Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion: The First Bookmark

intheskin

Miranda Hill is the founder of Project Bookmark Canada, a beautiful initiative that—literally—joins Canadian literature with our landscape. Across the country, Project Bookmark has been creating plaques adorned with an excerpt from a Canadian writer’s novel, story or poem, and placing them in the exact physical spot where it happened. The current count is 12 Bookmarks (see the list of them here) and the hope is to keep that number growing. Right now Miranda’s got a fundraising campaign on to ensure this happens—the Page Turner campaign—where some of our finest authors and poets are explaining why Project Bookmark is so incredible and necessary.

On 49th Shelf today, Miranda recalls the experience of reading one of the books that inspired her to create Project Bookmark in the first place—as well as the reactions of those who have now come upon the In the Skin of a Lion Bookmark.

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Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion takes Toronto, a place that is familiar to many of us, and makes it mythic. It’s a stellar example of the writer as conjurer. No scene shows off this trick better than the one in which the nun falls from the Prince Edward Viaduct (which today we know informally as the Bloor Street viaduct) during its construction. The book tells us that the night is foggy—that’s why the nuns lose their way, stepping out onto the bridge fragment, and leading one of them to fall. To me, reading this novel was like that: stepping into the fog of Ondaatje’s imagination and winding up somewhere else entirely—somewhere that you can never fully get back from. Though why would you want to? Toronto looked different to me after viewing it through the author’s eyes and through this particular story. And I wanted to keep that feeling, and share it.

In the Skin of a Lion is one of the books that inspired me to create Project Bookmark Canada and so it was fitting that, in 2009, the passage in which the nun falls from the bridge became our first Bookmark installation. There are about 500 words from that scene placed on a Bookmark in a little parkette on the northeast side of the bridge.

IntheskinofalionBookmark

I have since discovered just how much people re-envision and completely imagine Toronto based on that book, and that passage. Since the Bookmark was installed, a teacher at the nearby high school has taken her grade 12 students each semester to the little parkette to read the scene. They study the whole book in her class, but she finds that “the idea of taking inspiration for writing from the landscape that surrounds us has captured the imagination of students in a way that a traditional ‘chalk and talk’ lecture cannot.”

A couple of years ago, I met a young woman from Mexico who is in Canada studying literary translation. In the Skin of a Lion was one of the reasons she came here. “I had to see the Toronto of Ondaatje and [writer Dionne] Brand,” she said. These writers’ imagined portraits of this real place changed the course of her studies, her residence, and her life.

Books can do that. Our books can do that. They can make our places mythic or just show us a different side of them and of ourselves. Through stories like In the Skin of a Lion, I fell for the idea of interpreting our landscapes through our imaginations. I am excited every time we identify a possible Bookmark, and every time we place one, and our vision is an entire network, so that we can read our way across our whole country—see it through hundreds of writers’ eyes. But In the Skin of a Lion will always have a particular enchantment for me as the place where it all began.

April 25, 2013
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