In conversation with Michael Ondaatje

The Sri Lankan-born Booker Prize-winning author of The English Patient talks to Flora Stubbs about the journeys that have defined his life and the transporting power of a beedi.

Several of your books focus on travel and displacement. Why do you think that is?
I’m a nomad: I grew up in Sri Lanka, moved to England aged 11, and moved from there to Canada when I was 18. In my books, I’ve always been interested in people who find themselves in a new place. In The English Patient, the Second World War has sent people who grew up in Ontario over to Italy, where they find themselves surrounded by Renaissance art. That juxtaposition of people and different cultures has always interested me.

Your latest novel, The Cat’s Table, is about a boy who travels from Sri Lanka to the UK on an ocean liner. It’s a journey you also made, alone, aged 11. Is it fair to say the book is autobiographical?
I did take that journey, but I don’t remember it at all—I played ping pong, and that’s about all I remember really. I was alone, I was going to meet my mother at the other end, and I was put in the charge of someone in First Class who in fact I never saw. Everything else I blacked out, so I had to invent it all when I came to write the book.

That must have been unnerving, not knowing what to expect at the other end.
There was enormous worry and excitement and concern about landing in a country I didn’t know at all. As an adult there is always some uncertainty involved in travel, but at the same time if I’m going to Turkey I have an idea in my head of what to expect. A child doesn’t expect anything.

The ship in The Cat’s Table becomes a world in itself, with its own community and dramas. Is that kind of travel experience possible today?
I don’t think it is, because we’re so cosseted and self-centred now, and with email and the Internet we are in constant touch with the rest of the world. The idea of the explorer in today’s world is a bit of a joke. Exploration is not about finding a new place, it’s about finding a new aspect of yourself.

In The English Patient, you look at how displacement allows people to reinvent themselves. Have you experienced that?
I think the opportunity for reinvention is one of the great things about travel. I arrived in Canada when I was 18, which is when you put away childish things and become another person. It was then that I discovered writing. I don’t think I would have been a writer if I hadn’t moved there.

Have you spent time in India?
India was my gateway back to Sri Lanka. I was invited to a festival in New Delhi in my 30s, and it was only then that I realised how much I missed the landscape of my childhood. The first time I saw someone smoking a beedi, it was a Proustian moment! I immediately started making plans to go back to Sri Lanka.

In Running in the Family, you document the trip you took to Sri Lanka to find out more about your family. What were your first impressions?
What struck me the most were the smells, the street smells. When you leave, you get on a plane or a ship and they are suddenly eliminated, as if your nose just stopped working.

How did the island compare to your childhood memories?
There was a huge gap between memory and reality. I went back to S Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia, where I went to school. It had seemed like a palace to me at the time; in fact it was a bit of a dump. The boarding house looked like something from Charles Dickens.

What is the most unmissable sight in Sri Lanka?
In my book Anil’s Ghost, I write about the forest monasteries. They are amazing places. The one at Arankele is my favourite. 

Do you have any interesting trips planned?
I’m taking a trip through Rajasthan with an archaeologist friend. He loves slightly offbeat places, so instead of the TajMahal he’ll probably insist on taking me to a button-factory in the middle of the desert. I’m sure it will be fantastic. 

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