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Friday, September 23, 2011

Publishers Weekly Talks To Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje in an Interview with Publishers Weekly

Don't miss Ondaatje's keynote at the Boston Book Festival on October 15th, 2011

Leaving Ceylon: PW Talks with Michael Ondaatje 

As British colonialism dies, a young author comes of age in The Cat’s Table.

Your writing returns again and again to your country of birth. What is it about Sri Lanka that ties you to it so strongly?
I was born there, I have family there, and I go back often. Four books—Running in the Family, Handwriting, Anil’s Ghost, now this one—are based or tethered to that island that essentially made me. I am also someone who was educated in England and North America, so those elements are there too.

So many writers leave, either voluntarily or not, their home countries. Is being an ex-patriate a necessary ingredient to write truthfully about one’s place of origin?
I don’t feel I can claim to be a representative of that country as I no longer live there full-time. But sometimes as a writer and as a partial citizen, there can be another perspective. It may not be the truth, though.

There’s a beautiful epigraph from Joseph Conrad at the beginning of The Cat’s Table. Which writers have shaped the writer you are today?
Conrad, in spite of everything some writers dislike about him, is an essential voice and example, the way Yeats is for poetry. I only read his Youth recently and it is a novella brimming with incident of an almost surreal kind, not too far away from another masterpiece—Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Marquez.

The meta aspect of the novel—a main character named “Michael,” who’s also Ceylonese, who also grows up to be a writer—adds another layer to the story. How does fictional Michael’s leaving of Ceylon differ from your own?
I must say that when the name “Michael” was used by me, I was myself shocked at the nerve or gall of doing this. But by doing so, it strangely insisted on me making the narrator more fictional. Now he had to be fictional. Had to be different from the real me. I did take such a trip as a boy of 11, but, strangely, barely remember or recall it. So essentially I approached the idea of such a trip fictionally—adding adventures and characters I had never met. Everyone in the book is fictional, including the boys and the cousin and the narrator. But I wanted to suggest a general “colouring” of memoir, making the narrator a writer and making him a boy from Sri Lanka in order to swivel on the possibilities of fiction and memoir, and so make it more intimate. But it is a fiction.

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