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Learning from one of the literary world's best

Penkov and OndaatjeAssistant professor of English Miroslav Penkov was starting to write screenplays for three different short stories from his book East of the West: A Country in Stories when he was being considered to work with Michael Ondaatje, award-winning novelist of The English Patient, in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.

“To an extent, the screenplays must have influenced Michael’s decision to work with me,” said Penkov of Ondaatje, whose bestselling novel was made into an Academy Award Best Picture winner for 1997.

Ondaatje will read from his works at 7 p.m. March 27 in the Eagle Student Services Center, room 255, as part of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which was established in 2002 to bring talented young artists in architecture, dance, film, literature, music, theater and visual arts together with masters in these fields for a year of creative collaboration in a one-to-one mentoring relationship.

Ondaatje will be introduced by Penkov, who teaches in the English department’s creative writing program, and answer questions from the audience following the free reading. Above, Penkov (left) and Ondaatje (right), during the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. Photo courtesy of Rolex.

Born in Sri Lanka when it was known as Ceylon, Ondaatje moved to England with his family while he was still a child, and later relocated to Canada and became a Canadian citizen. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto and master’s degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and taught at the University of Western Ontario in London and York University in Toronto.   

Ondaatje received two Canada Governor General’s Literary Awards for poetry collections — The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, published in 1970, and There’s a Trick With a Knife I’m Learning to Do: Poems 1973-1978, published in 1979. He also received a Governor General’s Award for his 2000 novel, Anil’s Ghost. The book, which follows a Sri Lankan woman who trains in Britain and the U.S. to become a forensic pathologist and returns to her home nation in the midst of Civil War, also received the Kiriyama Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, France’s Prix Médicis and the Irish Times International Prize for Fiction.

The English Patient, which follows four dissimilar people brought together at an Italian villa during the Italian Campaign of World War II, provided Ondaatje with the Man Booker Prize, the highest literary honor bestowed by the United Kingdom.

As a Rolex Mentor and Protégé, Ondaatje and Penkov are required to spend at least 30 days together during a year. In October, the two spent 10 days in Bulgaria, Penkov’s native country and the setting of his novel in progress, Nominalia of the Imaginary Khans.

“We worked on the manuscript together and also discussed two screenplays that I am working on for Bulgaria’s national film commission,” Penkov said. “Michael talks about film, drawing and painting as much as he talks about books. He’s very interested in all art forms.”

Penkov noted that, in addition to his poetry and works of fiction, Ondaatje is the author of a nonfiction book, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, which focuses on his friendship with the Academy-Award winning film editor and sound designer for “The English Patient,” “The Godfather,” “American Graffiti” and “Apocalypse Now.”

Ondaatje and Penkov also spent a few days together last summer at Ondaatje’s home in Toronto, visiting the small press where Ondaatje published some of his first poetry collection and now works as poetry editor. They also met in New York City in December and will return there in May to attend the PEN World Voices literary festival. In addition, they will attend the Telluride Film Festival in early September.

“Working with Michael Ondaatje has given me confidence that my work is of some quality and is receiving notice,” said Penkov, who was identified for the Rolex program by a nominating panel and asked to submit an application. “All of the opportunities I’ve received are invaluable.”

—Nancy Kolsti, News Promotions

Posted on: Tue 03 March 2015

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