Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Canadian professor from Sri Lanka

I knew the small man with the smooth dark skin the moment he walked in the door.
This was The Canadian Writers Festival at the New York State University College at Oswego.
The year was 1987.
I was the student director (and the bartender).
As far as I knew, only one author was not native to Canada.
A Sri Lanka-born professor.
A man I'd never hear of.
A poet who'd written two novels.
I served this man a drink and spoke with him briefly.
I don't remember much except that he seemed kind, humble and thoughtful.
I bought his latest novel and got his autograph.
Despite my heavy class load, despite two part-time jobs, despite my editor position at the college newspaper, I read Coming Through Slaughter in two days.
It was unlike anything I'd ever read and anything I've read since.
A blend of poetry, fiction and interviews, all telling the story of Buddy Bolden, a real-life musician said to be the originator of jazz. A genius whose career was cut short by madness.
It was and is beautiful.
For more than a decade, I pushed that book on professors, friends and acquaintences with little luck. I just couldn't get them to understand. This wasn't just a novel. This was art. A multi-dimensional work of art.
Except for the woman I met in Arizona.
She understood. She was from Sri Lanka and her daughter attended preschool with my son. One day, she brought me a novel. Anil's Ghost by the same author as Coming Through Slaughter.
I devoured it.
And I wanted more.
But I got busy.
And I forgot.
Until one day, in 1996, I was perusing the movie section of the newspaper.
I spied a review for a new movie, The English Patient.
The movie was based on the book by a Sri Lanka-born writer named Michael Ondaatje.
The man whose drinks I poured.
The man whose novel, published two decades earlier, was a masterpiece.
The man who forever changed the way I think about fiction.

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