Philip Michael Ondaatje (on-DAHT-chee) was born in what is now Sri Lanka on September 12, 1943, the son of Philip Mervyn Ondaatje and Enid Gratiaen Ondaatje. His paternal grandparents had a successful tea plantation, and Ondaatje’s memories of his early life there with his large extended family and with his unconventional parents are reflected in his autobiographical work Running in the Family (1982). There he records the power that the beauty of Sri Lanka held over him. He evokes his grandparents’ lives in the tight-knit community of Europeans and describes his father’s losing battle with alcoholism, conveying both the comedy and tragedy of that battle.
Ondaatje’s parents separated when he was five. In 1952, his mother brought Ondaatje and his brother and sister to London, where he continued his early education at Dulwich College. Ondaatje, however, was unwilling to prepare for the O-level mathematics exam required by the English educational system. He was interested only in studying English, and at the age of nineteen he immigrated to Canada, where he joined his brother Christopher in Montreal.
Ondaatje entered Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, and majored in English and history. During that time, he began to read twentieth century poetry. He also met contemporary Canadian poets. These influences, combined with the enthusiasm fostered by one of his teachers, led Ondaatje to begin writing.
Ondaatje completed his B.A. at the University of Toronto, where his poetry attracted the attention of established writers. His work was included in an anthology of young writers, and he won the university’s Epstein Prize for poetry. The connections he made in Toronto led to the publication of his first book of poetry, The Dainty Monsters (1967). Ondaatje went on to complete an M.A. at...
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