Mark Abley was born in England in 1955, and grew up in western Canada. He studied literature at the University of Saskatchewan and, after winning a Rhodes Scholarship, at St. John’s College, Oxford. As a young man Mark travelled in more than twenty countries. Aspiring to be a poet, he began work as a freelance writer.
Stray fact #1: In the Bodleian Library in Oxford, he discovered William Blake’s recipe for making white paint. It involved glue.
In 1983 Mark and his wife Ann moved to Montreal. His first book, a work of literary travel titled Beyond Forget: Rediscovering the Prairies, appeared in 1986. A year later he embarked on the adventure of parenthood and joined the staff of the Montreal Gazette. He spent sixteen years there, working as a feature writer, book-review editor and literary columnist. He won a National Newspaper Award for critical writing, and, following a trip to Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somaliland, received an NNA nomination for international reporting.
Stray fact #2: Researching a feature story for the Gazette, he helped rediscover a lost type of fruit: the Montreal Melon.
Mark also wrote several books of poetry and the text of a children’s picture book, Ghost Cat. He returned to freelance writing in 2003, the year that Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Language was published; the book has been translated into French, Spanish, Japanese and Latvian, and earned praise from reviewers in many countries. The responses that most delighted him came from readers who said that Spoken Here inspired them to keep fighting for their own language and culture.
Stray fact #3: Mark’s poem “Glasburyon,” an elegy for disappearing languages, has been read at the United Nations and has been translated into Esperanto and Jerriais.
Mark won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005 to look into the changes in the English of our time: from hiphop to Singlish, texting to Spanglish. The result was his 2008 book The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches From the Future of English. He went on to write two further books about language, a memoir of his father (see the “Harry Abley” section of this site), and a book about Indigenous and colonial history, Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott.
Stray fact #4: One of Mark’s earliest summer jobs required him to live in a trailer for two weeks at Last Mountain Lake, Saskatchewan, watching sandhill cranes in migration and trying to determine how many of them were juveniles.
In 2022 the University of Saskatchewan awarded him an honorary doctorate for his services to the literary community in Canada. Despite his aversion to winter he continues to live in suburban Montreal, a few minutes’ walk from the banks of the St. Lawrence River. He is the father of two wonderful young adults and has spent most of his life among purrs, meows and occasional claws.