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'English Patient' author to discuss 'Cat's Table'

October 11, 2012

It’s 1954. Michael, an 11-year-old boy, is on a three-week journey by sea from Ceylon to join his parents in England. He finds himself sitting at the “cat’s table” for meals with a group of other solo travelers, including two other boys about his age.

What could be a routine voyage turns out to be a cauldron of mystery and intrigue, fomented by the fact that there is a criminal on board, who appears on deck in handcuffs. Who is he? What has he done?

Thus begins “The Cat’s Table,” the latest novel by prize-winning author Michael Ondaatje, who will talk about the book and his other work during a free public discussion at 7 p.m., Nov. 8, at the Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe.

The event is sponsored by ASU’s Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, a research unit in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the School of International Letters and Cultures.

In “The Cat’s Table,” Ondaatje writes about the transitions between childhood and adult life, memory and imagination, truth and storytelling.

According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, Ondaatje's work “often blends or counterposes the factual and the imaginary, poetry and prose. His longer narrative works, often based on the unorthodox lives of real people, may contain documentary as well as fictional accounts. Ondaatje's imagery is characterized by its preoccupation with romantic exoticism and multiculturalism; its gravitation towards the bizarre, the exaggerated, and the unlikely.”

Ondaatje was born in Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon, and emigrated to Canada by way of England. He is of Indian/Dutch ancestry.

The author earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto and a master’s degree from Queen’s University in 1971. He has won numerous awards for his writing, including the Man Booker Prize, the Irish Times International Prize for Fiction, the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize, the Prix Medicis, the Governor-General’s Award, and the Giller Prize.

His best-known novel is “The English Patient,” which was made into an Academy Award-winning film. He also is a writer of poetry, memoir and film.

So what does the “cat’s table” mean? Is there one on every ship?

The novel got its name from one of the characters sitting at young Michael’s table in the ship’s dining room. Known as the “pigeon lady” because she keeps pigeons in her pockets, she remarks that their spot is “the cat’s table” since “we’re in the least privileged place.”

For more information about the Nov. 8 discussion and other events at the Piper Center, go to