Born in Sri Lanka, Michael Ondaatje is a Booker-Prize winning novelist and poet, describing himself as “‘a mongrel of place. Of race. Of cultures. Of many genres.’” He actually began his career in writing as poet, before transitioning into writing novels, although he “is known for work that dissolves the lines between prose and poetry, past and present, image and intellect, thought and feeling,” his narrative style borne of the oral tradition of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon, as it was still called in his childhood.
For Ondaatje a story is never fully told from only one perspective or one voice, nor does it exist in only one style or as one genre. Resultingly, “Ondaatje’s work combines the factual and the imaginary, poetry and prose,” and his novels often contain autobiographical elements interwoven with the fictional narrative. His most famous novel, the same one that earned him the Booker Prize is The English Patient, which was also adapted as the 1996 Academy-Award winning film of the same name.
Prior to the English Patient, however, Ondaatje made his first foray into film with a series of three documentary films in the 1970s. These included The Clinton Special: A Film about the Farm Show (1974) about a group of actors who went into an Ontario farming community to craft a play about what they learned; Sons of Captain Poetry (1970) about the Canadian poet bpNichol; Carry On Crime and Punishment (1970), a whimsical docu-drama about crooked poets trying to kidnap a dog. He is also the author of four collections of poetry, including The Cinnamon Peeler, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, written from the perspective of Billy of the Kid, and Handwriting.
Ondaatje is a five-time winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Award, having also received the Giller Prize and the Prix Médicis étranger. In 1988 Ondaatje was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and two years later became a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2005, the Sri Lankan government, in recognition of Ondaatje’s achievements, honored him with Sri Lanka Ratna, the highest honor bestowed upon foreign nationals by the Government of Sri Lanka. Now one of the world’s foremost writers, his artistry and aesthetic have influenced an entire generation of writers and readers.