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Michael Ondaatje Biography

(1943– ), The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, Coming Through Slaughter, Running in the Family

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Canadian poet and fiction-writer, born in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) of Dutch ancestry, educated at Dulwich College, from 1954. He moved to Canada in 1962 and attended the University of Toronto and Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, before subsequently teaching at the University of Western Ontario and Glendon College in Toronto. His work is difficult to categorize since it frequently confounds conventional generic distinctions, but it none the less occupies an important place in recent Canadian post-modernist writing. Although his subject matter is mainly non-Canadian it is centrally concerned with the making of cultural mythologies and the problems inherent in writing about both personal and public pasts, issues which figure prominently in the work of many of his Canadian contemporaries, such as Robert Kroetsch, Margaret Laurence, and Rudy Wiebe. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970) is a discontinuous narrative, written in both verse and prose and with photographs interspersed, about the life of the legendary Western outlaw. Like much of Ondaatje's work, it questions notions of normality, at times suggesting that the psychotic Billy is no more crazed than his adversary, the ‘sane’ sheriff Pat Garrett. American mythologies are also central in Coming Through Slaughter (1979), a treatment of the pioneer New Orleans Jazz musician, Buddy Bolden. In Running in the Family (1982), another discontinuous narrative, which contains elements of both the travel journal and the family memoir, Ondaatje returns to his native Sri Lanka and, again mixing prose, verse, and photographs, offers a meditation on the subject of ‘historical relations’, both those of his own privileged and highly eccentric family and those of the country more generally. Less dependent on historical fact is In the Skin of a Lion (1987), which focuses on the lives of marginalized immigrant communities in Toronto and Southwestern Ontario from 1900 to 1940 through the perspective of its protagonist. The English Patient (1992; joint winner of the Booker Prize) is his most ambitious work. Returning to some of the characters of In the Skin of a Lion, the novel is set as the Second World War ends. Through the intertwined lives of four characters including a badly burned Englishman and a young idealistic Indian soldier, the novel examines the morality of war and politics, and the role of colonial subjects in the Allied victory. Ondaatje's other works include the poetry collections The Dainty Monsters (1967), The Man with Seven Toes (1969), Rat Jelly (1973), There's a Trick with a Knife I'm Learning to Do (1979), and The Cinnamon Peeler (1989).

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