Michael Ondaatje

b. 1943
One of Canada’s most highly regarded writers, Michael Ondaatje is known for work that dissolves the lines between prose and poetry, past and present, image and intellect, thought and feeling. "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. Whether retelling an American myth in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1973), reshaping recollections of friends and family from his childhood in old Ceylon in Running in the Family (1982) , or delving into the brutality of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war in Anil’s Ghost (2000), Ondaatje displays a keen understanding of the internal struggles of his characters, using a poetic writing style that depends upon juxtaposition, startling imagery and intense, often difficult, language. A well-regarded poet before turning to fiction, Ondaatje’s work in both genres is infused with sensual images, rich language and a deeply metaphorical bent. In addition to writing novels, plays, and poetry collections, Ondaatje has edited several books, including The Faber Book of Contemporary Canadian Short Stories (1990), praised as a "landmark" by reviewer Christine Bold in Times Literary Supplement for its representation of "Canadian voices accented by native, black, French, Caribbean, Indian, Japanese and Anglo-Saxon origins."

Born in Sri Lanka and living in England as a young teen, Ondaatje immigrated to Canada at age eighteen, determined to make a mark as a poet, and gradually moved to fiction. Running in the Family, a heartfelt memoir honoring his family and heritage blends together family stories with poems, photographs, and personal 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."

Ondaatje's early poetry, collected in the volume There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do: Poems, 1963–1978 (1979), mixes the surreal and the everyday, creating a poetry that “relies on a hushed approach,” according to Charles Molesworth in the New York Times. Generally considered his first major work, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid is ambitious in its formal experimentation and risks. A textual “collage” combining lyric poetry with prose, snippets of a play, songs, mock-interviews and photographs, the book investigates both Billy the Kid and the consequences of myth through lush fragments. 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 work has continued to focus on the myths that root deep in common cultural experience. As a poet, he is deeply invested 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."

Handwriting (1999) and The Story (2006), Ondaatje’s latest forays into verse demonstrate the variety of his work. Reviewing the former work, New York Times Book Review contributor Adam Kirsch noted that “Ondaatje uses the serene juxtapositions of haiku…to eliminate the need for explanation and exposition, leaving us with the things themselves.” Drawing on the history and mythology of China, India and his native Sri Lanka, Handwriting shows Ondaatje’s style at its most fragmented, though as Henry Taylor wrote in Poetry “singularly appropriate to the themes and subjects of the book, which arise from mixed heritage and the loss of cultural identity." The Story pairs poems on childhood, mythology and love with watercolors by the artist David Bolducan. The book was commissioned by the World Literacy Project in Canada.

Ondaatje’s fame as a novelist skyrocketed after the movie adaptation of his best-selling novel The English Patient (1992). Set in an Italian villa at the end of World War II, the novel foregrounds Ondaatje’s linguistic prowess. As Cressida Connolly noted in the Spectator: "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." Conolly ranked Ondaatje among such contemporary novelists as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. Ondaatje’s other novels have also received high praise, including his first, Coming Through Slaughter (1976), a poetic treatment of the early Jazz legend Buddy Bolden. As Diane Watson noted in Contemporary Novelists, Ondaatje is “concerned always to focus on the human, the private, and the 'real' over the theoretical and the ideological," in his novels and short fiction. In novels like In the Skin of a Lion, which focuses on immigrants in early twentieth-century Toronto, and Anil’s Ghost, which takes on the troubled history of modern Sri Lanka, "Ondaatje examines the internal workings of characters who struggle against and burst through that which renders people passive and which renders human experience programmatic and static," wrote Watson. Reviewers have noted that Ondaatje’s novels, including his recent Divisiadero (2007), have been “novels” in name only: Ondaatje’s attentiveness to beauty, despair, and individuals inform his narratives even as his potent language and circular structures often pull the books towards poetry.

Ondaatje has also written non-fiction, including The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Film Editing (2002) which was highly praised by reviewers for its insight into the creative process. Both Ondaatje and Murch, who has worked with Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, talk about the task of revealing hidden themes and patterns in existing creative works. As Ondaatje noted in an interview with Maclean's, editing—whether of film or one'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." Ondaatje has received many awards for his work, including two Governor’s General Awards and the Booker Prize for The English Patient. He lives in Toronto with his wife, the novelist Linda Spalding.

Career

University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, instructor, 1967-71; Glendon College, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Department of English faculty, beginning 1970, currently professor; Coach House Press, Toronto, Ontario, 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.

Bibliography

POETRY
  • The Dainty Monsters, Coach House Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1967.
  • The Man with Seven Toes, Coach House Press (Toronto, 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), 2006.
NOVELS
  • Coming through Slaughter (also see below), Anansi (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.
  • Divisadero, Knopf (New York, NY), 2007.
EDITOR
  • The Broken Ark (animal verse), illustrated by Tony Urquhart, Oberon (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1971, revised 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 (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1979.
  • (With Russell Banks and David Young) Brushes with Greatness: An Anthology of Chance Encounters with Greatness, Coach House (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), first 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 (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.
  • (Author of introduction) Anthony Minghella, adaptor, The English Patient: A Screenplay, Hyperion Miramax (New York, NY), 1996.
  • The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Knopf (New York, NY), 2002.
Ondaatje's manuscripts are included in the National Archives, Ottawa, Canada, and the Metropolitan Toronto Lixxbrary.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 14, 1980; Volume 29, 1984; Volume 51, 1989; Volume 76, 1993.
  • Contemporary Novelists, fifth edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1991, pp. 710-711.
  • Contemporary Poets, fifth edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1991, pp. 724-725.
  • 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.
  • Ondaatje, Michael, Running in the Family (memoir), W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1982.
  • 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.
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.
  • Biography, spring, 2000, S. Leigh Matthews, "'The Bright Bone of a Dream': Drama, Performativity, Ritual, and Community in Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family," p. 352.
  • 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: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, p. 192.
  • Canadian Forum, January-February, 1993, p. 39.
  • Canadian Literature, spring, 2002, Douglas Barbour, "Writing through Terror," pp. 187-188.
  • 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.
  • 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, 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.
  • 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, interview with Ondaatje, p. 40.
  • 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 & Society, March 19, 1999, Lavinia Greenlaw, review of Handwriting, p. 48.
  • 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, 2001 (annual), 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.
  • Vogue, May, 2000, John Powers, review of Anil's Ghost, p. 201.
  • 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, http:// www.bookpage.com/ (October 1, 2001), Ellen Kanner, "New Discoveries from the Author of The English Patient" (interview).*

Discover this author’s context, related articles, and media.

Poet Categorization

POET’S REGION Canada

LIFE SPAN 1943–

Biography

One of Canada’s most highly regarded writers, Michael Ondaatje is known for work that dissolves the lines between prose and poetry, past and present, image and intellect, thought and feeling. "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. Whether retelling an American myth in The Collected . . .

Report a problem with this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.