i saw michael ondaatje on tavis smiley last night. although i obviously know him from the english patient and anil’s ghost, i have never read his books and didn’t know much about him as an author. i found him fascinating and identified strongly with both his life and his artistic aesthetic. his life is a cultural melange encompassing 3 continents. he was born in sri lanka. his ancestors were originally from india but his genetic make-up is dutch-tamil-sinhalese-portuguese – he calls himself a mongrel. he went to school in england and finally moved to canada in 1962.
his artistry is predicated on ditching the conventional form and using a non-linear, multi-media collage technique in his writing. in the words of anthony chandler: “one of the most remarkable aspects of ondaatje’s work is the fashion in which he juxtaposes and blends the media of poetry, prose, and photography, making reading an almost multi-media function while remaining on the printed page. like film montage, ondaatje’s fiction often walks the line between narrative and imagery, leaving the reader puzzled with what she has just experienced. but ondaatje’s work is more precise than montage, and his mixing of media shows an acute awareness of form and function while still calling both into question: if narrative prose is selected to carry the story, and poetry is chosen to convey emotion, his use of photographic images often shows us that we may be wrong about everything; that we need to dig deeper in holes already dug.”
because of his multi-ethnic, multi-cultural life experience, he talked about having “double vision” – being able to see different points of view at the same time. i can relate to that. i can simultaneously feel like an insider and an outsider in many cultures. i know what it is to have doubts, to never be quite sure, quite comfortable in any milieu. there are no absolutes, just an endless, ying-yang tug of war between the many sides of every issue.
ondaatje’s latest book is divisadero.