Whoops! Michael Ondaatje and Me…


Have you ever had any mortifying moments of embarrassment? I’ve had plenty of them. It’s funny how we remember forever such moments and the feelings we have around them. The other day I was reminded of one such time.

I was taking a leisurely stroll exploring my new neighborhood. The air was crisp, clear and sunny-a taste of spring hopefully around the corner. On my way back  home, I stopped in front of TYPE, a small independent bookstore.

michael ondaatje3

I stepped inside. Listening to chatter between the sales woman and customer, I wandered the aisles glancing at the racks, shelves and tables full of new books, celebration cards and knickknacks of various kinds and uses.

And then, I stopped at the table displaying a book of poetry by Michael Ondaatje.

michael ondaatje

I flipped its pages, deeply sensing the book would be dedicated to his late friend and collaborator, Barrie Nichol, otherwise known worldwide as bp Nichol. It was.  (bp was my creative writing prof when I returned to university as an adult in the mid 80’s. )

michael ondaatje2

Memories start spilling out…

Reading those two names reminded me once again of the time when Ondaatje caught me unprepared for class.  But first, the background.

I was enjoying this particular course focus on early Canadian Literature since nothing like it had been available when I studied the subject in high school twenty years earlier. We read groundbreaking early Canadian books including Wild Geese by Martha Ostenso. At the time, I was also taking three other demanding courses: Media studies, Logical Thinking and Writing, and an intensive hands-on art course called Line and Form. Each prof gave us assignments to complete during Xmas break: a take-home exam from Media; a quiz for logic; creation of art pieces for a portfolio; and the reading of a short book called Tay John by Howard O’Hagan.

Did I mention I’m also a wife and a mom to four children, ranging in age at that time from 2 1/2 to 13 years? Needless to say, I had to set priorities. As an avid reader, I figured that I could read the book quickly at any time, so the decision was to leave it til I could take the time.

So, to continue…

We are back from Christmas break. I’ve arrived early to take my regular spot, a seat at the front of the very small classroom, facing the podium. Our prof steps up as usual to begin her lecture, but instead proceeds to introduce the already well-known author Michael Ondaatje, who, she says, is the world-renowned Tay John expert. “Wow!!’ I thought. “Who knew?”

Then I look again at the book’s cover…Tay John2

It reads, “Afterword by Michael Ondaatje.” How nice! Impressive, I think.

Tay John2

Ondaatje nods, walks up to the lectern – which is only about six feet a way from me – leans in, and begins… He says Tay John is a mispronunciation of the french Tête Jaune (Yellow Head), referring to the hair colour of the protagonist who is the result of a rape of a Native woman. She was impregnated. Before giving birth, she died and was buried on a hill. Legend goes that her child arose as a toddler out of the earth – and strode away.

Since I have not yet read the story, I am listening so carefully my mouth drops open with  surprise. Unfortunately, Ondaatje’s attention is caught by the movement. He leans further forward on the lectern. “And if you haven’t read that,” he roars at me (or so it seemed), “you haven’t read far, because this piece of information appears on page TWO!”

I was mortified. Completely. I felt my face burn. All I could think of was that he didn’t know me, nor my name, nor did he read or grade my exams. Those facts saved me.

A few years later, I graduated on the Honours List. And was armed with yet another story to share with you.

Life is like that, isn’t it?

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