fellowship for poetry.

The artist’s quest for a form and language appropriate to his sense of the fluidity of meaning and the elusiveness of history continues in In the Skin of a Lion, a novel that examines the intricately interwoven lives of the working-class men and women and the wealthy, powerful tycoons of early twentieth century Toronto. In its smooth interweaving of past and present, its shifts in points of view, and its rich, overlapping narratives, this award-winning novel possesses a sophistication reminiscent of the works of William Faulkner.

Throughout his work Ondaatje emphasizes the act of creation, its inherently subjective nature, and its inability to completely capture the past or the present. One way he does this is purposely to blur the distinctions among genres, dissolving the boundaries between fact and legend, stories and histories, memory and imagination. He chooses or creates subjects that slide seamlessly from the literal to the literary, the factual to the apocryphal, and back again.

During and between the writing of his longer works, Ondaatje continued writing poetry, editing, and teaching American and Canadian literatures, contemporary literature, and creative writing at Glendon College, where he became full professor. He was visiting professor at Brown University in 1990, the same year that he edited the highly praised collection of stories From Ink Lake. In 1988 he was awarded the Order of Canada for his achievements, but his finest accomplishments were yet to come.

The year 1992 saw the publication of the internationally acclaimed The English Patient, a best-seller and winner of the Booker Prize. Set in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II, it is Ondaatje’s most accessible, poignant, and powerful work. He has managed to write a discontinuous narrative that is richly ambiguous and ambivalent without being gratuitously enigmatic. Its lyrical beauty captures the four protagonists’ sense of loss and longing, their pain and their passions, yet never reduces them to mere types. As their mysterious pasts are slowly unraveled, they remain sharply delineated individuals whose desires and beliefs create a visceral response in the reader. Its publication brought Ondaatje international recognition, created new interest in his early work, and set a high standard for all future efforts. Its release as a major motion picture in 1996 rekindled Ondaatje’s interest in filmmaking and resulted in a friendship with and a book on film editor Walter Murch in 2002.

Ondaatje has continued to be both prolific and critically acclaimed. Between 1985 and 2013, he served as editor for the literary magazine Brick. He teaches, participates in writing workshops, edits, and writes poetry. Another volume of poetry, Handwriting, based in part on his experience in Sri Lanka, appeared in 1998. His fourth novel, Anil’s Ghost, set in war-torn Sri Lanka, has all the hallmarks of an Ondaatje work: a narrative that is unified yet nonlinear; a candid look at suffering and violence, both of individuals and of society as a whole; a lyrical power that captures both the passions and individuality of the protagonists; a mysterious interplay of past and present; and a sense that art and the artist play an important but by no means clearly defined role in interpreting the world. Anil's Ghost garnered Ondaatje that year's Giller Prize, Prix Médicis, and Governor General's Literary Award.

Divisadero follows the trials and tribulations of its protagonist, Anna, a scholar living in San Francisco and France. A nonlinear book, it addresses such ideas as forbidden love, identity, alienation, and the influence of childhood experiences in adulthood. It too won the Governor General's Literary Award.

Ondaatje's novel The Cat's Table, about the adventures of an eleven-year-old boy aboard a ship to Europe in the 1950s, has been viewed as a roman à clef. It enjoyed mixed critical reception, with reviewers noting that while the autobiographical elements provided reader interest, the plot lacked cohesion. Nonetheless, the book was short-listed for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize. That same year his work was recognized with a PEN Literary Service Award.

Ondaatje has succeeded in living up to the high standards that he set for himself; he must be ranked not only among the very best Canadian writers, such as Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, but also among the finest contemporary authors writing in English.

Author Works Long Fiction: Coming through Slaughter, 1976 In the Skin of a Lion, 1987 The English Patient, 1992 Anil’s Ghost, 2000 Divisadero, 2007 The Cat's Table, 2011 Drama: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, pr. 1973 (adaptation of his poetry) In the Skin of a Lion, pr. 1987 (adaptation of his novel) Poetry: The Dainty Monsters, 1967 The Man with Seven Toes, 1969 The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems, 1970 Rat Jelly, 1973 Elimination Dance, 1978, revised 1980 There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978, 1979 Secular Love, 1984 The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems, 1989 Handwriting, 1999 The Story, 2005 (drawings by David Bolduc) Nonfiction: Leonard Cohen, 1970 Claude Glass, 1979 Tin Roof, 1982 Running in the Family, 1982 The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, 2002 Vintage Ondaatje, 2004 Black Conservative Intellectuals in Modern America, 2010 Edited Texts: The Long Poem Anthology, 1979 From Ink Lake: Canadian Stories, 1990 The Brick Reader, 1991 (with Linda Spalding) The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories, 1990 An H in the Heart, 1994 (with bp Nichol and George Bowering) Lost Classics, 2000 The Essential Tom Marshall, 2012 (with David Helwig) Bibliography Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne, 1993. An early book-length study of Ondaatje’s work, it provides a careful reading and useful analysis of both the early and later poetry and the prose works through The English Patient. Devoting a chapter to each of the major works, Barbour makes a strong case for Ondaatje as an important postmodern, postcolonial writer based on his keen perception, imaginative intensity, and eloquence. Clarke, George Elliott. “Michael Ondaatje and the Production of Myth.” Studies in Canadian Literature 16, no. 1 (1991): 1-21. Clarke offers an interpretation of the idea of myth that he then applies to Ondaatje’s works from The Dainty Monsters to Secular Love. Heble, Ajay. “‘The Widening Rise of Surprise’: Containment and Transgression in the Poetry of Michael Ondaatje.” Wascana Review 26 (Spring/Fall, 1991): 117-127. Heble examines the unexpected pairings, the jarring juxtapositions, and the abrupt shifts in tone in Ondaatje’s poetry. His explication of “Letter and Other Worlds” is especially interesting since it deals with Ondaatje’s father. In the poem Heble demonstrates how the poet transforms a bit of personal history, his father’s drunken fall, into local mythology, a factor in the Home Rule movement. Using the line “My father’s body was a globe of fear/ His body was a town we never knew,” Heble shows how private body and public space coalesce. Jaumain, Serge, and Marc Maufort, eds. The Guises of Canadian Diversity: New European Perspectives/Les masques de la Diversite Canadienne: Nouvelles perspectives europeenes. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995. This is a diverse collection of essays by graduate students in Canadian studies at several European universities. Contains three essays on Ondaatje, focusing on his creative use of history, art, and autobiography. Jewinski, Ed. Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994. This short, illustrated biography, written without the cooperation of its subject, portrays Ondaatje’s life as a series of abrupt and dramatic incidents. It relates the writer’s early life experiences to later imaginative works, such as Running in the Family and The English Patient. Menand, Louis. "The Aesthete." The New Yorker, vol. 83, no. 15, 4 June 2007, pp. 92–94. Reviews Divisadero and considers Ondaatje's approach to fiction in general. Solecki, Sam, ed. Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1985. This collection contains many interesting early essays on Ondaatje. It covers a wide range of approaches and perspectives, from interviews and reviews to essays on his use of autobiography, postmodern poetics, and myth. Wilhelmus, Tom. "Memory Reconstructed." Hudson Review, Jan. 2012, pp. 705–11. Compares The Cat's Table to other contemporaneous fiction on memory, including The Sense of an Ending, A Book of Liszts, and A Day in theLife of a Smiling Woman.

Categories: Authors