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Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje

Once a highly regarded denizen of a burgeoning Canadian literary scene in the early 1970s, Michael Ondaatje (born 1943) has since gone on to achieve international renown for his poetry and fiction. His 1992 novel, The English Patient, was made into a motion picture four years later that won an array of industry awards.

Philip Michael Ondaatje was born in 1943 in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), a large island located off the southern tip of India. He later wrote of his unusual childhood in Running in the Family, a 1982 memoir. In it, Ondaatje explains that his family were British colonists who possessed a large tea plantation-as well as a spirit of adventure that this large extended family and their lavish colonial life passed on to him. The work won critical acclaim for the beautiful imagery which Ondaatje, by then an established poet, used to tell his predecessors' tales-such as the story of his grandmother attending a formal dance with fireflies sewn into her gown. "The book was praised by critics as much for its re-creation of a particular society, " wrote Ann Mandel in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "as for its stylistic exploration of the relationship between history and the poetic imagination."

Yet Ondaatje's childhood, as some of Running in the Family recollects, was less than idyllic; his father drank to excess, and so before he was ten his parents' marriage had ended. As a result, Ondaatje went to London, England, with his mother in the early 1950s, and eventually studied at Dulwich College. Ondaatje, however, found the English educational system constricting. He subsequently left to join his brother, already living in Quebec, and enrolled in Bishop's University in the early 1960s. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Toronto, receiving a B.A. in 1965. Graduate work was undertaken at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, from which Ondaatje earned a master's degree in 1967.

Ondaatje entered academia, becoming an instructor in English at the University of Western Ontario until 1971; when his superiors pressured him to earn a Ph.D., Ondaatje left and took a post in the English department at York University's Glendon College in Toronto. There was little reason for him to add a title to his name, since by then he was already an established poet: The Dainty Monsters, its title borrowed from a poem by Charles Baudelaire, was his first published volume. Its first half poeticized some fantastical beasts and otherworldly animals, such as the mythological beast known as a manticore (human head, lion's body, dragon's tail) that populated Toronto's sewer system in one poem. Its second half, "Troy Town, " featured interrelated poems based on tales from classical literature. The Dainty Monsters was extremely well-received for a small edition by an unknown poet, and made Ondaatje an important figure in Canada's acclaimed new generation of young writers; the work has never gone out of print.

Ondaatje's next few works were also published by his first press, Toronto's acclaimed Coach House, and he has worked for them as an editor as well over the years. These early titles offered more examples of his poetry and included 1969's The Man with Seven Toes, and his nonfiction look at Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, published in 1970. What has been termed Ondaatje's best-known volume of poetry, The Collected Works of Billy the Kidd: Left-Handed Poems, appeared in 1970. In it, Ondaatje placed himself in both the third-person and the first with the inner monologues of the outlaw Kidd himself to re-create his unusual life story and to speculate on the motivations behind this icon of the American Wild West.

"The book continues thematically his exploration of the ambiguous and often paradoxical area between biology and mechanization, movement and stasis, chaotic life and the framed artistic moment, " wrote Mandel in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. When Billy the Kidd received one of Canada's top literary prizes in the poetry category in 1971, there was some grumbling from the Canadian political establishment that the Governor-General's award had been given to a work that reflected some very American subject matter. Ondaatje's verse was adapted into a script and staged at the legendary Stratford Festival Theatre in 1973.

Matured, Ventured into Other Forms

Ondaatje had married and begun a family in the mid-1960s, and the poems and often whimsical imagery contained in 1973's Rat Jelly reflect the blended family he and artist Kim Jones created. The writer also ventured into filmmaking, such as a 1972 short work that chronicled the tale of the abduction of Wallace, the family's basset hound. His first foray into fiction came with the 1976 title Coming through Slaughter, classified as "a biographical novel." In London years before, Ondaatje was intrigued by a newspaper article about a New Orleans musician early in the twentieth century who had what apparently was a breakdown while playing in a parade. He began to research the life of cornetist Buddy Bolden, an actual figure who spent the last twenty-plus years of his life in a mental ward. Bolden is credited with pioneering a playing style that gave birth to what is now known as Dixieland jazz. No recordings were ever made of him, and little is actually known about the man or his tragic life. Ondaatje traveled to New Orleans in 1973 to work on the book, which takes a non-chronological form as part narrative, part interior monologue. "Ondaatje succeeds in giving us a sense of how Bolden actually played, " wrote Canadian Literature's Roy MacSkimming. "The texture of the book itself has that fertile, driving, improvisational quality, rich with its own pleasure in language and human complexity."

During the 1970s, Ondaatje continued to write poetry, edit the works of others for Coach House, and experiment with blending fact, fiction, and verse. Volumes which further enhanced his reputation include: There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978, published in 1979, Claude Glass, another volume of poetry published that same year, and the aforementioned memoir published in 1982, Running in the Family. In order to write the last work, Ondaatje journeyed to Sri Lanka and spent time with his relatives there. His own family in Canada underwent transformation during the early part of the next decade, when Ondaatje's relationship with Jones ended. The poems in Secular Love, published in 1984, reflect this change in his life, chronicling the difficulty of coming to terms with the end of a long-term coupling, as well as the joys of beginning a new one. Its title comes from the following poem: "Seeing you/I want no other life/and turn around/to the sky/and everywhere below/jungle, waves of heat/secular love." Again, Ondaatje won kudos for his work among the members of the literary establishment. The critic Liz Rosenberg, writing for the New York Times Book Review called Ondaatje "an oddity-a passionate intellect-and his book is alternatingly exasperating and beautiful."

Now in his forties and still teaching at Glendon College, Ondaatje returned to the quasi-novel format with the 1987 work In the Skin of a Lion. To construct a plot about the life of a young man coming of age in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s, the author built upon the facts of a real-life incident from that time-the mysterious disappearance of a well-known millionaire. The novel is as much about the search for the missing tycoon, the hero's involvement in the potentially lucrative quest, and his ensuing mix-up in radical politics of the era, as it is about Toronto's immigrant communities and their role in building the city. Its focal point is an actual viaduct at Bloor Street that was indeed constructed by laborers who spoke a polyglot of languages. In the Skin of a Lion was adapted into a play staged that same year. A Times Literary Supplement reviewer, Michael Hulse, compared Ondaatje's achievement in painting a portrait of a growing city to that of James Joyce's Dubliners or Alfred Doeblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz. Hulse commended the way by which Ondaatje mixed "psychological sensitivity and physical sensuality with a meticulous fidelity to factual detail, " and termed it "his most ambitious work to date."

The English Patient

Ondaatje became a household name, however, with the 1996 film adaptation of his 1992 novel The English Patient. Set in a Tuscan villa at the end of World War II, the story took Ondaatje eight years to write. It begins with a Canadian nurse, Hana-in time, the reader learns she is the daughter of the protagonist of In the Skin of the Lion-who is left almost alone in a bombed-out former convent. She has stayed behind at the former military hospital with a badly burned patient who has been brought there to pass his remaining days. Nameless, he was rescued from an air crash in the North African desert, and appears to be English. Hana reads to him, gives him morphine, and ministers to his charred skin. "Hipbones of Christ, she thinks. He is her despairing saint, " Ondaatje writes of Hana, who is washing the body. "He lies flat on his back, no pillow, looking up at the foliage painted onto the ceiling, its canopy of branches, and above that, blue sky."

Ondaatje introduces two other characters into the novel-one, a Canadian who has spied for the Allies and lost his thumbs for it, and a Sikh Indian who is a "sapper, " or bomb disposal expert. The Canadian ascertains that the "English patient" is actually a Hungarian noble and onetime Nazi spy. Through the course of the novel, the quartet of characters recount their pasts, all of which are emotionally wrenching. "Isolated together, they invent for a brief while an improbable and delightful and fearful civilization of their own, a zone of fragile intimacy and understanding that can't-of course-survive, " wrote Lorna Sage in a Times Literary Supplement review. The novel concludes as the characters learn that an atomic bomb has been dropped on Japan, a betrayal that Kip, the Indian bomb-defuser, feels more keenly than the others: he spent years working in the rubble of London and the minefields of Tuscany in the service of the West, who in turn use their technological "superiority" to annihilate an Asian nation.

The screen version of The English Patient was adapted from the novel by director Anthony Minghella and won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1996. Ondaatje's novel version was awarded Britain's top literary honor, the Booker Prize, in 1992.

Further Reading

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 14, 1980, Volume 29, 1984, Volume 51, 1989, Volume 76, 1993.

Contemporary Poets, Gale, 1985.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 60: Canadian Writers since 1960, Gale, 1987.

Canadian Literature, summer, 1977.

New York Times Book Review, December 22, 1985.

Times Literary Supplement, September 4, 1987; September 11, 1992.

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Ondaatje, Michael

Michael Ondaatje (Philip Michael Ondaatje) (ändät´chā), 1943–, Canadian writer, b. Colombo, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Immigrating (1962) to Canada, he attended the Univ. of Toronto (B.A., 1965) and Queen's Univ., Ontario (M.A., 1967). Since 1971 he has been an English professor at Glendon College, York Univ., Toronto. His first published works were poems, noted for their mixture of fact and fiction, real and surreal. His Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) blends poetry, prose, and visual materials into a compelling portrait of the American outlaw. Other poetry collections include The Dainty Monsters (1967), Rat Jelly (1973), The Cinnamon Peeler (1990), and Handwriting (1998). Ondaatje is best known for his novels, which also blend reality and imagination, exploring a variety of cultures and mingling present and past in richly evocative prose. The antithesis of linear narrative, his fiction is filled with incident and coincidence, often changing abruptly in time, style, and point of view. With his most celebrated novel, The English Patient (1992; film 1996), a tale of love and betrayal set in a ruined Italian villa during World War II, Ondaatje became the first Canadian to win the Booker Prize. His other novels are Coming through Slaughter (1976), In the Skin of a Lion (1987), Anil's Ghost (2000), Divisadero (2007), and The Cat's Table (2011). He also has written screenplays and edited anthologies and a literary journal.

See his memoir, Running in the Family (1982); studies by L. Mundwiler (1984), S. Solecki, ed. (1985), D. Barbour (1993), and E. Jewinski (1994).

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Ondaatje, (Philip) Michael

ONDAATJE, (Philip) Michael

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), 12 September 1943. Education: St. Thomas' College, Colombo; Dulwich College, London; Bishop's University, Lennoxville, Quebec, 1962-64; University of Toronto, B.A. 1965; Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, M.A. 1967. Family: Married 1) Betty Kimbark in 1963, one daughter and one son; 2) Kim Jones (separated). Career: Taught at the University of Western Ontario, London, 1967-71. Since 1971 member of the Department of English, most recently a full professor, Glendon College, York University, Toronto. Visiting professor, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, summer 1979; Brown University, 1990. Editor, Mongrel Broadsides. Awards: Ralph Gustafson award, 1965; Epstein award, 1966; E.J. Pratt medal, 1966; President's medal, University of Western Ontario, 1967; Canada Council grant, 1968, 1977; Books in Canada First Novel award. 1977 Governor-General's Award for Poetry, 1979; Governor-General's Award for Fiction, 1971, 1980, 1992; Canada-Australia prize, 1980; Toronto Book award, 1988; Booker prize, 1992; Literary Lion award (New York Public Library), 1993. Address: Department of English, Glendon College, York University, 2275 Bayview Ave., Toronto, Ontario M4N 3M6, Canada.

Publications

Novels

Coming Through Slaughter. Toronto, Anansi, 1976; New York, Norton, 1977; London, Boyars, 1979.

In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, New York, Knopf, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1987.

The English Patient. New York, Knopf, and London, Bloomsbury, 1992.

Anil's Ghost. New York, Knopf, 2000.

Plays

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (produced Stratford, Ontario, 1973; New York, 1974; London, 1984).

Coming Through Slaughter, adaptation of his own novel (producedToronto, 1980).

Poetry

The Dainty Monsters. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1967.

The Man with Seven Toes. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1969.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Toronto, Anansi, 1970; New York, Norton, 1974; London, Boyars, 1981.

Rat Jelly. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1973.

Elimination Dance. Ilderton, Ontario, Nairn Coldstream, 1978; revised edition, Ilderton, Brick, 1980.

There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems 1963-1978. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and New York, Norton, 1979; as Rat Jelly and Other Poems 1963-1978, London, Boyars, 1980.

Secular Love. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1984; New York, Norton, 1985.

Two Poems. Milwaukee, Woodland Pattern, 1986.

The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems. London, Pan, 1989; NewYork, Knopf, 1991.

Handwriting: Poems. New York, Knopf, 1999.

Other

Leonard Cohen. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1970.

Claude Glass. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1979.

Tin Roof. Lantzville, British Columbia, Island, 1982.

Running in the Family. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and NewYork, Norton, 1982; London, Gollancz, 1983.

Editor, The Broken Ark (animal verse). Toronto, Oberon Press, 1971; revised edition, as A Book of Beasts, 1979.

Editor, Personal Fictions: Stories by Munro, Wiebe, Thomas, and Blaise. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Editor, The Long Poem Anthology. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1979.

Editor, with Russell Banks and David Young, Brushes with Greatness: An Anthology of Chance Encounters with Greatness. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1989.

Editor, with Linda Spalding, The Brick Anthology. Toronto, CoachHouse Press, 1989.

Editor, From Ink Lake: An Anthology of Canadian Stories. NewYork, Viking, 1990.

Editor, The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories. London, Faber, 1990.

*

Bibliography:

By Judith Brady, in The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors 6 edited by Robert Lecker and Jack David, Toronto, ECW Press, 1985.

Manuscript Collection:

National Archives, Ottawa; Metropolitan Toronto Library.

Critical Studies:

Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje edited by Sam Solecki, Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1985; Michael Ondaatje by Douglas Barbour, New York, Twayne, 1993; Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard by Winfried Siemerling, Toronto and Buffalo, University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: Films Sons of Captain Poetry, 1971; Carry on Crime and Punishment, 1972; Royal Canadian Hounds, 1973; The Clinton Special, 1974.

* * *

Award-winning author Michael Ondaatje's novels examine the internal workings of characters who struggle against and burst through that which makes people passive and which historically renders human experience programmatic and static. To this end, his stylefor which two lines from his poem "The Linguistic War Between Men and Women" act as a perfect commentis raw, stark, energetic: "Men never trail away. / They sweat adjective." It is more appropriate to talk of Ondaatje's fiction and its energetic qualities as proceeding through "scenes" rather than through episodes or chapters: his extensive work and interest in film informs his preoccupation with matters of shaping and form.

Through Ondaatje's prose the reader is taken beyond morality into a realm of human action and interaction. His protagonists take great risks because they cannot do otherwise: they are driven to break through the limitations of mediocrity in a personal anarchy that is often destructive to self and others. The fractured narrative Coming Through Slaughter traces the personal anarchy of jazz trumpet player Buddy Bolden and the perspectives on him of those who knew him best. Bolden was never recorded and "never professional in the brain," but he was hailed as a great and powerful innovator. Ondaatje molds the little-known facts of Bolden's life into a fictional yet ostensibly objective account of the years of his fame, from the moment in approximately 1900 (age twenty-two) he walks into a New Orleans parade playing his loud, moody jazz. In a manic push beyond the order and certainty by which he was always tormented, he goes insane while playing in a parade in 1907, and is committed to an asylum where he dies in 1931.

In the Skin of a Lion draws less on historical fact than any of his previous novels. For the first time he uses culturally marginalized and wholly fictional central charactersexcept for Ambrose Smalland draws out their mythic potential rather than relying on and reshaping a preexistent cultural myth or a historical figure. In this novel Ondaatje explores the pulse of physical labor and the life of an immigrant neighborhood in Toronto and Southwestern Ontario from 1900 to 1940, and reveals its sense of community, solidarity, and hatred of the solipsistic idle rich. The protagonist Patrick, like Buddy Bolden, "departs from the world," but unlike Bolden, he has a private revolution that eventually takes the form of public political action.

All of Ondaatje's "fictions" have a metafictional aspect: Patrick, like the police detective Webb in Coming Through Slaughter, like Ondaatje himself in Running in the Family, is the searcher-figure, analogous to the writer, who stands to an extent outside of "lived experience" observing, rooting out facts and "truths," trying to shape a coherent history, or story. Through these figures, Ondaatje inscribes the perspective of the history-writer and sets up a tension between their observing and others' experiencing. In his novels, Ondaatje himself becomes a kind of historiographer and underscores the fact that the observer's impulse to articulate, an impulse experienced almost as a physical drive, is necessary to history.

The English Patient might be considered a sequel to In the Skin of a Lion. It features characters from the previous novelHana (Patrick's daughter), Caravaggio the thiefand continues Ondaatje's alertness to the fundamental importance of writing history. But Ondaatje's novels are characterized so much by inner transformations of character, voice, and scene, that it would be against the tenor of his craft to presume rigid connections between them, or to read them in a sequential manner. Like the sands of the North African desert that feature so prominently, The English Patient is a novel about shape-shifting. Set in the final days of World War II, as the map of Europe is about to be redrawn and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are soon to be disfigured utterly, it depicts the lives of four characters in a derelict villa north of Florence. The English patient (whose Englishness is not secure) is an aircraft pilot burned beyond recognition. He is cared for by a shell-shocked Hana, a nurse in the Canadian forces. They are joined by Caravaggio and Kirpal Singh, who earns the nickname Kip. Caravaggio has been tortured and suffered the removal of his thumbs. The emphasis upon the damage that each of these three characters has suffered finds its contrast in Kip, a Sikh sapper who spends his days defusing the mines that litter the vicinity of the villa. Kip symbolizes the propensity to reverse potential destruction; Ondaatje's descriptions of his work are some of the most memorable in all his prose. Those passages depicting Kip defusing the complex circuitry of mines make you tremble with relief at his eventual success.

Kip's presence at the villa helps emphasize storytelling as a form of defusing, an act that makes approachable an incendiary past. Gradually, through the act of recounting their histories, each character clears a path through their pasts that allows them to remember in safety. Their stories resemble the tattered books in the villa's library: fragmentary, full of gaps and parentheses. Indeed, the importance of rewriting is a theme that emerges in the novel's structure. Ondaatje builds the narrative upon fragments of other texts, just as the English patient records his thoughts in the pages of an old copy of Herodotus's Histories that is similarly swollen and torn.

But the bombs that cannot be defused fall on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the novel is never far from this apocalypse. When Kip learns of the news on the radio in the novel's climactic scene, his response is to confront the English patient with a rifle, outraged at this latest "tremor of Western wisdom." This, it seems, is one historical experience that renders redundant the narratives of Western historywith their emphasis on civilization and progress. A new narrative of history is required, perhaps one the novel itself tries to fashion, that rends the fabric of existing history in its attempt to bear witness to the immensity of what has happened.

This attempt at writing history is again undertaken in Ondaatje's latest novel, Anil's Ghost. In this work, however, Ondaatje does not set his characters against a diminishing mid-century conflict but, instead, in the midst of a recent war that does not exhibit the geometric sweep of advancing fronts, nor antagonists that are readily identifiable. The conflict between the government, anti-government insurgents, and separatist guerrillas involved in the Sri Lankan civil war of the late 1980s and early 1990s envelops the story like the imperious monsoons that drench its combatants and obscure the landscape. The result is that the characters, amid the pervasive and bald-faced violence of this war, do not have the constant sanctuary of an Italian villa in which to assemble their fragmented stories. Anil, a foreign educated forensic anthropologist assigned to her homeland on a UN mission to investigate alleged war atrocities, discovers a suspicious skeleton with her secretive local colleague, Sarath. The careful descriptions of the evidence drawn by Anil's handling of the bones are as lyrical and compelling as Kip's meticulous maneuvers in The English Patient. However, evidence, like the fragmented scenes of the novel, does not point to an apprehensible truth in this conflict. Indeed, these characters tell their stories not by gathering the evidence of their lives, but by reaching into the unknowing that surrounds them and making, or sculpting a place for human encounter. Palipana, the blind epigraphist, lives his days making connections beyond the evidence of his former archeological research while searching for lice in his young caregiver's hair; Gamini, Sarath's brother, the peripatetic, shy doctor, is driven to insomnia and exhaustion by his irrepressible need to physically care for the wounded; even Sarath, who would not shake his brother's hand, learns to touch as he gives his life to the inscrutable machinery of government at the end in order to secure safe passage for Anil.

To a greater extent than The English Patient, war in its genocidal capacities is the central concern of this novel. War is an omnipresence that reveals itself in the novel's epigraphic scenes always removed from contextual certainty. In one such scene, a man is crucified to the pavement with common builder's nails. Similarly, later in the novel, an anonymous assassin, edging closer to the president on the street, flicks the switches under his shirt that will force Gamini from Sarath's bedside to tend to a burst of wounded in the hospital. We do not learn why the man was nailed to the road, nor do we learn the name of the assassin or the political motivation for his bomb. These fragmented moments are not given to us as evidence with which to logically apprehend the pulse of this conflict. Indeed, we are left to approach these horrific and emotional incidents the way that the artist in the novel's last few pages approaches the act of painting the Buddha's eyes. We can only see indirectly and we can only abide the "sweet touch from the world."

Ondaatje's writing of history in Anil's Ghost develops his interest in the observer's impulse to articulate, yet it qualifies it in a way that removes the assuredness of evidence and renders the characters either silent, as in the case of the departed Anil, or responsive to the intimate, ineffable corporeality of their surroundings. Stories become, as they are in his 1998 book of poetry, Handwriting which is in many ways a companion piece to the novelunspeakable scripts on leaves, on smoke, or dispersed gestures like a gathering of bones that point to different pasts.

Diane Watson,

revisions by John McLeod

and Adam Dickinson

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Ondaatje, (Philip) Michael

ONDAATJE, (Philip) Michael


Nationality: Canadian. Born: Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), 12 September 1943. Education: St. Thomas' College, Colombo; Dulwich College, London; Bishop's University, Lennoxville, Quebec, 1962–64; University of Toronto, B.A. 1965; Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, M.A. 1967. Family: Married 1) Betty Kimbark in 1963, one daughter and one son; 2) Kim Jones (separated). Career: Taught at the University of Western Ontario, London, 1967–71. Since 1971 member of the Department of English, currently professor, Glendon College, York University, Toronto. Visiting professor, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, summer 1979, Brown University, 1990; editor, Mongrel Broadsides. Awards: Ralph Gustafson award, 1965; Epstein award, 1966; E.J. Pratt Medal, 1966; President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, 1967; Canada Council grant, 1968, 1977; Governor-General's award, 1971, 1980; Canada-Australia prize, 1980; Booker McConnell prize, British Book Trust, and Governor General's award, 1992, for The English Patient.Address: Department of English, Glendon College, York University, 2275 Bayview Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4N 3M6, Canada.

Publications

Poetry

The Dainty Monsters. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1967.

The Man with Seven Toes. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1969.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Toronto, Anansi, 1970; New York, Norton, 1974; London, Boyars, 1981.

Rat Jelly. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1973.

Elimination Dance. Ilderton, Ontario, Naim Coldstream, 1978; revised edition, Ilderton, Brick, 1980.

There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems 1963–1978. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and New York, Norton, 1979; as Rat Jelly and Other Poems 1963–1978, London, Boyars, 1980.

Secular Love. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1984; New York, Norton, 1985.

Two Poems. Milwaukee, Woodland Pattern, 1986.

The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems. London, Pan, 1989; New York, Knopf, 1992.

Handwriting. London, Bloomsbury, 1998; New York, Vintage, 2000.

Plays

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (produced Stratford, Ontario, 1973; New York, 1974; London, 1984).

Coming through Slaughter, adaptation of his own novel (produced Toronto, 1980).

Novels

Coming through Slaughter. Toronto, Anansi, 1976; New York, Norton, 1977; London, Boyars, 1979.

In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, New York, Knopf, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1987.

The English Patient. London, Picador, 1992.

Anil's Ghost. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, New York, Knopf, and London, Bloomsbury, 2000.

Other

Leonard Cohen. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1970.

Claude Glass. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1979.

Tin Roof. Lantzville, British Columbia, Island, 1982.

Running in the Family. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, and New York, Norton, 1982; London, Gollancz, 1983.

Editor, The Broken Ark (animal verse). Toronto, Oberon Press, 1971; revised edition, as A Book of Beasts, 1979.

Editor, Personal Fictions: Stories by Munro, Wiebe, Thomas, and Blaise. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Editor, The Long Poem Anthology. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1979.

Editor, with Russell Banks and David Young, Brushes with Greatness: An Anthology of Chance Encounters with Greatness. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1989.

Editor, with Linda Spalding, The Brick Anthology. Toronto, Coach House Press. 1989.

Editor, The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories. London, Faber, 1990.

Editor, From Ink Lake: An Anthology of Canadian Short Stories. New York, Viking, 1990.

Editor, with B.P. Nichol and George Bowering, An H in the Heart: A Reader. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1994.

*

Manuscript Collection: National Archives, Ottawa; Metropolitan Toronto Library.

Critical Studies: Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje edited by Sam Solecki, Montreal, Véhicule Press, 1985; The Other Side of Dailiness: Photography in the Works of Alice Munro, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and Margaret Laurence by Lorraine M. York, Toronto, ECW Press, 1988; "Outlaw and Explorer: Recent Adventurers in the English-Canadian Long Poem" by Robert A. Kelly, in Antigonish Review (Antigonish, Nova Scotia), 79, autumn 1989; "Michael Ondaatje and the Problem of History" in CLIO (Fort Wayne, Indiana), 19(2), winter 1990; "Michael Ondaatje and the Production of Myth" by George Elliott Clarke, in Studies in Canadian Literature (Fredericton, New Brunswick), 16(1), 1991; "'The Widening Rise of Surprise': Containment and Transgression in the Poetry of Michael Ondaatje" by Ajay Heble, in Wascana Review of Contemporary Poetry and Short Fiction (Regina, Saskatchewan), 26(1–2), spring-fall 1991; "Coming through the Spider's Web: Ondaatje's Murderous Metaphors" by Edward Parkinson, in Signature, 5, summer 1991; "'Sri Lankan' Canadian Poets: The Bourgeoisie That Fled the Revolution" by Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri, in Canadian Literature (Vancouver, British Columbia), 132, spring 1992; Michael Ondaatje by Douglas Barbour, New York, Twayne, 1993; Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohen, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard by Winfried Siemerling, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1994; "Postmodern Canadian Autobiography: Daphne Marlatt's 'How Hug a Stone' and Michael Ondaatje's 'Running in the Family'" by Annette Lonnecke, in The Guises of Canadian Diversity: New European Perspectives, edited by Serge Jaumain and Marc Maufort, Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1995; "'Fears of Primitive Otherness': 'Race' in Michael Ondaatje's 'The Man with Seven Toes'" by Gerry Turcotte, in Constructions of Colonialism: Perspectives on Eliza Fraser's Shipwreck, edited by Ian J. McNiven and others, London, Leicester University Press, 1998.

Theatrical Activities: Director: FilmsSons of Captain Poetry, 1971; Carry on Crime and Punishment, 1972; Royal Canadian Hounds, 1973; The Clinton Special, 1974.

*  *  *

It is ironic that Michael Ondaatje is a writer who exemplifies every aspect of the Whitman tradition in American poetry, for he is a Canadian writer, though once removed, since he was born and spent his boyhood in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). His exotic story is told in a work of prose, Running in the Family, which most people read as if it were poetry. Indeed, Ondaatje is a melting pot of techniques, and his work, as Whitman said of his own, "contains multitudes."

Ondaatje's writing can take the form of intense lyric poems, as in "Kim at Half an Inch":

Brain is numbed
is body touch
and smell, warped light
 
hooked so close
her left eye
is only a golden blur
her ear a vast
musical instrument of flesh
 
The moon spills off my shoulder
slides into her face

It also can look like prose but work as poetic language and the retelling or making of myth, as does what is perhaps his best-known book, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which won the Governor-General's award in 1971. Moving in and out of imagined landscape, portrait and documentary, and anecdote and legend, Ondaatje writes for the eye and the ear simultaneously. A critic reviewing his work for Books in Canada in 1982 said that "each new book of Michael Ondaatje's seems wholly different from those that preceded it, and wholly the same … the characters keep outgrowing the confines of fact."

Like Whitman, Ondaatje is a writer of democratic vistas. He is fascinated by the lives of common people who do uncommon things, such as Billy the Kid, or figures from the world of jazz like Buddy Bolden, the subject of Coming through Slaughter. His own family seems impersonally related to him, as with Whitman's eye he sees equally both the large and the small, the close and the distant. Also like Whitman, he is fascinated by the taboos and peculiarities that combine to give him a voice that is unique but also universal.

Unlike Whitman, however, Ondaatje has a dark, witty side that makes his poetic voice irreverent, though rarely abrasive. His language alternates between the short lines of lyric verse and the long lines that actually become prose or prose poetry. His work lends itself to theater, and he has made several films as well. Yet his identity is as a poet, for it is the voice that is central in Ondaatje's work, a voice giving him control over both interiors and exteriors, as in these lines from The Collected Works of Billy the Kid :

I am here with the range for everything
corpuscle muscle hair
hands that need the rub of metal
those senses that
that want to crash things with an axe
that listen to deep buried veins in our palms
those who move in dreams over your women night
near you, every paw, the invisible hooves
the mind's invisible blackout the intricate never
the body's waiting rut.

What Ondaatje also possesses is a gift to draw on the myths of American culture in such a way that the reader can understand the depth of common experience. From a young outlaw of the American West to a strange, neurasthenic New Orleans jazz trumpet player to his eccentric relatives with their pet cobra warming itself on the radio in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje writes with lyric intensity about the differences we all share.

—Diane Wakoski

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Ondaatje, Michael

Michael Ondaatje

BORN: 1943, Colombo, Ceylon

NATIONALITY: Canadian, Sri Lankan

GENRE: Fiction, plays, poetry, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1970)
Coming through Slaughter (1976)
In the Skin of a Lion (1987)
The English Patient (1992)
Anil's Ghost (2000)

Overview

Best known for his novel The English Patient (1992), Michael Ondaatje has made several contributions to literature and film. He started his writing career as a poet in the 1960s, later attracting widespread critical acclaim by blending verse, fact, and fiction to create unique works. Besides impacting existing literary genres with everything from narrative mixing to fictional documentary, Ondaatje has contributed editing, critical analysis, and the first

book-length study of renowned poet and balladeer Leonard Cohen to his list of credentials. He continues to influence drama and film with adaptations of his poetry and prose.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

From Ceylon to London to Montreal Born Philip Michael Ondaatje on September 12, 1943, in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the writer began life in a class and environment that would thereafter influence his literary subjects and themes. His father, Mervyn Ondaatje, was superintendent of a tea and rubber plantation owned by Michael's wealthy grandfather, while his mother, Enid Doris Gratiaen, was a part-time performer, doing radical dance as influenced by renowned choreographer Isadora Duncan. Despite appearances, Ondaatje's childhood was less than idyllic. His father drank to excess, and before he was ten his parents' marriage had ended. As a result, Ondaatje went to London with his mother in the early 1950s, and eventually studied at Dulwich College. Finding the English educational system constricting, Ondaatje left to join his brother, already living in Montreal, Quebec, and enrolled in Bishop's University in the early 1960s.

Early Work He began writing poetry at Bishop's and continued his writing plans at the University of Toronto. In 1967 he earned an MA at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, and was hired as an instructor at the University of Western Ontario in London. Ondaatje's first book, the poetry collection The Dainty Monsters, was published that same year.

New Family Life and Subjects As Ondaatje began his chosen occupation, he reached for the readings that would inspire him, including the works of poets Robert Browning, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and the younger Modern poets. He came in contact with writers and poets who would influence his writing, such as poet and critic D. G. Jones. He sought out stimulating environments, such as a job on a road gang. This experience lent inspiration for The Dainty Monsters. His marriage to Kim Jones in 1964—which brought with it Jones's four children from a previous marriage and soon two more children of their own—made for subjects and themes that continued through his next titles, such as Rat Jelly (1973). Later, the pain of divorce from Jones found expression in Secular Love (1984).

Making Myths and Movies In the 1970s, Ondaatje began combining his poetry with other genres and media forms. This artistic blending would become his trademark. The 1970 The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems, for instance, became material for radio and stage readings. After adding songs and reforming the work, the 1974 The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, became a play performed first by the Toronto Free Theatre and later at the Brooklyn Academy in New York. It has since been performed in various countries. Sons of Captain Poetry (1970) traces the career of the poet bp Nichol (Barrie Phillip Nichol), with whom Ondaatje shared the 1970 Governor General's Award. Carry on Crime and Punishment (1972) featured his family and friends as the cast.

Making Continued Impressions Ondaatje collected numerous awards throughout the 1970s. His 1979 collection of poetry There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do won the Governor General's Award for poetry in 1980. He followed this success with the publication of one of his most important works, Running in the Family. The publication of Ondaatje's 1987 In the Skin of a Lion, though, gave the writer his first taste of international acclaim. The hybrid novel is about a young man coming of age in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s. Building upon the facts of a real-life incident from that time—the mysterious disappearance of a well-known millionaire—the novel is as much about the search for the missing tycoon, the hero's involvement in the potentially lucrative quest, and his ensuing mix-up in the radical politics of the era as it is about Toronto's immigrant communities and their role in building the city.

Ondaatje became a household name with the 1996 film adaptation of his 1992 novel The English Patient. Set in a Tuscan villa at the end of World War II, the story begins with a Canadian nurse, Hana, who readers learn is the daughter of the protagonist of In the Skin of the Lion and who is left almost alone in a bombed-out former convent. She has stayed behind at the former military hospital with a badly burned patient who has been brought there to pass his remaining days. Hana reads to the nameless man, gives him morphine, and ministers to his charred skin as she listens to his story. The screen version, adapted by director Anthony Minghella, won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1996. The novel version was awarded Britain's top literary honor, the Booker Prize, in 1992.

Ondaatje continues to teach contemporary literature in translation and creative writing at Glendon College as professor of Canadian and American literatures. Still a Coach House editor and coeditor of Brick: A Literary Journal, he continues to win awards, including another Governor General's Award for his 2006 novel Divisadero.

Works in Literary Context

One of Ondaatje's earliest influences was poet and musician Leonard Cohen. He was later influenced by a wide variety of authors, including Italo Calvino, Willa Cather, and Gabriel García Márquez. He also credits Diego Rivera, Henri Rousseau, Sri Lankan temple sculpture, and jazz music as major influences. Finally, Ondaatje has said that his family, “everyone yakking and inventing stories and gossiping,” was a “big thing” for him and a “literary influence in some odd way.”

Blending Genres Ondaatje's work defies categorization into individual genres. His writing tends to blend the oral, visual, historical, narrative, and the poetic. For example, his 1976 novel, Coming through Slaughter, about New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, contains few available facts about Bolden as well as altered dates, people brought together who never met, and polished facts “to suit the truth of fiction.” Coming through Slaughter also strays from chronological order and varies from historical documentation to narrative to interior monologue.

Blending Themes In a style characterized by wry humor, flamboyant imagery, extravagant metaphors, and sudden shifts in tone, Ondaatje's writing is based on themes of family and social issues. In his poetry, observed critic Sam Solecki, “the fundamental or essential nature of experience is consistently being described and examined.” Likewise, in his prose, he takes on the personal task of exploring family dynamics and of giving expression to social issues he finds important, such as those he discussed in a 1987 Quill and Quire interview with Barbara Turner: the “gulf between rich and poor, the conditions of the labour force, racism…in Canada.”

Works in Critical Context

Ondaatje's body of work has received consistently high critical praise. Running in the Family (1982) was appreciated for its re-creation of a particular society and for its stylistic exploration of the relationship between history and the poetic imagination. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, widely considered Ondaatje's most celebrated work, was praised and challenged by critics and readers for dealing with an American folk hero and outlaw. Most of his other writing continues to be revered for its “jungle-lush” aesthetic, as Douglas Barbour once noted, and its “rhythmic control over his language.”

While several of his works have earned prestigious honors, others stand out as most often read, studied, and discussed—among them Anil's Ghost and The English Patient.

The English Patient (1992) The movie The English Patient, released in 1996 and based on the 1992 novel of the same name, won nine Academy Awards and more than forty other awards. The novel also received wide critical praise, especially for its dynamic interrelationships, dialogues, and imagery. Writer and critic Richard Ford, for example, quoted on the book's dust jacket, called it “an exotic, consuming and richly inspired novel of passion … [which] in its elegance and its satisfactions … resembles no book I know.”

Anil's Ghost (2000) Ondaatje's novel Anil's Ghost involves the war in Sri Lanka, his native land. Focusing on themes of human and civil rights, the book won the International Fiction Prize from the Irish Times, and wide critical acclaim. The New York Times review read, “Gorgeously exotic…As he did in The English Patient, Mr. Ondaatje is able to commingle anguish and seductiveness in fierce, unexpected ways.”

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Ondaatje's famous contemporaries include:

Margaret Atwood (1939–): Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, feminist, and activist who is one of the most highly esteemed writers of Canada and of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Leonard Cohen (1934–): Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist. Cohen's songs and poetry have influenced many other writers and more than a thousand renditions of his work have been recorded.

Ken Kesey (1935–2001): American author best known for his debut novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). Kesey is credited as being a counterculture figure who linked the Beat generation of the 1950s with the hippies of the 1960s.

Gloria Steinem (1934–): Leading American feminist, journalist, and women's rights advocate and activist who founded Ms. magazine in 1972.

Responses to Literature

  1. Read The English Patient; then consider how maps and mapmaking (cartography) represent significant moments in the memories of the characters. Identify five or six locations recalled by either Hana or the unnamed English patient and decide what each particular location suggests, represents, or means to you. Then, make a map including each of those events you came up with, creating the image/imagery you interpret as significant in each location. Be prepared to offer rationales for your choices.
  2. How is the theme of nationality and nationhood expressed in the novel? Does Ondaatje think that nationality and ethnicity can be transcended? Why or why not?
  3. What role does the desert play in the novel? How does the setting affect or impact or otherwise inform the themes of the story?

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Ondaatje's work frequently focuses on themes of racism, class division, and labor force conflict. Here are a few works by writers who also explore such issues:

The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a novel by Margaret Atwood. In this dystopian novel, Canadian author Atwood speculates on a horrifying future of gender division and reproductive control under a religious totalitarian regime.

“Harrison Bergeron” (1961), a short story by Kurt Vonnegut. In this science fiction tale, Vonnegut presents a representative family of the future: one who reflects the perfection of society and who carries the burdens of the scapegoated lesser class.

Catfish and Mandala (2000), a novel by Andrew X. Pham. In this autobiographical work of fiction, Pham investigates identity and the duality of the immigrant, the displacement of being a hyphenated human—both American and Vietnamese, yet neither at the same time.

Fences (1985), a play by August Wilson. In this play, Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson examines not only the black experience in the 1950s but race and labor issues in context.

Native Son (1940), a novel by Richard Wright. In this award-winning novel, Wright probes the personal and public themes of racism and explores the consequences of socialization between rich and poor and black and white.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Jewinski, Ed. Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully. Toronto: ECW, 1994.

Solecki, Sam, ed. Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Montreal: Vehicule, 1985.

Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. Cultural Studies and Michael Ondaatje's Writing. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2005.

Periodicals

Hutcheon, Linda. “The Empire Writes Back.” Nation, January 4, 1993, 22.

Lythgoe, Dennis. “Divisadero: Two Tales in One.” Salt Lake City Deseret News, June 17, 2007.

Ryan, Nick. “The Other Ondaatje.” Salon.com, May 26, 2000.

Web Sites

Friedman, Thomas B. Michael Ondaatje Information. Retrieved January 31, 2008, from http://www.tru.ca/faculty/tfriedman/ondaatje.htm.

Scallerup, Lee. “Michael Ondaatje” Centre for Language and Literature: Canadian Writers. Retrieved January 31, 2008, from http://www.athabascau.ca/writers/ondaatje.html.

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Ondaatje, Michael

ONDAATJE, Michael

ONDAATJE, Michael. Canadian, b. 1943. Genres: Novels, Plays/ Screenplays, Poetry, Literary criticism and history. Career: Taught at the University of Western Ontario, London, 1967-71; Glendon College, York University, Toronto, member of Dept. of English, 1971-. Mongrel Broadsides, editor. Publications: The Dainty Monsters, 1967; The Man with Seven Toes, 1969; The Left-Handed Poems: Collected Works of Billy the Kid, 1970, play, 1973; Leonard Cohen, 1970; (ed.) The Broken Ark, 1971; Rat Jelly, 1973; Eliminating Dance, 1978; Coming through Slaughter (novel), 1979; Rat Jelly and Other Poems, 1979; (ed.) The Long Poem Anthology, 1979; The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems, 1981; Running in the Family, 1983; Secular Love (poems), 1985; Two Poems, 1986; In the Skin of a Lion (novel), 1987; (co-ed.) Brushes with Greatness: An Anthology of Chance Encounters with Greatness, 1989; (ed. with L. Spalding) The Brick Anthology, 1989; (ed.) From Ink Lake, 1990; Elimination Dance, 1991; The English Patient, 1992; Running in the Family, 1993; (ed. with G. Bowering) H in the Heart, 1994; Handwriting (poems), 1999; Anil's Ghost, 2000; (co-ed.) Lost Classics, 2000; Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, 2002; (ed. and author of intro.) M. Gallant, Paris Stories, 2002. Address: Dept of English, Glendon College, York University, 2275 Bayview Ave, Toronto, ON, Canada M4N 3M6.

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Ondaatje, Michael

Michael Ondaatje

Personal

Born Philip Michael Ondaatje, December 9, 1943, in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka); immigrated to Canada, 1962; son of Philip Mervyn (a tea and rubber plantation superintendent) and Enid Doris Gratiaen (a dance and theatre school administrator) Ondaatje; married Kim Jones (divorced); married Linda Spalding; children: (first marriage) Quintin (daughter), Griffin (son). Education: Graduated Dulwich College, London, 1962; attended Bishop's University (Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada), 1962-64; University of Toronto, B.A. (English literature), 1965; Queen's University (Kingston, Ontario, Canada), M.A. Hobbies and other interests: Hound breeding, hog breeding.


Addresses

Officem— Department of English, Glendon College, York University, 2275 Bayview Ave., Toronto, Ontario M4N 3M6, Canada. Agentm— Steven Barclay Agency, 12 Western Ave., Petaluma, CA 94952.


Career

University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, instructor, 1967-71; Glendon College, York University, Toronto, Ontario, member of English faculty, beginning 1970, currently professor; Coach House Press, Toronto, editor, 1970-94; Mongrel Broadsides, editor; Brick (literary journal), editor. Visiting professor, University of Hawaii at Honolulu, 1979, and Brown University, 1990. Director of films, including Sons of Captain Poetry, 1970, Carry on Crime and Punishment, 1972, Royal Canadian Hounds, 1973, The Clinton Special, 1974, and Inventor of Dragland Hog Feeder, 1975.


Awards, Honors

Ralph Gustafson Award, 1965; Epstein Award, 1966; E. J. Pratt Medal, 1966; President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, 1967; Canada Council grant, 1968, 1977; Canadian Governor General's Award for Literature, 1971, for The Collected Poems of Billy the Kid, 1980, for There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do, 1992, for The English Patient, and 2000, for Anil's Ghost; Books in Canada First Novel Award, 1977, for Coming through Slaughter; Canadian Governor General's Award for Poetry, 1979; Canada-Australia Prize, 1980; Toronto Book Award, 1988; Booker Prize, British Book Trust, 1992, for The English Patient; Literary Lion Award, New York Public Library, 1993; Giller Prize and Prix Medicis, both 2000, and Irish Times Literature Prize shortlist, 2001, all for Anil's Ghost; Robert Wise Award, American Cinema Editors, 2003, for The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film.

Writings

POETRY

The Dainty Monsters, Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1967.

The Man with Seven Toes, Coach House Press (Tor-onto, Ontario, Canada), 1969.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left-handed Poems (also see below), Anansi (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1970, Berkley (New York, NY), 1975.

Rat Jelly, Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1973.

Elimination Dance, Nairn Coldstream (Ilderton, Ontario, Canada), 1978, revised edition, Brick, 1980.

There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems, 1963-1978, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1979, published as Rat Jelly, and Other Poems, 1963-1978, Marion Boyars (London, England), 1980.

Secular Love, Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1984, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1985.

All along the Mazinaw: Two Poems (broadside), Woodland Pattern (Milwaukee, WI), 1986.

Two Poems, Woodland Pattern (Milwaukee, WI), 1986.

The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems, Pan (London, England), 1989, Knopf (New York, NY), 1991.

Handwriting, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1998, Knopf (New York, NY), 1999.

The Story, House of Anansi (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2005.


NOVELS

Coming through Slaughter (also see below), Anans (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1976, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1977.

In the Skin of a Lion (also see below), Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.

The English Patient, Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.

Anil's Ghost, Knopf (New York, NY), 2000.


EDITOR

The Broken Ark (verse), illustrated by Tony Urquhart, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1971, revised edition published as A Book of Beasts, 1979.

Personal Fictions: Stories by Munro, Wiebe, Thomas, and Blaise, Oxford University Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1977.

The Long Poem Anthology, Coach House Press (Tor-onto, Ontario, Canada), 1979.

(With Russell Banks and David Young) Brushes with Greatness: An Anthology of Chance Encounters with Greatness, Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1989.

(With Linda Spalding) The Brick Anthology, illustrated by David Bolduc, Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1989.

From Ink Lake: An Anthology of Canadian Short Stories, Viking (New York, NY), 1990.

The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories, Faber (London, England), 1990.

(With others) Lost Classics, Knopf Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000, Anchor (New York, NY), 2001.

(And author of introduction) Mavis Gallant, Paris Stories, New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2002.


OTHER

Leonard Cohen (literary criticism), McClelland & Stewart (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1970.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (play; based on his poetry), produced in Stratford, Ontario, 1973; produced in New York, NY, 1974; produced in London, England, 1984.

Claude Glass (literary criticism), Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1979.

Coming through Slaughter (based on his novel), produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 1980.

Tin Roof, Island (British Columbia, Canada), 1982.

Running in the Family (memoir), W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1982.

In the Skin of a Lion (based on his novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.

(With B. P. Nichol and George Bowering) An H in the Heart: A Reader, McClelland & Stewart (Tor-onto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.

(Author of introduction) The English Patient: A Screenplay (based on his novel), adapted by Anthony Minghella, Hyperion Miramax (New York, NY), 1996.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.

Vintage Ondaatje, Vintage Books (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to books, including The Story So Far, volume one, edited by George Bowering, Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1971, and Tasks of Passion: Dennis Lee at Midcareer, edited by Karen Mulhallen, Descant Editions (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1982. Contributor to periodicals, including Canadian Literature, Descant, and Periodics.

Ondaatje's manuscripts are included in the National Archives, Ottawa, Canada, and the Metropolitan Toronto Library.


Adaptations

The English Patient was adapted as a motion picture, written and directed by Anthony Minghella, produced by Miramax, 1996; Anil's Ghost was adapted as an audiobook read by Alan Cummings, Random House AudioBooks, 2000.


Sidelights

A poet and novelist whose ability to find unusual resonance in old stories and telling subtleties in the recollections of friends and family, as well as his own impressions of living between two cultures, Ceylon-born Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje mines the inner lives of his multigenerational characters and focuses on the extraordinary in human nature. The dynamics of family life, the violence of war, and the loss of cultural identity in a postcolonial world all find their way into his fiction, which includes the award-winning novels The English Patient, Anil's Ghost, and Coming through Slaughter. "Concerned always to focus on the human, the private, and the 'real' over the theoretical and the ideological," in his novels and short fiction "Ondaatje examines the internal workings of characters who struggle against and burst through that which renders people passive," noted Diane Watson in Contemporary Novelists.

While Ontaatje's prose fiction reflects his talents as a poet, much of his poetry contains elements of narrative, and many of his verses are a patchwork of poetry, fiction, myth, memoir, and travelogue, sometimes enhanced by photographic images that echo the poet's words. "Moving in and out of imagined landscape, portrait and documentary, anecdote or legend, Ondaatje writes for the eye and the ear simultaneously," noted Diane Wakoski in Contemporary Poets. Sharply etched details and sensuous imagery are characteristic of Ondaatje's often-whimsical prose, as are startling juxtapositions anda preoccupation with personal experiences that resonate within his characters.


Moving between Two Worlds

Born in Colombo, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), in 1943, Ondaatje's grandfather was a wealthy man who owned a family estate in Kegalle and grew tea. In 1952, four years after his parents divorced, Ondaatje moved to London with his mother, brother, and sister, and at age nineteen he immigrated to Montreal, Canada, to join his brother. From 1962 to 1964, Ondaatje studied English and history at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec. At college, under the tutelage of professor Arthur Motyer, who "aroused an enthusiasm for literature," according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Ann Mandel, Ondaatje first began to write creatively. His study of the works of Robert Browning, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and the younger modern poets, was augmented by meeting contemporary Canadian poets such as D. G. Jones and Raymod Souster; the latter included Ondaatje's award-winning early writings in his anthology of young Canadian poets, New Wave Canada.

In 1964 Ondaatje married Kim Jones, an artist (the couple had two children before separating in 1980), and left Bishop's University to transfer to the University of Toronto to complete his bachelor's degree.In 1965 Ondaatje entered Queen's University, graduating two years later with a master's degree based on a thesis on Scots poet Edwin Muir. That same year, he published The Dainty Monsters, his first volume of poetry.

Ondaatje's poetry is seen by critics as continually changing, evolving as the author experiments with the shape and sound of words. Although his poetic forms may differ, his works focus on the myths that root deep in common cultural experience. As New York Times Book Review contributor Adam Kirsch explained, the poems in Handwriting are "richly sensual images, which are drawn largely from the history, mythology, and landscape of India and China. "As a poet, he recreates their intellectual expression in depicting the affinity between the art of legend and the world at large. "He cares more about the relationship between art and nature than any other poet since the Romantics," stated Liz Rosenberg in New York Times Book Review, "and more than most contemporary poets care about any ideas at all. "Some of Ondaatje's verse has approached the fragmentary, as in Secular Love, a collection of poems he published in 1985. More recent works, such as Handwriting, utilize the poet's characteristic fragmentary style. As Henry Taylor noted in Poetry, "once one has become accustomed to it, " Ondaatje's "style is singularly appropriate to the themes and subjects of the book, which arise from mixed heritage and the loss of cultural identity." Library Journal reviewer Barbara Hoffert called Ondaatje's poetry "deeply evocative and suffusedm—but never overburdenedm—with sensuous imagery."


From Poetry to Fiction

While his poetry has been praised by reviewers, Ondaatje is better known to readers in North America as a novelist. Beginning to work in prose after joining the English faculty at Toronto's Glen-don College, he has since alternated between prose and poetry. His first work of long fiction, Coming through Slaughter, was published in 1977, coming on the heels of its author's fourth published poetry collection. In the novel, grounded in the history of early twentieth-century New Orleans, Ondaatje recounts a possible life of Buddy Bolden, a jazz musician who is remembered as a brilliant cornetist. Bolden's life and work remains a tantalizing mystery within the jazz world; his performances were never recorded due to a tragic mental collapse at an early age. Mixing the comments of those who remember Bolden with historical fact, and the author's richly imagined transcription of the musician's inner thoughts during his descent into madness, Ondaatje fashions what Watson termed a "fractured narrative" that traces the creative individual's "personal anarchy."

In the Skin of a Lion, Ondaatje's second novel, focuses on a man raised in rural Canada who, at the age of twenty-one, moves to Toronto and lives among the immigrants inhabiting that city's growing and bustling working-class neighborhoods. In this work the author presents an historical epoch as more than a reaction to changing technology and events; instead, it embodies the struggle of the individual to break free of the confines of his culture. As Michael Hulse described the novel in his review for the Times Literary Supplement, In the Skin of a Lion "maps high society and the sub culture of the underprivileged in Toronto in the 1920s and 1930s. . . . But it is also . . . about communication, about men 'utterly alone' who are waiting (in Ondaatje's terms) to break through a chrysalis."


Pens The English Patient

Perhaps Ontaadje's best known novel, The English Patient tells the story of a Canadian nurse who stays behind in the bombed remains of a villa near the World War II battlefields of northern Italy to tend to an English soldier who has been severely burned and cannot be transported. After the pair are joined by two other soldiers, relationships form that parallel, as Cressida Connolly noted in the Spectator, "those of a small and faded Eden." "In part, The English Patient consists of the stories of its four pilgrims, told by themselves or by the author," observed Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Eder continued, "None of the stories stand alone, however. Their counterpoint and the tensely shifting relationships of the characters provide the book's texture. It is a complex and delicate web whose shimmer and sway is set off by the four lives that alight and are caught in it." Ranking the author among such contemporary British novelists as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis, Connolly praised the poetic quality of Ondaatje's fiction. "The writing is so heady that you have to keep putting the book down between passages so as not to reel from the sheer force and beauty of it," the reviewer exclaimed, adding that "when I finished the book I felt as dazed as if I'd just awoken from a powerful dream."

From the Italian countryside, Ondaatje moves readers to the jungles of Sri Lanka in Anil's Ghost. Set in the present day, the novel documents a nearly twenty-year military conflict that began in the 1980s and resulted in the deaths and disappearances of nearly 20,000 individuals. Anil is a native of Sri Lanka who studied medicine abroad, specializing inforensic pathology, and she has come home as part of a group assigned to examine the remains of victims to determine if their deaths were related to war crimes. Assisted by Sarath, a government-selected archaeologist, Anil discovers four skeletons that she and Sarath name Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, and Sailor, the last of which Anil feels will provide the evidence they are seeking. "This narrow examination broadens to involve the wider conflict as Sri Lanka's history and present achieve a simultaneous, terrible maturity," wrote Rebecca J. Davies in Lancet. "The earth is oily with wasted blood. Severed heads sitatop stakes. Drivers are crucified on the roadside. Bodies succumb to frail fractures sustained in their dive from helicopters. Even babies and three-year-olds are not immune to the bullets. And yet amid this bloody chaos Ondaatje pains takingly captures the normality of interrupted lives." As America contributor John Breslin, Anil's Ghost "ends with three pages of acknowledgments to dozens of doctors, lawyers, civil rights workers, Asian scholars, and fellow poets, plus a bibliography that would make any researcher proud. A lot of homework and leg-work have gone into this novel."

Like The English Patient, Anil's Ghost was the recipient of a number of literary awards. Adding her voice to the inevitable comparison between the two novels that took place, New York Times Book Review contributor Janet Maslin wrote that the more recent work "is a novel more in name than in essence."

The author "brings an oblique poetic sensibility to unraveling the mysteries at work here . . . and assorted vignettes and memories scatter . . . across the book's fertile landscape." The book's true power, Maslin added, is the novel's "profound sense of outrage, the shimmering intensity of its descriptive language and the mysterious beauty of its geography."


Interests Lead to Nonfiction

In addition to poetry and fiction, Ondaatje's interest in filmmaking, fueled perhaps by his involvement in the film adaptation of his novel The English Patient, inspired the nonfiction work The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Film Editing. Highly praised by reviewers, The Conversations examines Murch's life and career as a three-time Oscar winner and collaborator with noted directors Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas in Zoetrope Studios. The creative process is also discussed, as writer and film editor talk about the task of revealing hidden themes and patterns in existing creative works. As Ondaatje noted in an interview with a Maclean's contributor, editingm—whether of film orone's written work, is "the only place where you're on your own. Where you can be one person and govern it. The only time you control making a movie is in the editing stage." In Booklist Carlos Orellana praised The Conversations for permitting "readers a peek behind the curtain to reveal a man as mysterious as his art," while in Publishers Weekly a reviewer noted: "Through [Murch's] . . . eyes, and Ondaatje's remarkably insightful questions and comments, readers see how intricate the process is, and understand Murch when he says, 'The editor is the only one who has time to deal with the whole jigsaw. The director simply doesn't.'"

Running in the Family, a heartfelt memoir honoring the author's family and his heritage, blends together family stories with poems, photographs, and personal

If you enjoy the works of Michael Ondaatje

If you enjoy the works of Michael Ondaatje, you may also want to check out the following:

David Ball, Empires of Sand, 1999.

Josh Russell, Yellow Jack, 1999.

Gao Xingjian, One Man's Bible, 2002.

anecdotes. As his family history follows a path leading from the genteel innocence of the Ceylonese privileged class as the sun set on the British Empire to the harsh glare of the modern age, so Ondaatje's narrative seeks the inner character of his father, a man of whom the author writes, "My loss was that I never spoke to him as an adult." As Anton Mueller in the Washington Post Book World wrote, "In reality, this is a mythology exaggerated and edited by the survivors. Seduced by the wealth and luxury of its imaginative reality, Ondaatje enters the myth without disturbing it. With a prose style equal tothe voluptuousness of his subject and a sense of humor never too far away, Running in the Family is sheer reading pleasure."

Acclaimed alongside authors such as Alice Munro, Robertson Davies, and Margaret Atwood as one of Canada's literary giants, Ondaatje continues to be lauded by critics and beloved by readers for his ability to create a unique voice and break with the rules of established literary conventions yet create a body of work that is accessible and evocative. His use of mythical and historical allusions have also been praised, and his ability to revisit the past in order to shed a fresh light on the present has gained him the respect of many traditionalists. According to Mandel, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Ondaatje "is clearly an original writer," whose "importance lies . . . in his ability to combine a private, highly charged, sometimes dark vision with witty linguistic leaps and welcoming humor."


Biographical and Critical Sources

BOOKS

Barbour, Douglas, Michael Ondaatje, Twayne Publishers (New York, NY), 1993.

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 14, 1980, Volume 29, 1984, Volume 51, 1989, Volume 76, 1993.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Contemporary Poets, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Cooke, John, The Influence of Painting on Five Canadian Writers: Alice Munro, Hugh Hood, Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Ondaatje, Edwin Mellen (Lewiston, NY), 1996.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 60: Canadian Writers since 1960, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1987.

Jewinski, Ed, Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully, ECW Press, 1994.

Mundwiler, Leslie, Michael Ondaatje: Word, Image, Imagination, Talonbooks (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 1984.

Ondaatje, Michael, Running in the Family (memoir), W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1982.

Pearce, Jon, editor, Twelve Voices: Interviews with Canadian Poets, Borealis (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1980.

Siemerling, Winfried, Discoveries of the Other: Alterity in the Work of Leonard Cohn, Hubert Aquin, Michael Ondaatje, and Nicole Brossard, University of Toronto (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.

Solecki, Sam, editor, Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje, Vehicule Press, 1985.

Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven, Comparative Cultural Studies and Michael Ondaatje's Writing, Purdue University Press (West Lafayette, IN), 2005.


PERIODICALS

America, February 19, 2001, John Breslin, "War on Several Fronts," p. 25.

American Book Review, March, 1999, review of The Cinnamon Peeler, p. 23.

Ariel, April, 1997, Josef Pesch, "Post-Apocalyptic War Histories: Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient, " p. 117.

Back Stage, February 17, 2005, Ben Rock, review of The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, p. S12.

Booklist, March 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Handwriting, p. 1145; March 15, 2000, Bonnie Smothers, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 1294; September 15, 2002, Carlos Orellana, review of The Conversations, p. 192.

Canadian Forum, January-February, 1993, p. 39.

Canadian Literature, spring, 2002, Douglas Barbour, "Writing through Terror," pp. 187-188; winter, 2004, Brenda Austin-Smith, "Film and Form," pp. 94-96.

Christian Science Monitor, May 4, 2000, "An Island Paradise in the Flames of Terror," p. 17.

Economist, June 17, 2000, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 14.

English Studies, May, 1996, p. 266.

Entertainment Weekly, September 13, 2002, review of The Conversations, p. 148.

Essays on Canadian Writing, summer, 1994, pp. 1, 11, 27, 204, 238, 250; fall, 1995, p. 236; winter, 1995, p. 116; spring, 1999, review of The English Patient, p. 236; spring, 2002.

Harper's, February, 2003, John Gregory Dunne, "Guys Who Worked on the Movie," review of The conversations, p. 69.

History and Theory, December, 2002, p. 43.

Hudson Review, spring, 2001, Alan Davis, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 142.

Journal of Canadian Studies, summer, 2001, Dennis Duffy, "Furnishing the Pictures: Arthur S. Goss, Michael Ondaatje, and the Imag(in)ing of Toronto," p. 106.

Journal of Modern Literature, summer, 2000, William H. New, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 565.

Lancet, January 20, 2001, Rebecca J. Davies, "A Tale of the Sri Lankan Civil War," p. 241.

Library Journal, April 15, 1999, Barbara Hoffert, review of Handwriting, p. 100; May 15, 2000, Barbara Hoffert, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 126; June 1, 2001, Ron Ratliff, review of Lost Classics, p. 160.

Los Angeles Times, May 21, 2000, Jonathan Levi, review of Anil's Ghost, p. C1.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 11, 1992, Richard Eder, "Circles on a Pond," pp. 3, 12.

Maclean's, April 10, 2000, John Bemrose, "Horror in Paradise: Michael Ondaatje Sifts through Sri Lanka's Strife," p. 78; December 18, 2000, p. 66; September 9, 2002, "A Sort of Improvisation Happens," p. 40; November 11, 2002, review of The Conversations, p. 89.

Modern Language Review, January, 1997, p. 149.

Mosaic, September, 1999, Douglas Malcolm, "Solos and Chorus: Michael Ondaatje's Jazz Politics/Poetics," p. 131.

Nation, January 4, 1993, p. 22; June 19, 2000, Tom LeClair, "The Sri Lankan Patients," p. 31.

National Catholic Reporter, November 19, 1993, p. 30.

New Criterion, May, 2000, Brooke Allen, "Meditations, Good & Bad," p. 63.

New Leader, May, 2000, Tova Reich, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 37.

New Republic, March 15, 1993, p. 38.

New Statesman, March 19, 1999, Lavinia Greenlaw, review of Handwriting, p. 48.

Newsweek, January 27, 2003, review of The Conversations, p. 70.

New Yorker, May 15, 2000, John Updike, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 91.

New York Review of Books, January 14, 1993, p. 22; November 2, 2000, John Bayley, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 44.

New York Times Book Review, April 24, 1977; December 22, 1985, pp. 22-23; April 11, 1999, Adam Kirsch, "Erotic, Exotic," p. 24; May 11, 2000, Janet Maslin, "Unearthing the Tragedies of Civil War in Sri Lanka"; May 14, 2000, Richard Eder, "A House Divided."

Poetry, May, 2000, Henry Taylor, review of Handwriting, p. 96.

Prairie Schooner, spring, 2001, Constance Merritt, review of Handwriting, p. 182.

Publishers Weekly, February 22, 1999, review of Handwriting, p. 88; March 20, 2000, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 70; July 3, 2000, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 24; August 12, 2002, review of The Conversations, p. 290.

Saturday Night, July, 1968; June, 1997, Valerie Feldner, review of The English Patient, p. 12.

School Library Journal, September, 2000, Pam Johnson, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 258.

Spectator, September 5, 1992, Cressida Connolly, review of The English Patient, p. 32; April 29, 2000, John de Falbe, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 29.

Studies in Canadian Literature (annual), 2001, pp. 71-90.

Time, May 1, 2000, Paul Gray, "Nailed Palms and the Eyes of Gods: Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost Is a Stark Successor to The English Patient, " p. 75.

Times Higher Education Supplement, Roger Crittenden, review of The Conversations, p. 27.

Times Literary Supplement, September 4, 1987, p. 948; November 3, 1989, p. 1217; October 19, 1990, p. 1130; September 22, 1992, p. 23; February 5, 1999, Michael O'Neill, review of Handwriting, p. 33.

University of Toronto Quarterly, spring, 2001, p. 633;fall, 2001, p. 889.

Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1999, review of Handwriting, p. 102.

Wall Street Journal, April 2, 1999, review of Handwriting, p. 6; May 12, 2000, Elizabeth Bukowski, review of Anil's Ghost, p. W8.

Washington Post Book World, January 2, 1983, pp. 9, 13; November 1, 1987, p. 4.

World Literature Today, spring, 1999, Sen Sudeep, review of Handwriting, p. 333.


ONLINE

BookPage.com, http://www.bookpage.com/ (May, 2000), Ellen Kanner, "New Discoveries from the Author of The English Patient."

Powells.com, http://www.powells.com/ (May 23, 2000), Dave Weich, interview with Ondaatje.

Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (November, 1996), Gary Kamiya, "Delirious in a Different Kind of Way" (interview with Ondaatje); (April 25, 2000), Gary Kamiya, "Painting the Eyes of a God."*

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