Nonfiction Nagging- Running in the Family (and I Don't Care About My Ancestors)

I recently finished Michael Ondaatje's memoir Running in the Family for work (some days I still get excited over the fact that I "read books for work," while others I want to slam my head against the wall after looking at the stack of papers to be graded) and thoroughly enjoyed it. I read Divisadero a few years back and was mesmerized by his prose, which carries over into his nonfiction work as well. 

The memoir centers around Ondaatje's desire to learn about his past, which resides in Sri Lanka, or what was called Ceylon during colonial times. Ondaatje left Canada and went home to hear stories, visit places he had lived, and track down rumors. He captures the heat and humidity, the force gossip can have, and the nature of oral tradition. He includes poems and photographs to supplement his text, as well as the occasional quote from discovered sources. He focuses longer chapters on his maternal grandmother Lalla, a really hoot, and his alcoholic father, whose addiction prevented him from being a successful father, husband, or employee. Ondaatje works to put back the pieces of his past while integrating himself into a culture that he had long been absent from. And all of this is done through absolutely beautiful writing.

This memoir is definitely not for everyone- just ask my students. Some don't love stream of consciousness, nor are some fans of the intermixed poems. I think the biggest complain I have heard so far is that it's "confusing." The text jumps around between different places in the past and the present quite often, without a lot of warning. It's imperative that it's read closely and that verb tenses are noted. I think during a few parts too, when it's unclear who exactly is telling a story, that the reader just has to accept that they're being kept in the dark a tad.

Guiltily, I have to admit that while reading this I felt absolutely no compulsion to research my family whatsoever. Genealogy has never really been of any interest to me (except the fact that we have some Italian Mafia members on my dad's side- that's pretty intersting), dare I say because I'm too young? My maternal grandmother has spent a lot of time over the years collecting information and putting together books, yet I've never been compelled to even look at them. I know there is something in knowing "where you came from," but I guess I'm too concerned with where I am and where I'm going right now. Maybe in twenty, thirty, forty years I'll feel a need to know what the lives of my ancestors were like, but for now I'll just admit to being apathetic. 

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