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The English Patient | Study Guide

Michael Ondaatje

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Michael Ondaatje | Biography


Early Life

Michael Ondaatje was born Philip Michael Ondaatje on September 12, 1943, in Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. His family owned a tea plantation and was part of high society. After his parents' divorce, Ondaatje followed his mother to England. She worked in hotels to send him to boarding school, where he felt alienated and lost. It was not until he immigrated to Canada in 1962 at age 19, and entered university to study English, that Ondaatje found a path forward. In his early 20s, Ondaatje married his first wife, Kim Jones, and the couple had two children. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto in 1965, and a master of arts degree from Queen's University in 1967.

Professor and Writer

In 1967 Ondaatje published his first book of poetry, titled The Dainty Monsters, in which the everyday and the mythical are interwoven—a technique that recurs throughout his body of work. He became a professor at Glendon College at York University in Toronto in 1971, where he has continued to teach. He has also taught at the University of Western Ontario. Although Ondaatje was initially known as a poet, he has also worked as a critic, editor, and filmmaker. However, it was Ondaatje's fiction that first made him famous. His first novel, Coming Through Slaughter, was published in 1976. Other novels include In the Skin of a Lion (1987), which shares two characters with The English Patient, and Anil's Ghost (2000), set in Sri Lanka. Ondaatje relays his own story in the mostly fictional voyage of a Sri Lankan boy to England in The Cat's Table (2011) and his autobiographical memoir Running in the Family (1982).

Writing and Reception of the Novel

The inspiration for Ondaatje's most well-known novel, The English Patient, came from the letters of UK Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) agent Elisabeth Denny who was stationed in Egypt in 1939 at the beginning of World War II (1939–45), as well as research at the Royal Geographic Society in London. The award-winning novel received the Booker Prize in 1992—making Ondaatje the first Canadian to receive the award—as well as the Canadian Governor's General Award and the Trillium Award. The English Patient was made into a 1996 film by director Anthony Minghella that won nine Academy Awards and three Golden Globes.

Continued Acclaim

Ondaatje has continued to teach and write poetry and fiction. Living in Toronto, he and his second wife and fellow writer, Linda Spalding, have worked as editors for the literary magazine The Brick. Ondaatje has become one of Canada's leading writers, and his award-winning novels, including The English Patient and Divisadero (2007), have been adapted to film and stage.

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