Report by Engram Wilkinson:
In her introduction of Michael Ondaatje Professor Molly Travis said of his work, “his are haunting and haunted characters.” Her introductory remarks summarized the whole of Ondaatje’s work and his October 25th reading beautifully. With Dixon Hall filled by students, professors and members of the community, Michael Ondaatje took the stage as Tulane’s most recent participant in the Great Writers series.
Ondaatje began by reading two poems, “The Cinnamon Peeler” and “The Great Tree.” One line from “The Great Tree,” a poem about 14th century Chinese artists, spoke of “no flamboyant movement.” There exists no better description of Michael Ondaatje as a public speaker: there was nothing flamboyant as he read line by line, his voice powerfully unassuming and quiet, never once rising to loud theatrics.
When finished with “The Great Tree,” Ondaatje read an excerpt from Anil’s Ghost, his Giller Prize-winning fourth novel. His passage focused on the character Gamini, a doctor performing surgery on a small child whose heart “was the size of a guava.”
A reading from Ondaatje’s most recent novel and Governor General’s Award recipient Divisadero concluded the evening’s reading. Ondaatje read three passages from the novel, each about the adolescence lives of three different characters. “It’s my way of giving this reading an odd structure,” he said facing the audience. The first passage dealt with Anna, a girl living in California who, in a field at night, “counted the seconds between meteor showers.” The second character, Raphael, was caught on a runaway horse during a storm as an eleven-year-old boy. The final character presented from Divisadero was Lucien the poet, who observed his stepfather the clockmaker and concluded—in contrast to a clockmaker and his rolled-up sleeves—“the skill of a writer offers little to a viewer.” The large audience in Dixon Hall clearly refuted Lucien’s claim as all sat ensnared by the imaginary worlds and characters of Ondaatje’s prose.
Ondaatje’s reading was followed by an interview with Professor Molly Travis and questions from the audience. When asked about film and film editing, Ondaatje called himself a “child of film” and said of the creative process: “editing is as important as creating…that the quiet act of writing is part learning.”
Michael Ondaatje is Tulane’s visiting Great Writer for the 2010-2011 academic year. He is the author of the novels Anil’s Ghost, The English Patient, Coming Through Slaughter, In the Skin of a Lion, and Divisadero. His works of poetry include The Cinnamon Peeler, Handwriting, There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do, and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. He edits the literary journal Brick with his wife Linda Spalding.