Michael Ondaatje

An interview with Sri Lankan-Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, including a discussion of his major works, highlights the achievements of one of Canada’s best-known authors.

The work of poet, novelist, filmmaker and Order of Canada recipient Michael Ondaatje has intrigued audiences in Canada and abroad. He often combines or contrasts the factual and the imaginary, poetry and prose. His longer narrative works, often based on the unorthodox lives of real people, may contain documentary as well as fictional accounts. Ondaatje's imagery is characterized by its preoccupation with romantic exoticism and multiculturalism; its gravitation towards the bizarre, the exaggerated, and the unlikely; its fascination with the secret codes of violence in both personal and political life; and with its continued delving into the world of movies, jazz and friendship. Although he is Canadian, his writing is not often set in Canada.

Ondaatje’s Poetry

Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and immigrated to Canada via England. He first gained his literary reputation as a poet. His poetic topics are eclectic and often include biographical or autobiographical elements. 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 the stage. Running in the Family (1982) combines poetry and photography to depict the glamorous and unconventional life of his parents and grandparents in colonial Ceylon.

Ondaatje’s Novels and Films

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 the 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. The film version, released in 1996, won nine Academy Awards.

The 2000 novel Anil's Ghost is set in Ondaatje’s 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 and France's prestigious Prix Médicis. In 2007 Michael Ondaatje matched Hugh MacLennan’s record, by winning a fifth Governor General's Literary Award. Divisadero is 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.

Michael Ondaatje's films include Sons of Captain Poetry (about poet bp Nichol), Carry on Crime and Punishment and Royal Canadian Hounds.

Learn More:
Michael Ondaatje in The Canadian Encyclopedia
Michael Ondaatje