Michael Ondaatje: A Literary Friend from Across the Globe
Over the second half of 2020, our IB HL Literature class read and studied Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, a memoir of his family’s life and culture in Sri Lanka. After growing up far from his relatives, Mr. Ondaatje returned to Sri Lanka to delve into his childhood memories and the lives of his family. Our class thoroughly enjoyed studying the memoir. Our teacher—Mr. Grant Venables—even reached out to Mr. Ondaatje, asking him to answer some of our questions, and received a reply. Our class was beyond excited!
The author of Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje, is a poet and novelist, born on September 12, 1943, in Sri Lanka. He lived in England and Sri Lanka in his youth, but eventually moved to Ontario, Canada—where he currently resides—in 1962, to study at the University of Toronto and Queen’s University. Mr. Ondaatje wrote his first novel, Coming Through Slaughter, (1976), which was followed by his other well-known novels and forms of literature. The English Patient (1992) was the joint winner of the Booker Prize for Fiction and the subsequent film adaptation of the novel was Academy Award-winning. Along with these, he has come to receive numerous prestigious awards: the Epstein Award, the President’s Medal, Canada’s “Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction” (four times), the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, Canada’s Giller Prize, Caribbean and Canada Region’s Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best Book, and was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2007.
Our class, eager to ask Mr. Ondaatje about Running in the Family, began drafting questions—ensuring they were unique (questions Mr. Ondaatje had not already been bombarded with) and intelligent. We finally composed three questions that we agreed represented the curiosity and ability of the class:
“If you don’t plan your stories before you write them, how do you maintain consistent pacing so that you keep plot points and ideas organized?”
We learned as we studied Mr. Ondaatje’s memoir that he does not structure his pieces beforehand, but that to him, “writing is always the discovery of a story or a plot of characters. The idea for the book comes during the writing, not before.” He illustrated this fact by explaining how his editing process includes “at least ten drafts of a book” where he will keep “removing the furniture, add things, take other things away, tighten a scene, or adding another tone that [he finds] later on that the scene needs.” As we discovered Mr. Ondaatje’s writing process, we also realized the importance of editing. As he said, “Editing is a joy and is what saves a book.”
“How did you decide what aspects of your family history to leave out of the book? Did you have some sort of criteria?”
Many intriguing personal stories were recounted throughout the memoir, leaving us wondering: was the whole book factual, or was some of it fiction? In response, Mr. Ondaatje discussed how he believed his relatives didn’t think he “was a real writer, they had known [him] last at the age of eleven, and so they spoke more honestly” about their anecdotes. With the very nature of the compilation of past stories, he expresses that “the form of the book, therefore, felt like overheard rumours, things left out that [he] had to fill in. And the minute you gather stories together you start to see links, some of them fictional that were not there before.”
“What is the thought process behind including a romanticized and subjective version of Lalla’s death from her point of view?”
Lalla is Mr. Ondaatje’s grandmother. She is a very prominent character in Running in the Family, who he described as rather “extreme.” Lalla is full of life, and Mr. Ondaatje explores many aspects of her character—even after admitting he “knew her only slightly.” He describes a moment where he was able to achieve a glimpse into her nature after meeting an actress and friend of Lalla’s in Sri Lanka. Mr. Ondaatje says she “took me aside at a party and said ‘This is how your grandmother talked!’” After such a simple reenactment, his knowledge of his own grandmother was expanded, enabling him to apply this to the writing of her death. He also committed that “you need to listen to voices a lot when you write. Writers are listeners as much as writers.” Wise words indeed, as the memoir would not have been filled with such complex characters without this insight!
After receiving these prompt and thoughtful responses to our questions, our class was thrilled. It’s not every day that an author as busy and decorated as Mr. Ondaatje takes the time to respond to students’ questions—and not as deeply as he did! And because everything comes with a price, the cost of these questions was a Zoom screenshot of our HL Literature class with our copies of his memoir. We are incredibly grateful for this experience. Not only were we able to gain better insight into the writing process of an award-winning author, but his intelligent answers could be applied to deepen our own processes as enthusiastic literature students. We all seriously recommend a read of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family.
Evelynn S.and Gabriella W.
(peer editing by the entire IB HL 11 Class, Period 5)
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Michael Ondaatje.” Encyclopædia Britannica,
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Sept. 2020,