Michael Ondaatje - World Literature

World Literature

Michael Ondaatje


BORN: 1943, Colombo, Ceylon

NATIONALITY: Canadian, Sri Lankan

GENRE: Fiction, plays, poetry, nonfiction


The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems (1970)

Coming through Slaughter (1976)

In the Skin of a Lion (1987)

The English Patient (1992)

Anil’s Ghost (2000)



Michael Ondaatje Mauricio Lima / AFP / Getty Images



Best known for his novel The English Patient (1992), Michael Ondaatje has made several contributions to literature and film. He started his writing career as a poet in the 1960s, later attracting widespread critical acclaim by blending verse, fact, and fiction to create unique works. Besides impacting existing literary genres with everything from narrative mixing to fictional documentary, Ondaatje has contributed editing, critical analysis, and the first book-length study of renowned poet and balladeer Leonard Cohen to his list of credentials. He continues to influence drama and film with adaptations of his poetry and prose.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

From Ceylon to London to Montreal. Born Philip Michael Ondaatje on September 12, 1943, in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the writer began life in a class and environment that would thereafter influence his literary subjects and themes. His father, Mervyn Ondaatje, was superintendent of a tea and rubber plantation owned by Michael’s wealthy grandfather, while his mother, Enid Doris Gratiaen, was a part-time performer, doing radical dance as influenced by renowned choreographer Isadora Duncan. Despite appearances, Ondaatje’s childhood was less than idyllic. His father drank to excess, and before he was ten his parents’ marriage had ended. As a result, Ondaatje went to London with his mother in the early 1950s, and eventually studied at Dulwich College. Finding the English educational system constricting, Ondaatje left to join his brother, already living in Montreal, Quebec, and enrolled in Bishop’s University in the early 1960s.

Early Work. He began writing poetry at Bishop’s and continued his writing plans at the University of Toronto. In 1967 he earned an MA at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and was hired as an instructor at the University of Western Ontario in London. Ondaatje’s first book, the poetry collection The Dainty Monsters, was published that same year.

New Family Life and Subjects. As Ondaatje began his chosen occupation, he reached for the readings that would inspire him, including the works of poets Robert Browning, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and the younger Modern poets. He came in contact with writers and poets who would influence his writing, such as poet and critic D. G. Jones. He sought out stimulating environments, such as a job on a road gang. This experience lent inspiration for The Dainty Monsters. His marriage to Kim Jones in 1964—which brought with it Jones’s four children from a previous marriage and soon two more children of their own—made for subjects and themes that continued through his next titles, such as Rat Jelly (1973). Later, the pain of divorce from Jones found expression in Secular Love (1984).

Making Myths and Movies. In the 1970s, Ondaatje began combining his poetry with other genres and media forms. This artistic blending would become his trademark. The 1970 The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems, for instance, became material for radio and stage readings. After adding songs and reforming the work, the 1974 The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, became a play performed first by the Toronto Free Theatre and later at the Brooklyn Academy in New York. It has since been performed in various countries. Sons of Captain Poetry (1970) traces the career of the poet bp Nichol (Barrie Phillip Nichol), with whom Ondaatje shared the 1970 Governor General’s Award. Carry on Crime and Punishment (1972) featured his family and friends as the cast.

Making Continued Impressions. Ondaatje collected numerous awards throughout the 1970s. His 1979 collection of poetry There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do won the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1980. He followed this success with the publication of one of his most important works, Running in the Family. The publication of Ondaatje’s 1987 In the Skin of a Lion, though, gave the writer his first taste of international acclaim. The hybrid novel is about a young man coming of age in Toronto during the 1920s and 1930s. Building upon the facts of a real-life incident from that time—the mysterious disappearance of a well-known millionaire—the novel is as much about the search for the missing tycoon, the hero’s involvement in the potentially lucrative quest, and his ensuing mix-up in the radical politics of the era as it is about Toronto’s immigrant communities and their role in building the city.

Ondaatje became a household name with the 1996 film adaptation of his 1992 novel The English Patient. Set in a Tuscan villa at the end of World War II, the story begins with a Canadian nurse, Hana, who readers learn is the daughter of the protagonist of In the Skin of the Lion and who is left almost alone in a bombed-out former convent. She has stayed behind at the former military hospital with a badly burned patient who has been brought there to pass his remaining days. Hana reads to the nameless man, gives him morphine, and ministers to his charred skin as she listens to his story. The screen version, adapted by director Anthony Minghella, won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1996. The novel version was awarded Britain’s top literary honor, the Booker Prize, in 1992.

Ondaatje continues to teach contemporary literature in translation and creative writing at Glendon College as professor of Canadian and American literatures. Still a Coach House editor and coeditor of Brick: A Literary Journal, he continues to win awards, including another Governor General’s Award for his 2006 novel Divisadero.



Ondaatje's famous contemporaries include:

Margaret Atwood (1939-): Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, feminist, and activist who is one of the most highly esteemed writers of Canada and of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Leonard Cohen (1934-): Canadian singer-songwriter, poet, and novelist. Cohen's songs and poetry have influenced many other writers and more than a thousand renditions of his work have been recorded.

Ken Kesey (1935-2001): American author best known for his debut novel One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). Kesey is credited as being a counterculture figure who linked the Beat generation of the 1950s with the hippies of the 1960s.

Gloria Steinem (1934-): Leading American feminist, journalist, and women's rights advocate and activist who founded Ms. magazine in 1972.


Works in Literary Context

One of Ondaatje’s earliest influences was poet and musician Leonard Cohen. He was later influenced by a wide variety of authors, including Italo Calvino, Willa Cather, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He also credits Diego Rivera, Henri Rousseau, Sri Lankan temple sculpture, and jazz music as major influences. Finally, Ondaatje has said that his family, ‘‘everyone yakking and inventing stories and gossiping,’’ was a ‘‘big thing’’ for him and a ‘‘literary influence in some odd way.’’

Blending Genres. Ondaatje’s work defies categorization into individual genres. His writing tends to blend the oral, visual, historical, narrative, and the poetic. For example, his 1976 novel, Coming through Slaughter, about New Orleans cornetist Buddy Bolden, contains few available facts about Bolden as well as altered dates, people brought together who never met, and polished facts ‘‘to suit the truth of fiction.’’ Coming through Slaughter also strays from chronological order and varies from historical documentation to narrative to interior monologue.

Blending Themes. In a style characterized by wry humor, flamboyant imagery, extravagant metaphors, and sudden shifts in tone, Ondaatje’s writing is based on themes of family and social issues. In his poetry, observed critic Sam Solecki, ‘‘the fundamental or essential nature of experience is consistently being described and examined.’’ Likewise, in his prose, he takes on the personal task of exploring family dynamics and of giving expression to social issues he finds important, such as those he discussed in a 1987 Quill and Quire interview with Barbara Turner: the ‘‘gulf between rich and poor, the conditions of the labour force, racism ... in Canada.’’


Works in Critical Context

Ondaatje’s body of work has received consistently high critical praise. Running in the Family (1982) was appreciated for its re-creation of a particular society and for its stylistic exploration of the relationship between history and the poetic imagination. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, widely considered Ondaatje’s most celebrated work, was praised and challenged by critics and readers for dealing with an American folk hero and outlaw. Most of his other writing continues to be revered for its ‘‘jungle-lush’’ aesthetic, as Douglas Barbour once noted, and its ‘‘rhythmic control over his language.’’

While several of his works have earned prestigious honors, others stand out as most often read, studied, and discussed—among them Anil’s Ghost and The English Patient.

The English Patient (1992). The movie The English Patient, released in 1996 and based on the 1992 novel of the same name, won nine Academy Awards and more than forty other awards. The novel also received wide critical praise, especially for its dynamic interrelationships, dialogues, and imagery. Writer and critic Richard Ford, for example, quoted on the book’s dust jacket, called it ‘‘an exotic, consuming and richly inspired novel of passion ... [which] in its elegance and its satisfactions ...resembles no book I know.’’

Anil’s Ghost (2000). Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost involves the war in Sri Lanka, his native land. Focusing on themes of human and civil rights, the book won the International Fiction Prize from the Irish Times, and wide critical acclaim. The New York Times review read, ‘‘Gorgeously exotic.... As he did in The English Patient, Mr. Ondaatje is able to commingle anguish and seductiveness in fierce, unexpected ways.’’



Ondaatje's work frequently focuses on themes of racism, class division, and labor force conflict. Here are a few works by writers who also explore such issues:

The Handmaid's Tale (1985), a novel by Margaret Atwood. In this dystopian novel, Canadian author Atwood speculates on a horrifying future of gender division and reproductive control under a religious totalitarian regime.

''Harrison Bergeron'' (1961), a short story by Kurt Vonnegut. In this science fiction tale, Vonnegut presents a representative family of the future: one who reflects the perfection of society and who carries the burdens of the scapegoated lesser class.

Catfish and Mandala (2000), a novel by Andrew X. Pham. In this autobiographical work of fiction, Pham investigates identity and the duality of the immigrant, the displacement of being a hyphenated human—both American and Vietnamese, yet neither at the same time.

Fences (1985), a play by August Wilson. In this play, Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson examines not only the black experience in the 1950s but race and labor issues in context.

Native Son (1940), a novel by Richard Wright. In this award-winning novel, Wright probes the personal and public themes of racism and explores the consequences of socialization between rich and poor and black and white.


Responses to Literature

1. Read The English Patient.; then consider how maps and mapmaking (cartography) represent significant moments in the memories of the characters. Identify five or six locations recalled by either Hana or the unnamed English patient and decide what each particular location suggests, represents, or means to you. Then, make a map including each of those events you came up with, creating the image/imagery you interpret as significant in each location. Be prepared to offer rationales for your choices.

2. How is the theme of nationality and nationhood expressed in the novel? Does Ondaatje think that nationality and ethnicity can be transcended? Why or why not?

3. What role does the desert play in the novel? How does the setting affect or impact or otherwise inform the themes of the story?




Barbour, Douglas. Michael Ondaatje. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Jewinski, Ed. Michael Ondaatje: Express Yourself Beautifully. Toronto: ECW, 1994.

Solecki, Sam, ed. Spider Blues: Essays on Michael Ondaatje. Montreal: Vehicule, 1985.

Totosy de Zepetnek, Steven. Cultural Studies and Michael Ondaatje’s Writing. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2005.


Hutcheon, Linda. ‘‘The Empire Writes Back.’’ Nation, January 4, 1993, 22.

Lythgoe, Dennis. ‘‘Divisadero: Two Tales in One.’’ Salt Lake City Deseret News, June 17, 2007.

Ryan, Nick. ‘‘The Other Ondaatje.’’ Salon.com, May 26, 2000.

Web Sites

Friedman, Thomas B. Michael Ondaatje Information. Retrieved January 31, 2008, from http://www.tru.ca/faculty/tfriedman/ondaatje.htm.

Scallerup, Lee. ‘‘Michael Ondaatje’’ Centre for Language and Literature: Canadian Writers. Retrieved January 31, 2008, from http://www.athabascau.ca/writers/ondaatje.html.