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Athabasca University

Michael Ondaatje

Photo of Michael Ondaatje

Born in Sri Lanka in 1943, Michael Ondaatje immigrated with his mother, brother and sister to England in 1952. He followed his brother to Canada in 1962, and attended Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec. He received his B.A. from the University of Toronto in 1965, and his M.A. from Queen’s University in 1967. He has taught at a variety of institutions, including the University of Western Ontario, York University, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Brown University and the University of Toronto.

Michael Ondaatje is probably best known for his work The English Patient (1992) which was adapted to an Academy Award winning movie. He started with poetry in 1967 publishing Dainty Monsters. In the title, we already see how Ondaatje enjoys juxtaposing opposite images, and as a result explores these seemingly incongruent ideas, a trait that links almost all of his works. His serial poem the man with seven toes (1969) was inspired by paintings by an Australian artist, and a true story of a woman living among the Aborigines after a shipwreck. This interest in historical fragments and visual arts have become signatures of Ondaatje’s writing. Both the collection of poems The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) and his first novel Coming Through Slaughter (1976) were inspired inspired by pictures, historical fragments as well as oral legends, many of which are included in the final published works. Ondaatje calls In the Skin of a Lion (1987) his first novel, and it takes place in Toronto within the Macedonian immigrant community. Again, he relies heavily on historical documentation for inspiration, weaving it into a fictional story. Two characters from this novel turn up again in The English Patient, another story based on historical archives. In 1982, he published Running in the Family, a fictional biography of his childhood in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Instead of relying on archival history, Ondaatje instead uses the oral history of his family to try and reconstruct his father’s tumultuous past.

Ondaatje has also done short movies, plays and photography. He is also an editor, and has read, influenced and shaped numerous Canadian authors. He has won the Governor-General’s Award four times, as well as the Booker Prize, the Giller Prize and the Prix Medicis. He was named to the Order of Canada in 1988. (Lee Skallerup)

Updated February 12 2015 by Student & Academic Services

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