“We Live in an Age of Migration”: Interview with Michael Ondaatje
TAMPA, Florida, US, Aug 23, 2007. Inter Press Service, – Celebrated Canadian writer and poet Michael Ondaatje recently published “Divisadero”, his first novel in seven years.
“Divisadero,” like most of Ondaatje’s books, tells the stories of several characters in which wider events occur that affect them all, but none realise it at the time. The book is named after a street in San Francisco, California, where one of the characters lives.
Ondaatje, 66, was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to a family of Dutch, Portuguese, Sinhalese and Tamil descent. At age 11, he moved with his mother to England. When he was 19, he moved to Canada and three years later, in 1965, he became a Canadian citizen.
For the past 37 years, he has lived in Toronto, where for many years he taught English literature at York University.
Ondaatje’s unique style avoids the usual straightforward narrative method favoured by many U.S. reading audiences, using a historical framework of actual events and seemingly plopping his characters down into these settings. Like the late Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov, who is quoted in “Divisadero”, Ondaatje has in many ways reimagined the entire concept of fiction writing.
Although “Divisadero” is his 20th published book, he is most famous for his 1992 Booker Prize-winning tome “The English Patient.” That book was made into a film that was nominated for 12 Academy Awards in 1996, winning nine, including the Best Picture Oscar.
In “The English Patient”, Ondaatje created the most memorable doomed man-woman romantic relationship since the fictional Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles in Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair” (1951) — the mysterious Hungarian explorer Count Lazlo De Almasy and the enchanting Katherine Clifton.
Ondaatje spoke with IPS correspondent Mark Weisenmiller about the primary themes that recur in his writings, his book “Divisadero,” which is scheduled to be published in Britain in September, and other topics.
IPS: Three things that permeate your writing are human rights, identity and migration. Is this purposeful or does it come about unconsciously?
Michael Ondaatje: It’s pretty unconscious. When I sit down to write a book, I try to take in the environment of where the characters are, where they’re set. We do live in an age of migration. In Toronto, eight out of 10 people are here due to migration. So all of these things are something that takes place in our daily lives.
IPS: Another theme that can be detected in your work is the virtual erasing of national borders. Again, is this purposeful or done subconsciously during the writing and editing process?
MO: I think it’s more conscious. In something like “The English Patient,” this came about halfway in the writing of the book. When I’m writing a book, I like the characters to be immersed in their environment and let that affect them in different ways.
IPS: Before “Divisadero,” your last published novel was “Anil’s Ghost” in 2000. Why did seven years pass before the publication of the two novels? Is there anything going on in the world today that made you think 2007 would be a good time to publish a novel?
MO: Oh no, no, no. First I’m a pretty slow writer. I did the book with Walter Murch, the film editor, which was a series of conversations that I had with him. [Murch edited the “The English Patient,” among other movies. Ondaatje is referring to his 2002 book “The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film”]. I’m very much interested in how one prunes a book, or film, or dance, and gets some sort of final result. That book took two years. But really I’m simply a slow writer.
IPS: “Divisadero,” like “The English Patient” and other books of yours, has numerous characters taking divergent and parallel paths. One reviewer for the New Yorker commented about “Divisadero”: “He is trying to change the medium.” Is that true?
MO: No, not really. I really don’t have that kind of plan. I don’t have any kind of campaign. I love fiction and I love traditional fiction writing, but I don’t believe that every book has to be something written by Jane Austen out of the 19th century. I don’t believe that there’s just one way to write a novel.
IPS: Do you like simple, straightforward narrative books?
MO: (Laughing) I love them! I don’t find my books that complicated, but I know that there are people who do. A book I’m reading now is Nevil Shute’s “No Highway,” which is a traditional narrative book, and I love it.
IPS: Do you believe that your own personal unique multi-ethnicity is an asset in your work?
MO: Yeah, I think I’m lucky that way, with both an Asian and North American way of living and looking at the world. People don’t have a single way of looking at the world and I think that’s good. In “The English Patient,” the character of Caravaggio has a different opinion than the patient or the character of Kip.
IPS: Do you feel that your background gives you a deeper understanding of human rights issues?
MO: Anyone can be aware of that. What’s happening in Sri Lanka [where there has been an intermittent civil war since 1983 between the government and a separatist Tamil rebel group] is well known. You don’t have to be from there, or from Asia, to know what is going on over there. It’s not just human rights too. Anyone can have an awareness of not just political problems, but social problems, no matter where they live in the world.
IPS: Do you believe that your characters have a firm sense of their identity?
MO: I don’t think so. I don’t think that they think about it. I just don’t believe that people do that. So the characters in my books don’t do that either.
IPS: How does the migration of your characters within the stories fit into the overall scheme of your writing? Does the sense of home, and actually owning and having a house, play an important part in both your personal and professional life?
MO: I think that any writer, every writer wants a base where you’re at. You want both a firm sense of where you are, but also want a sense of adventure.
IPS: Every fall, before the announcement of the honorees of the Nobel Prize for Literature, you are mentioned by literary critics as a possible recipient, as well as your fellow Canadian writers Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Do you pay attention to all of this talk and second, being a Canadian citizen, would you feel just as proud if Atwood or Munro got the coveted award, rather than yourself?
MO: I know lots of writers who should be getting it (the Nobel Prize for Literature). Richard Ford, Alice Munro… there are plenty of writers out there who deserve it, but haven’t gotten it. But no, I don’t think about it.
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