(Phillip) Michael Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon), on September 12, 1943. Ondaatje grew up surrounded by his extended family on an estate in Kegalle owned by his paternal grandfather, a wealthy tea planter. In 1952, four years after his parents’ divorce, Ondaatje moved to England with his mother, sister, and brother to attend Dulwich College, a public school with a strong academic program and a long literary tradition.
At the age of nineteen, Ondaatje followed his brother, Christopher, to Montreal, Canada, then moved to Lennoxville in eastern Quebec, where he attended Bishop’s University, majoring in English and history; it was there that he first began to write. In 1964, Ondaatje married the artist Kim Jones, with whom he has two children, and transferred from Bishop’s University to the University of Toronto, where he earned his B.A. in 1965. That same year he was awarded the Ralph Gustafson Poetry Award, the first of many awards recognizing his work. In 1967, Ondaatje received an M.A. from Queen’s University, published his first collection of poetry, The Dainty Monsters, and began teaching English at the University of Western Ontario.
In 1969, Ondaatje’s second volume of poetry, The Man with Seven Toes, was published, followed a year later by the short critical work Leonard Cohen and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. During this time, he also became an editor at Coach House Press, the publisher of much of his early work, and directed a small film, Sons of Captain Poetry. In 1971, after declining to pursue a Ph.D., Ondaatje left the University of Western Toronto for Glendon College, York University, where he began his long teaching career.
From 1971 to 1981, Ondaatje published Rat Jelly (1973), Coming Through Slaughter (1976), There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do (1979), and Elimination Dance (1978; rev. ed., 1980). During this period he received several awards, including two Governor-General’s Awards, the Canada-Australia Literary Prize, and the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and he was selected as a Chalmer’s Award finalist. After several years of strain, he separated from his wife in 1980 and spent 1981 as a visiting professor at the University of Hawaii. He then returned to Glendon College to become a full professor of English and published the semiautobiographical novel Running in the Family (1982), based on his experiences in Sri Lanka.
In 1984, Ondaatje published Secular Love, an exploration of the sadness of divorce and the excitement of new love. In the Skin of a Lion, which followed in 1987, won the City of Toronto Book Award and the Trillium Book Award, and it was a finalist for the Ritz Paris Hemingway Award. Ondaatje then received the prestigious Order of Canada in 1988. The Cinnamon Peeler: Selected Poems was first published in 1989. In 1990, Ondaatje edited From Ink Lake: Canadian Stories, a collection of short fiction praised for both its content and its organization, and taught at Brown University as a visiting professor.
Ondaatje’s best-known work, The English Patient, for which he received the Booker Prize, the British Book Trust, and a third Governor-General’s Award, was published in 1992, and it was in this work that he developed the postcolonial themes with which he is identified. It was adapted as a motion picture in 1996. Anil’s Ghost, published in 2000, earned him the Giller Prize and the Prix Medicis, and was short-listed for the Irish Times Literature Prize.
Generous in his support of young Canadian writers, Ondaatje is also an accomplished scholar who has authored several critical volumes and numerous articles, edited several collections and anthologies, and directed five films.
As a postcolonial author, Michael Ondaatje has risked being misunderstood by compatriots as well as those from other former colonies who have accused him of a preoccupation with technique and aesthetics at the expense of involvement in politics. What is certain,...
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