Last Tuesday, Sept. 19 in Jewett Auditorium, esteemed novelist and poet Michael Ondaatje visited campus as a guest of the Suzy Newhouse Center for Humanities to discuss the craft of writing and read excerpts from his work. Born in Sri Lanka, Ondaatje moved to England as a young child before immigrating to Canada in his late teens, where he received his Bachelor and Master’s degree in Arts. Ondaatje is perhaps best known for his Booker Prize-winning novel “The English Patient,” which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Ralph Fiennes in 1996.
Ondaatje was introduced by Wellesley College Provost Andy Shennan, who outlined the evening’s format: Ondaatje would begin with a reading, then engage in a conversation with Anjali Prabhu, director of the Suzy Newhouse Center and professor of French and Francophone studies here at Wellesley, before finally answering some audience questions.
Ondaatje first read an excerpt from his fifth novel “Divisadero,” the story that follows each of the character’s different journeys after an event divides the family. Ondaatje chose to read a passage from the section entitled “The Person Formerly Known as Anna.” Anna, one of the daughters within the family, travels to France to shadow the life of a man she’s researching. While the entire novel deals with the division of a family, this specific passage focuses on Anna’s rediscovery in a foreign place, journeying at night with a friend, Branka. Anna felt they were alone in the world, allowed to be wordless at last.The two reminisced over childhood memories that turned their isolating setting into comforting life experiences, living permanently in the recurrence of their own stories. Anna’s journey felt liberating and distressing in the same breath as I felt compelled to applaud her self discovery but also focus on her crippling anxiety about drifting away into nothingness.
After this excerpt, Ondaatje sat down with Professor Prabhu for a round of questions, focusing on his character development and the correlation between Ondaatje’s characters, such as Anna, and his own life. Ondaatje ultimately shifted the conversation towards the fictitious aspects of the novel, saying it is constricting to create characters based off of real people or historical events because history is limited in what it tells us.
When asked if he felt as if he were an immigrant of the world due to his transcontinental childhood, Ondaatje explained the he does not feel alienated due to his different upbringings. Instead, he is grateful for his unique background because he was able to rediscover places like Sri Lanka through his stories.
As a novelist, Ondaatje described a joy in creating fictitious storylines, saying that the goal of any good novelist is to capture the panache of the story, not the truth. As a novelist, facts are not always a large concern for Ondaatje. According to him, in order to create an amazing novel, the characters need to be completely free from the constraints of truth. He also noted that he usually has no conception of characters before he starts writing. That way, he asserts, he is able to gradually discover the characters to find their voice and go anywhere with it. He said he shies away from repetitive usage of characters, claiming that once a reader has become too familiar with a character, it leaves little potential for surprise. In the conception and creation of his work, creating characters outside the realm of fact allows for an interesting conversation surrounding the role that truth plays in a novelist’s writing process. In this discussion, Ondaatje opened up an interesting approach to fiction writing, one that constructs figures not confined to fitting a particular image based off truth, but instead emerge through the gradual discovery of their character traits within his novels.
Ondaatje concluded the evening by taking a handful of audience questions and reading a few of his poems. Finally, Ondaatje was asked about his personal favorite piece of writing, to which he responded, light-heartedly, that the critically acclaimed poem “The Cinnamon Peeler” was his favorite – it was what he had prepared to read at the evening’s end.