Philip Michael Ondaatje, CC FRSL born 12 September 1943), is a Sri Lankan-born Canadian poet, novelist, editor and filmmaker. He is the recipient of multiple literary awards such as the Governor General’s Award, the Giller Prize, the Booker Prize, and the Prix Médicis étranger. Ondaatje is also an Officer of the Order of Canada, recognizing him as one of Canada’s most renowned living authors.
Ondaatje’s literary career began with his poetry in 1967, publishing the books The Dainty Monsters, and then in 1970 the critically acclaimed The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. However, he is more recently recognized for his nationally and internationally successful novel The English Patient(1992), which was adapted into a film in 1996.
In addition to his literary writing, Ondaatje has been an important force in “fostering new Canadian writing” with two decades commitment to Coach House Press (around 1970-90), and his editorial credits on Canadian literary projects like the journal Brick, and the Long Poem Anthology (1979), among others.
Early life and education
Ondaatje was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon, in 1943; and is of Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamilancestry. His parents separated when he was an infant; he then lived with relatives until 1954 when he joined his mother in England. While in England, Ondaatje pursued secondary education at Dulwich College; he then immigrated to Montreal, Quebec in 1962. After relocating to Canada, Ondaatje studied at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec for three years. In his final year he attended the University of Toronto where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1965. In 1967, he received a Master of Arts from Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.
While he was working on his undergraduate degree at Bishop’s University, Ondaatje’s met his future mentor, the poet D.G Jones, who praised his poetic ability.
After his formal schooling, Ondaatje began teaching English at the University of Western Ontario in London. In 1971, reluctant to get his Ph.D, he left his position at Western and went on to teach English literature at Glendon College, York University.
Since the 1960s, Ondaatje has been involved with Toronto’s Coach House Books, supporting the independent small press by working as a poetry editor. Ondaatje and his wife Linda Spalding, a novelist and academic, co-edit Brick, A Literary Journal, with Michael Redhill, Michael Helm, and Esta Spalding. In 1988, Ondaatje was made an Officer of the Order of Canada (OC) and two years later a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Ondaatje has served on the board of trustees of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry since 2000.
Ondaatje has two children with his former first wife, Canadian artist Kim Ondaatje. His brother Christopher Ondaatje is a philanthropist, businessman and author. Ondaatje’s nephew David Ondaatje is a film director and screenwriter, who made the 2009 film The Lodger.