Michael Ondaatje immigrated to Canada via England in 1962, and became a Canadian citizen in 1965. He attended the UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO (BA) and QUEEN'S (MA). In 1971 Ondaatje began teaching at YORK UNIVERSITY. He was appointed an officer of the ORDER OF CANADA in 1988.
Ondaatje first gained his literary reputation as a poet. His first books of poetry include The Dainty Monsters (1967), The Man with Seven Toes (1969) and Rat Jelly (1973). The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, an account of the factual and fictional life of the notorious outlaw, won the GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD for poetry in 1970 and has been adapted for stage and produced at Stratford, Toronto and New York. There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems 1963-78 won a second Governor General's Award in 1979. Secular Love: Poems was published in 1984; Handwriting: Poems in 1998; and The Story, a collaboration with illustrator David Bolduc, in 2006. Ondaatje's selected poems, entitled The Cinnamon Peeler, appeared in 1989.
His fiction has contributed greatly to Ondaatje's national and international renown. The novel Coming Through Slaughter (1976) tells of real and imagined events in the life of New Orleans jazz cornetist Buddy Bolden. In the Skin of a Lion (1987), his next novel, takes place in Toronto in the 1930s, exploring the lives and politics of the immigrant workers who built many of the city's great edifices. The English Patient (1992) is Ondaatje's most acclaimed novel to date. Set in Tuscany, Italy, at the end of the SECOND WORLD WAR, the novel holds readers fascinated by both the present dramatic circumstances and astonishing pasts of the characters in this epic tale of the physical and emotional damage inflicted by war and love. In addition to winning another Governor General's Award for fiction in 1992, it earned Ondaatje a share of the prestigious Booker Prize, the first ever awarded to a Canadian. A 1996 film version of the novel won 9 Academy Awards.
Michael Ondaatje's 2000 novel Anil's Ghost is set in his homeland, civil-war-ravaged Sri Lanka. The protagonist, a Sri Lankan-American forensic anthropologist, struggles to maintain her scientific objectivity against the influence of political pressure and her own emotional response to what she encounters there. Anil's Ghost won the SCOTIABANK GILLER PRIZE, the Governor General's Literary Award and France's prestigious Prix Médicis. In 2007 Ondaatje matched Hugh MACLENNAN's record by winning a fifth Governor General's Literary Award for Divisadero, a lyrical and painful family story set partly in 1970s northern California. Ondaatje's signature fragmented narrative travels back in time to the early 20th century to show a parallel family tragedy in rural France.
Ondaatje's postmodern preoccupation with the permeability of boundaries and genres is particularly evident in his semi-autobiographical works. Running in the Family (1982) combines memoir, fiction and photography to depict the glamorous and unconventional life of Ondaatje's parents and grandparents in colonial Ceylon. Ondaatje again brushes with autobiography in the novel The Cat's Table (2011), in which 11-year-old protagonist Michael departs Ceylon for England in 1954. The novel, set during the 3-week journey by ship, presents a vivid array of characters, tableaux and shipboard adventures while it muses on the transitions between childhood and adult life, memory and imagination, truth and storytelling.
In addition to his creative work, Ondaatje has a long and respected career as a critic and editor. His critical work on Leonard COHEN was published in 1970, and as editor of Mongrel Broadsides he published poems by James REANEY, Margaret ATWOOD and others. He has also edited The Broken Ark: A Book of Beasts (1971) and the short-fiction anthologies Personal Fictions: Stories by Munro, Wiebe, Thomas, and Blaise (1977) and From Ink Lake: An Anthology of Canadian Short Stories (1990). His poetry editorial work includes The Long Poem Anthology (1979) and the bp Nichol collection An H in the Heart (1994). Ondaatje is an editor for the literary magazine Brick, and was a long-time editor for Coach House Press.
Michael Ondaatje's films include Sons of Captain Poetry (about poet bp NICHOL), Carry on Crime and Punishment, The Clinton Special (about Theatre Passe Muraille's Farm Show) and Royal Canadian Hounds. He considers the underappreciated art of film editing in The Conversation: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002).
Author SHARON THESEN
Sam Solecki, ed, Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje (1985). Douglas Barbour, Michael Ondaatje (1993). Ed Jewinsky, Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully (1994). Jean-Michel Lacroix, Re-constructing the fragments of Michael Ondaatje's works (1999). Michael Ondaatje, Vintage Ondaatje (2004). Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, ed, Comparative cultural studies and Michael Ondaatje's writing (2005). Lee Spinks, Michael Ondaatje (2009).
Links to Other Sites
This beautifully illustrated site explores the relationship between East and West from earliest times to the present with a focus on the very complex Asian experience in Canada. Search for specific topics and themes. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
An extensive information source about the celebrated Canadian author Michael Ondaatje. From the website for the British Council.
This site features a brief profile of acclaimed author Michael Ondaatje. Also offers synopses of his books. From McClelland & Stewart Limited.