Michael Ondaatje is a son of a bitch, kinda

I can't seem to get over my anger at Michael Ondaatje for Divisidero. It's ridiculous; he gave me In the Skin of a Lion, The English Patient and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: surely I owe him more than he owes me. But Divisidero was bad, and worse, it was mine.

Ever since I read about some character chastising Anne of Green Gables to "write what you know," I've hated the idea, because it seems to imply that a white suburban girl has no business creating a character who is anything else. And there are plenty of non-white non-suburban non-girl characters floating around in my head.

But reading Divisidero, I found myself in reluctant agreement with this cliche for the first time. Write what you know, because it prevents you from writing -- poorly -- what someone else knows better.

Ondaatje writes about Northern California like someone who's seen it from a plane. He uses the gruff and evocative names of mining towns like they're his own. He writes about the summer grass as brown, when everyone knows it's gold. And he stole Divisidero Street right out from under me.

My whole adult life I've been trying to shape characters to the streets in my life. Shrader, Ben Thorne, Slum Gullion, Elliott Drive: the point is, these dots in space are mine, they belong to me. (And also to Mark Cunningham, but he's a local and has rights.) Ondaatje's pen came sweeping down from Canada and stole things from me with no understanding of what he was taking, like a thief sweeping an unexamined conglomeration of items off a bureau top and into a burlap sack.

In addition to all this, the book is simply not very good. The language is evocative and haunting and all that Ondaatje stuff, but he seems to have decided that plot points are for the weak. His characters drift around this story like half-imagined half-assed ghosts, and you finish the book feeling cheated. It's as if his first draft of the novel got published by mistake.

I have loved and supported Ondaatje for years; I have distributed his Billy the Kid to several unwilling friends for their own good; I have purchased and read and re-read everything he writes, except some of the poetry. And this is my thanks?

Henceforth, prepare for my onslaught on Sri Lanka, Mr. Ondaatje, prepare for my novel about Canadian life (meaning no disrespect to Robertson Davies), prepare for my Being Michael Ondaatje film in which you will not even play yourself. You took Divisidero Street from me. This means war.