Michael Ondaatje was born on September 12, 1943 in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the son of Mervyn Ondaatje and Doris Gratiaen. Ondaatje was educated initially at St. Thomas' College in Colombo, Ceylon. After moving with his mother to England in 1954, he continued his education at Dulwich College in London. Between 1962-64, Ondaatje attended Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Quebec. He then went on to obtain his B.A. at the University of Toronto in 1965, and his M.A. at Queen's University, in Kingston, Ontario, in 1967. Ondaatje began his teaching career at the University of Western Ontario, London, between 1967-71. Today he is a member of the Department of English at Glendon College, York University in Toronto, Ontario, a position he has held since 1971.
Ondaatje currently resides in Toronto with his wife, novelist/editor Linda Spalding, where they edit Literary Magazine. During his career Ondaatje has received numerous awards and honours. He has been awarded the Ralph Gustafson Award (1965); the Epstein Award (1966); and the President's Medal from the University of Ontario in 1967. In addition, Ondaatje was the recipient of the Canadian Governor-General's Award for Literature in 1971 and again in 1980. Also in 1980 he was awarded the Canada-Australia prize and in 1992 he was presented with the Booker McConnell Prize for his novel The English Patient.
While the setting of The English Patient is far removed from the green lusciousness of the Sri Lankan landscape, Ondaatje's poetry as in The Cinnamon Peeler and his celebrated return to his home country in the novel Running in the Family convey his strong sense of love and longing for the "tropical paradise".
I want to begin by saying how I became of literature in Sri Lanka when I was child. It was a very specific moment on the boundary line of the cricket pitch at St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. I was an 8 year old, and I saw Father Yin pass by, and someone whispered, “his brother is a writer”
At the moment every other teacher at St. Thomas’ fell away into a mist, (except for Father Barnabus who continued to beat us daily for no reason at all). But Father Yin was now spoken of in hushed tones. His brother turned out to be Leslie Charteris, who wrote all the Saint thrillers. And so we read them all. This was the closest I ever got to a writer for 15 years.
But the adventures and thrills in the saint books took place in England. Just as most of the music and literature that was in our house at the time seemed to come from abroad. We danced to an imported culture. We saw films made in America. When I was researching Running in the Family about the generation of my parents and grandparents, I realized that there was hardly any written fiction. Or even journals or memories, written in English that was set in Sri Lanka. If we had stories we wanted to circulate we told them or heard them during dinner party conversation. Culture seemed stuck within the oral tradition
It was not until I met Ian Goonetileke in my thirties, who aimed me towards writers like Lakdasa Wickremesinghe and others, that I saw a true literary mirror of this place. This has also happened when I read Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, I recognized for the first time the voice of a country that was not English or American. I recognized a place that I had never seen represented in a book before. Rushdie had doubled that size of the English language by allowing in as Asian dialect. This was literature that existed alongside us, was not just a distant mirror.
I think, until that moment in publishing, people really did believe that significant literature would always come out of London or New York. It was the end of the supposedly pure Western canon. The empire had struck back. We now know that the Naipauls could write rings around the Amises. And further more they had a new story to tell. This is what the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda says:
There are rivers in our countries which have no names, trees which nobody knows, and birds which nobody has described… Our duty, then, as we understand it, is to express that is unheard of. Everything has been painted in Europe, everything has been sung in Europe.
Nothing is as exciting for us as to find our own place, or our own stories, in a book. When that happens the self is doubled, we are no longer invisible.
The Gratiaen Prize is an attempt, on the level, to share the wealth. I was lucky. But more important it has been set up to test and trust and celebrate our selves, to discuss and argue about the literature that grows up around us, to take it seriously, not to just see it as a jewel or a decoration.
Books are there to un-censor ourselves and if there are enough readers we can un-censor governments. And as we all live in this same landscape, with more that is similar than different, translations can be an open window on each others cultures.
While the Gratiaen Prize is supposedly an award for the best book, we must also realise one important thing – that in a serious culture there is no winner or “best writer”. The arts are not like political elections where the winner takes all. The arts are hopefully a true democracy. No one writer creates a literary culture. Several people, essayists and poets and novelists and critics and publishers and thereby readers, do.
A person writing today, whether he or she knows it or not is the result of people like Lakdasa Wickramasinghe and Sarathchandra and Ian Goonetileke and Dhamma Jagoda. Just as the art of Gabriel and Deraniyagala have formed our aesthetics. There is a constant link between the photographs of Lionel Wendt and new photographs on exhibit at Gallery 706. These wonderful self-portraits of art – which might be the gardens of Geoffrey Bawa, or the films of Lester James Pieris, or the dances of Chitrasena – influence us, not just as ‘art’ – something to be bought and hung on a wall, but as a way to live. Just as a storyteller or a crafts-person or a historian or an archaeologist make their subjects and organic part of society.
It is an ambitious wish to represent a culture fully and truthfully, and to be that vehicle of communication, between ourselves, as well as between who we really are and other countries. The great gift of our time in translation. Imagine our image of Russia or South America without their authors. So imagine the portrait of Sri Lanka abroad without its artists. If we don’t support and take these real artists seriously we are in danger of being known only by the clichés of a tourist board and by the nature of our politics.
We live in a time when books are set on fire – so here’s to the book, that small strange object that can be an alternate government. So here’s to the writer.