Award-Winning Authors Ondaatje and Iyer Appear at Wellesley for the Wilson Lecture

May 1, 2015
Michael Ondaatje and Pico Iyer present the 2015 Wilson Lecture

“There is a story, always ahead of you. Barely existing. Only gradually do you attach yourself to it and feed it. You discover the carapace that will contain and test your character. You will find in this way the path of your life.” 
― Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table

Michael Ondaatje began his career writing poetry, and although he is still a poet, his lyric style has since found its way into the novels for which he is best known. This multiple award-winning author of several books of poetry, five novels, two plays, three works of nonfiction, and a memoir will present the 2015 Wilson Lecture—the spotlight lecture of the academic year, hosted by the Office of the President. This year’s lecture will also serve as the keynote address for the House and Home Conference presented by the Susan and Donald Newhouse Center for the Humanities.

Home and sense of place are themes that permeate Ondaatje’s novels, and his settings play key roles in the stories he narrates so beautifully. In fact, it is Ondaatje’s habit to immerse himself in the setting of his books as he writes. The English Patient, the Booker Prize-winning novel whose film adaptation won the Academy Award for Best Picture, is set in an abandoned Italian villa at the end of World War II, and tells the interwoven tales of four damaged lives. For inspiration, Ondaatje moved to a small house in the Italian countryside while writing the novel. He found a house in his native Sri Lanka for the writing of Anil’s Ghost, and he set up shop in both a friend’s home in the San Francisco Bay area and a residence in the French countryside for different portions of Divisadero. Ondaatje currently lives in Toronto—the backdrop for his novel In the Skin of a Lion.

An ocean liner en route from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England provides the setting for The Cat’s Table, the story of “a journey from childhood to the adult world, as well as a passage from the homeland to another country,” as described by Annie Proulx in The Guardian. While the story is not autobiographical, the protagonist’s voyage reflects that of Ondaatje, who traveled alone from Colombo at the age of 11 to meet his mother in London, where he lived before moving to Canada at 18.

Ondaatje has said of both himself and his work, “I am a mongrel of place. Of race. Of cultures. Of many genres.” (The Guardian).

His multicultural background is a trait he shares with fellow esteemed author Pico Iyer, who will be joining Ondaatje for the Wilson Lecture. After Ondaatje reads from his work, Iyer will join him to discuss topics such as their shared fascination with characters whose transient natures have made them tentative about where they belong.

Pico Iyer is an acclaimed travel writer and author of 12 books that explore the contrast between local tradition and pop culture. He has delved into topics as diverse as Cuba, globalism, Graham Greene, and the XIVth Dalai Lama. Recently, Iyer has shifted his focus to the idea of finding some sort of stillness in the frenetic movement of our modern world.  In 2013 and 2014, he delivered popular TED talks entitled “Where is Home?” and “The Art of Stillness,” respectively. He writes up to 100 articles annually for a variety of magazines including Vanity Fair and Wired. He has also written introductions for roughly 50 books, among them, Ondaatje’s The English Patient. The Wilson Lecture will mark Iyer's second visit to Wellesley; he was a featured author in the Newhouse Center's Distinguished Writers Series in February 2012.

The Wilson Lecture will be hosted in Wellesley’s Houghton Chapel at 8:00 PM today, May 1. It is free and open to the public; tickets are not required.

The associated House and Home Conference: Theories, Texts and Metaphors, will take place May 1 and 2. The conference will bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to explore the many ways that the related notions of house and home are constructed—both literally and figuratively—in art, literature, and film, and on stage. Please visit the Newhouse Center’s web site for a full conference schedule.