Michael Ondaatje
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SAL Presents

Michael Ondaatje

Past Event: Monday, May 22, 2000

At Town Hall Seattle—The Great Hall

Michael Ondaatje is a literary phenomenon—he’s a gifted poet, a bestselling novelist and has also made it in Hollywood. His body of work defies conventional form, revealing a unique fusion of jazz rhythms, film montage technique, and profoundly beautiful language.

Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka). He left at age 11 to attend boarding school in England, and then moved to Canada in 1962 for college. After completing his master’s degree, he published his first collection of poetry, The Dainty Monsters (1967), and two additional volumes soon followed. “The big influence on me in my writing certainly is poetry,” Ondaatje remarked, and the form remains the cornerstone of all his work. His experimentation with poetic form in fiction began with his first novel, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970). In this book he presents the life of William Bonney through a collage of poetry, prose, photographs and interviews.

In 1992 Ondaatje became internationally renowned with the release of his extraordinary novel The English Patient. The book is the closest Ondaatje has come to conventional prose, yet shares much in common with his earlier, more experimental works with poetic prose. The Booker Prize-winning novel traces the intersection of four damaged lives in an Italian villa at the end of World War II. Their stories and their healing are the novel’s focus. This highly original work, which The Boston Sunday Globe described as “lyrical . . . dreamlike and enigmatic . . . A Farewell to Arms drenched in spooky ennui,” was later made into one of the decade’s most memorable films.

Many of Ondaatje’s works exhibit his trademark lyrical, haunting language, but they also explore themes and history associated with his homeland. His tenth volume of poetry, Handwriting (1999), a collection of beautifully crafted poems about love, politics, and landscape is set in Sri Lanka. In his novel, Anil’s Ghost (2000), the protagonist, Anil, is a self-exiled Sri Lankan who returns home after years away. A forensic anthropologist, she has been sent by an international human rights group to investigate the campaign of murders resulting from the Sri Lankan civil war. A compelling mystery, it is a story about love, family, identity, unknown enemies, and the past.

In addition to writing poetry and fiction, Ondaatje is the author of a critical book on the musician Leonard Cohen, and edits the literary journal Brick. He taught for many years at York University in Toronto. Ondaatje is also a film aficionado and has made several documentary films. He lives in Toronto.

Excerpt from Anil’s Ghost (2000)
Sarath sees her from the dining room window. He watches a person he has never seen. A girl insane, a druid in moonlight, a thief in oil. This is not the Anil he knows. Just as she, in this state, is invisible to herself, though it is the state she longs for. Not a moth in a man’s club. Not the carrier and weigher of bones—she needs that side of herself too, just as she likes herself as a lover. But now it is herself dancing to a furious love song that can drum out loss,‘Coming In from the Cold,’ dancing the rhetoric of a lover’s parting with all of herself. She thinks she is most sane about love when she chooses damning gestures against him, against herself, against them together, against eros the bittersweet, consumed and then spat out in the last stages of their love story. Her weeping comes easy. It is for her in this state no more than sweat, no more than a cut foot she earns during the dance, and she will not stop for any of these, just as she would not change herself for a lover’s howl or sweet grin, then or anymore.

She stops when she is exhausted and can hardly move. She will crouch and lean there, lie on the stone. A leaf will come down. Its click of applause. The music continues furious like blood moving for a few more minutes in a dead man. She lies under the sound and witnesses her brain coming back, lighting its candle in the dark. And breathes in and breathes out and breathes in and breathes out.

Selected Work
Anil’s Ghost (2000)
Handwriting, Poems (1998)
The English Patient (1992)
The Cinnamon Peeler, Poems (1989)
In the Skin of a Lion (1987)
Running in the Family, Memoir(1982)
Coming Through the Slaughter (1979)
There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do, Poems (1979)
The Collected Works of Billy The Kid (1974)

BOMB Magazine Interview with Ondaatje
Bio page on poets.org
The English Patient reading group guide

Event Details

Town Hall Seattle—The Great Hall

1119 8th Ave
Seattle, WA 98101

View directions.

Transportation & Parking

Town Hall Seattle is centrally located at 1119 8th Ave, on the corner of 8th and Seneca. Their venue is served by frequent bus routes, is near access to light rail stations, and close to a number of parking options nearby. Please see their website for more details.


Open Captioning is an option for people who have hearing losses, where a captioning screen displaying the words that are spoken or sung is placed on stage. To make a request for open captioning, please contact us at boxoffice@lectures.org or 206.621.2230×10. Please note: for in-person events at Town Hall Seattle, we appreciate a two-week advance notice to allow us time to secure captioning services. 

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Assistive Listening Devices (ALDs) are devices that people with hearing loss use in conjunction with their hearing device (hearing aids or cochlear implants). Town Hall Seattle has a hearing loop system, so you can switch your T-coil hearing aid to telecoil to have the stage’s microphones transmitted directly to your hearing aids. To pick up a headset, check in with any Town Hall usher when you arrive.

Sign Language Interpretation is available upon request for Deaf, DeafBlind, and hard of hearing individuals. To make a request for interpretation, please contact us at boxoffice@lectures.org or 206.621.2230×10, or select “Sign Language Interpretation” from the Accessibility section during your ticket checkout process and we will contact you to confirm details. Please note: we appreciate a two-week advance notice to allow us time to secure interpretation.

Wheelchair Accessible Seating and Accessible Restrooms are available in all sections at Town Hall Seattle, which is fully accessible to ticket holders with physical mobility concerns. Town Hall Seattle recommends that visitors use the 8th Avenue Entrance for events in the Great Hall, and elevators with Braille signage go to all levels within the Hall. The venue has all-gender, ADA-accessible restrooms on the lobby and Forum level. To reserve seating for a specific mobility concern, please contact us at boxoffice@lectures.org or 206.621.2230×10, or select “Wheelchair Accessible or Alternative Seating Options” during ticket checkout, and we will contact you to confirm details. For more details on accessibility features at Town Hall, click here.

Guide and service dogs are welcome.

All-gender restrooms are available.

We are pleased to offer these accessibility services at our venues, and they are provided at no additional cost to ticket holders. Please contact us with any questions and feedback about how we can be more accessible and inclusive. Our Patron Services Manager is available at boxoffice@lectures.org, or Tuesday-Friday, from 12 noon–5 p.m., at 206.621.2230×10.

For more accessibility information, please head to lectures.org/accessibility. If you would like to make accessibility arrangements you do not see listed here, please contact our box office or select “Other Accommodations” from the Accessibility section during your ticket checkout process, and we will contact you to confirm details.