Michael Ondaatje | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Michael Ondaatje

Often based on the unorthodox lives of real people, Michael Ondaatje's poetry and prose is characterized by its preoccupation with multiculturalism and its gravitation toward the bizarre, the exaggerated, and the unlikely.
Michael Ondaatje at the Calabash Literary Festival, 26 May 2007

Michael Ondaatje, OC, poet, novelist, filmmaker, editor (born 12 September 1943 in Colombo, Sri Lanka). Michael Ondaatje's work combines the factual and the imaginary, poetry and prose. His longer narrative works, often based on the unorthodox lives of real people, may contain documentary as well as fictional elements. Ondaatje's imagery is characterized by its preoccupation with multiculturalism; its gravitation towards the bizarre, the exaggerated, and the unlikely; its fascination with the secret codes of violence in both personal and political life; and with its continued delving into the world of movies, jazz and friendship. His work is also notable for its cinematic qualities in its frequent use of montage techniques and its spare dramatic dialogue. A five time winner of the Governor General’s Award and an Officer of the Order of Canada, Michael Ondaatje, along with Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, is one of Canada’s most celebrated living authors.

Early Life and Poetry

Michael Ondaatje immigrated to Canada by way of England in 1962, and became a Canadian citizen in 1965. He attended the University of Toronto (BA) and Queen's University (MA). In 1971 Ondaatje began teaching at York University.

Ondaatje initially gained his literary reputation as a poet. His first books of poetry include The Dainty Monsters (1967), The Man with Seven Toes (1969), and Rat Jelly (1973). The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, an account of the factual and fictional life of the notorious outlaw, won the Governor General's Award for poetry in 1970 and has been adapted for stage and produced at Stratford, Toronto, and New York. There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do: Poems 1963-78 won a second Governor General's Award in 1979. Secular Love: Poems was published in 1984; Handwriting: Poems in 1998; and The Story, a collaboration with illustrator David Bolduc, in 2006. Ondaatje's selected poems, entitled The Cinnamon Peeler, appeared in 1989.

From Poetry to Novels

Ondaatje's fiction has contributed greatly to his national and international renown. The novel Coming Through Slaughter (1976) tells of real and imagined events in the life of New Orleans jazz cornet virtuoso Buddy Bolden. In the Skin of a Lion (1987), his next novel, takes place in Toronto in the 1930s, exploring the lives and politics of the immigrant workers who built many of the city's great edifices. In 2009, a plaque with a passage from In the Skin of a Lion was erected next to the Bloor Street Viaduct, in Toronto, by Project Bookmark Canada.

The English Patient (1992) is Ondaatje's most acclaimed novel to date. Set in Tuscany, Italy, at the end of the Second World War, the novel holds readers' attention by both the dramatic circumstances and astonishing pasts of the characters in this epic tale of the physical and emotional damage inflicted by war and love. In addition to winning another Governor General's Award for fiction in 1992, it earned Ondaatje a share of the prestigious Booker Prize, the first ever awarded to a Canadian. A 1996 film version of the novel won nine Academy Awards.

Michael Ondaatje's 2000 novel Anil's Ghost is set in his homeland, civil-war-ravaged Sri Lanka. The protagonist, a Sri Lankan-American forensic anthropologist, struggles to maintain her scientific objectivity against the influence of political pressure and her own emotional response to what she encounters there. Anil's Ghost won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General's Literary Award and France's prestigious Prix Médicis. In 2007 Ondaatje matched Hugh MacLennan's record by winning a fifth Governor General's Literary Award for Divisadero, a lyrical and painful family story set partly in 1970s northern California. Ondaatje's signature fragmented narrative travels back in time to the early 20th century to show a parallel family tragedy in rural France. In 2011, Divisadero was adapted to stage by director Daniel Brooks and premiered at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto. Starring Maggie Huculak and the singer Jason Rutledge, the adaptation focused on the part of the novel set in 1970s California.

Ondaatje's postmodern preoccupation with the permeability of boundaries and genres is particularly evident in his semi-autobiographical works. Running in the Family (1982) combines memoir, fiction and photography to depict the glamorous and unconventional life of Ondaatje's parents and grandparents in colonial Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Ondaatje again brushes with autobiography in the novel The Cat's Table (2011), in which 11-year-old protagonist Michael departs Ceylon for England in 1954. The novel, set during the three-week journey by ship, presents a vivid array of characters, tableaux and shipboard adventures while it muses on the transitions between childhood and adult life, memory and imagination, truth and storytelling.

Careers as Critic and Editor

In addition to his creative work, Ondaatje has a long and respected career as a critic and editor. His critical work on Leonard Cohen was published in 1970, and as editor of Mongrel Broadsides he published poems by James Reaney, Margaret Atwood and others. He has also edited The Broken Ark: A Book of Beasts (1971) and the short-fiction anthologies Personal Fictions: Stories by Munro, Wiebe, Thomas, and Blaise (1977) and From Ink Lake: An Anthology of Canadian Short Stories (1990). His poetry editorial work includes The Long Poem Anthology (1979) and the bpNichol collection An H in the Heart (1994). Ondaatje is an editor for the literary magazine Brick, and was a long-time editor for Coach House Press.


Michael Ondaatje's films include Sons of Captain Poetry (about poet bpNichol), Carry on Crime and Punishment, The Clinton Special (about Theatre Passe Muraille's Farm Show), and Royal Canadian Hounds. He considers the underappreciated art of film editing in The Conversation: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (2002).

In 2015, Ondaatje boycotted a Pen America Gala in honour of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Other prominent writers who refused to attend the event included Teju Cole, Francine Prose, Rachel Kushner, Peter Carey and Taiye Selasi.


Ralph Gustafson Award (1965)

Epstein Award (1966)

E. J. Pratt Medal (1966)

President's Medal (1967)

Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction (1971)

Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction (1980)

Officer of the Order of Canada (1988)

Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction (1992)

Booker Prize for Fiction (1992)

Prix Médicis (2000)

Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize (2000)

Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction (2000)

Giller Prize (2000)

Scotiabank Giller Prize (2007)

Man Booker International Prize (2007)

Commonwealth Writers Prize (Caribbean and Canada Region, Best Book) (2008)

St. Louis Literary Award from the Saint Louis University Library Associates (2016)

Selected Works of
Michael Ondaatje

Further Reading

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