Michael Ondaatje

Portrait Michael Ondaatje
© Hartwig Klappert

Michael Ondaatje was born in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) in 1943. After spending ten years in England, where he began his studies, the eighteen-year-old migrated to Canada and has been a Canadian citizen since 1962. He studied at Bishop’s University, the University of Toronto and Queen’s University, and since 1971 has taught creative writing and contemporary literature at Glendon College, York University.

Ondaatje debuted with the volume of poetry »The Dainty Monsters« (1967), followed by numerous others, before he received worldwide acclaim for his novels. »The Collected Works of Billy the Kid« (1970), a collage of various text genres, was adapted for the stage. Ondaatje’s first novel, »Coming through Slaughter« (1976), was also dramatised and found an enthusiastic audience in Germany. »Running in the Family« (1982), a compilation of sketches, poems, stories and photographs, offers a colourful as well as fascinating portrait of Ondaatje’s parents’ house in colonial Ceylon.

In the impressionistic novel »In the Skin of the Lion« (1987), set in the 1920s Toronto, the boundaries between reality, invention and legend are blurred. Ondaatje was the first Canadian ever to receive the Booker Prize, for »The English Patient« (1992). The film version, directed by Anthony Minghella, won nine Oscars in 1996. In 2000 »Anil’s Ghost« was published. In this novel Ondaatje juxtaposes a poetic vision of the beauty of Sri Lanka against the barbarities of the civil war. Ondaatje’s most recent novel, »Divisadero« (2007), follows the fortunes of three individuals who become outsiders living in completely alternative worlds. The novel was published in German this year.

Ondaatje has also been successful as both a director and a playwright. He made a film – »Sons of Captain Poetry« (1970) – about the Canadian sound poet bp Nichol (1944-1988), who, according to Ondaatje, significantly influenced contemporary poetry. »The Clinton Special: A Film about the Farm Show« (1974), meanwhile, chronicles a gathering in the countryside where a few actors partner up to write a realistic play. In 2002 Ondaatje’s book on the sound editor Walter Murch was published, »The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film«.

Among his distinctions are the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, which Ondaatje has won three times, the Trillium Award, the Nelly Sachs Prize and the Prix Médicis. In 1988 he was named Officer of the Order of Canada, and two years later an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Ondaatje has also gained prominence as the author of various essays and as editor of several anthologies. He is co-editor of the journal »Brick« and lives in Toronto.