25th Trillium Award

Trillium Testimonial: Jon Eben Field

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This year marks the 25th Anniversary of Ontario's illustrious Trillium Book Award/Prix Trillium. To celebrate this silver milestone, Open Book has asked members of the literary community to tell us what they love about their favourite award-winning Trillium title. If you're looking for a recommended read (or re-read), follow these Trillium Testimonials on Open Book: Ontario from now until the winners of the 2012 award competition are announced. Today, writer and editor Jon Eben Field tells us why Michael Ondaatje is the Trillium Award-winner whose work has left the most indelible mark. Ondaatje won the Trillium Award in 1987 for In the Skin of a Lion and again in 1992 for The English Patient (McClelland & Stewart).

Jon Eben Field:

When I was asked to write about a Trillium award winning book, I panicked. I scanned the list frantically searching for books I’d read. Once the list was narrowed, I tried to remember the contents of these books. I spent a couple of days thinking about re-reading the books and, occasionally, even considered choosing one of the less prominent authors to make myself seem erudite. Eventually, I decided to be honest with my memories and write about Ondaatje because a) he has influenced me and b) I met him and parts of this piece are memories.

When I was fourteen, I became obsessed with the folklore surrounding Billy the Kid in large part because of Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. The spare roughness of the poems combined with the razor beauty of the prose enchanted me. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I made a presentation to my English class and tried to explain the importance of Pat Garrett watching flowers all day to learn about slowness. I read all his books of poetry as a teenager and, somehow, his words acted as a second skin for me.

When I read The English Patient, I fell into its poetic prose. There was a devastating beauty which spoke deeply to my developing literary tastes. I first saw Michael Ondaatje at the Eden Mills Writer’s Festival in 1998. He was browsing books at a stand. With the heart of a fan, I walked up and introduced myself. He turned to me and his crystalline blue eyes seemed to glow on his gentle face surrounded by a mane of white hair. I mustered something like, “Hi Michael. I loved The English Patient. Thank you for writing.” He smiled graciously. And I walked quickly away.

Later that same year, I was at an event for Toronto Mayoral candidate Barbara Hall. A number of artists, musicians, writers and activists were gathered to show community support for an intelligent alternative to Mel Lastman. I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto and had brought my close friend Stephen Marche with me. During the intermission, he and I ventured up to the mezzanine and were watching the flux of the crowd. Ondaatje was below us and, strangely, he kept looking up. After three or four glances, I was convinced we should talk to him.

When we walked up, I confidently said, “Michael, we met at the Eden Mills Writer’s Festival, I’d like to introduce you to my friend, Stephen Marche.” We chatted briefly in a slightly ill-at-ease manner before I said, “Would you be comfortable if I gave you a gift?” The flash of uncertainty that went through his face was priceless and then with a shrug of his shoulders, he said in his British-tinged accent, “Why not?” I pulled a poem of mine from my jacket pocket and slipped it into his hand. There was nothing but that poem on the page. Somehow, I knew this was the right gesture. He pocketed the folded paper and thanked me. Back at my seat, my legs trembled with joyous and nervous energy.

The qualities that excited me earlier in my life are still in Ondaatje’s prose. The scalpel precision of his poetic sensibility and deft conjuring of compelling voices are essential to his writing. These qualities have become part of the fundament of Canadian literary life. Like his eyes, his words are clear, gripping, and unwavering.

Jon Eben Field lives in St. Catharines and works as a writer and editor. He has published work in The National Post, PRISM international, and was recently shortlisted for the Malahat Review's Open Season Creative Non-fiction prize. Passionately devoted to jazz on vinyl, Flaubert and wok-based cooking, he is happiest when dancing in the living room with his wife and daughter. He can be found online at: jonebenfield.com.

You could be reading your top Trillium titles on a new Kobo eReader! Click here for details on our Trillium 25th Anniversary Contest.

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