Thomas, Audrey

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THOMAS, Audrey

Nationality: American (Canadian Landed Immigrant). Born: Audrey Grace Callahan in Binghamton, New York, 17 November 1935. Education: Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, B.A. 1957; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, M.A. in English 1963. Family: Married Ian Thomas in 1958 (divorced); three daughters. Career: Immigrated to Canada, 1959; lived in Kumasi, Ghana, 1964-66; visiting professor, Concordia University, Montreal, 1989-90; Scottish-Canadian Exchange Fellow, Edinburgh, 1985-86; writer-in-residence, University of Victoria, British Columbia, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, David Thompson University Centre, Nelson, British Columbia, Victoria College, University of Toronto. Lives in British Columbia. Awards: Atlantic First award, 1965; Canada Council grant, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1974, and Senior Arts grant, 1974, 1977, 1979; British Colombia Book prize, 1985, 1990; Marion Engle award, 1987; Canada-Australia prize, 1989.


Short Stories

Ten Green Bottles. 1967.

Ladies and Escorts. 1977.

Personal Fictions, with others, edited by Michael Ondaatje. 1977.

Real Mothers. 1981.

Two in the Bush and Other Stories. 1981.

Goodbye Harold, Good Luck. 1986.

The Wild Blue Yonder. 1990.


Mrs. Blood. 1967.

Munchmeyer, and Prospero on the Island. 1972.

Songs My Mother Taught Me. 1973.

Blown Figures. 1974.

Latakia. 1979.

Intertidal Life. 1984.

Graven Images. 1993.

Coming Down from Wa. 1995.


Radio Plays:

Once Your Submarine Cable Is Gone…, 1973; Mrs. Blood, from her own novel, 1975.


Critical Studies:

"Thomas Issue" of Room of One's Own 10 (3-4), 1986; "The I as Sight and Site: Memory and Space in Audrey Thomas's Fiction" by Virginia Tiger, in Canadian Women Writing Fiction edited by Mickey Pearlman, 1993.

* * *

Although Audrey Thomas has published novels, she is best known in Canada as a writer of short fiction. Her first story appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1965, and it set the tone for much of the short fiction that followed. "If One Green Bottle" is an impressionistic, ellipsis-filled work that follows the ebb and flow of a woman's memories of a painful miscarriage. The imagery of the sea surfaces repeatedly throughout the story, and the reader feels virtually sucked under the tide of pain and disorientation. These features recall Virginia Woolf's The Waves, and so it is not surprising that Thomas has defended her experimental method by invoking that powerful foremother of contemporary women's writing: "I'd like to demonstrate through my literature that you can do whatever you like. If you want to have seventeen points of view, have them, if you want to chop your thing in the middle, do it. Virginia Woolf was doing that sort of thing all the time, she didn't care."

This willingness to experiment, to play with the conventions of fiction, is a trademark of Thomas's work, placing her among contemporary postmodernists. In her 1977 collection of stories Ladies & Escorts, Thomas opens one story by meditating self-consciously on the story that precedes it: "Writers are terrible liars," she begins. She then imagines a series of possible explanations for the central mystery of the preceding story, some of which directly contradict others. For Thomas lies are the very stuff of fiction, and anyone who expects her short stories to hand over what Woolf called in A Room of One's Own the "nugget" of truth will be challenged and surprised.

It may then seem surprising to some readers that a writer who eagerly embraces the postmodernist concept of fabulation draws much of her fiction from her own life. The early story "If One Green Bottle" is loosely based on Thomas's own experience of a miscarriage in Ghana, and the episode is repeated in a number of works, most spectacularly in her novel Mrs. Blood. Other situations and even snippets of dialogue echo throughout the fiction. For example, in a number of her works a lover/husband who seeks to break off a relationship cruelly opens the subject with the warning "There is no nice way of saying this." Another repeated scenario is the married man in his 40s finding narcissistic adulation in a relationship with a younger woman while the 40ish wife bitterly looks on. No matter what the precise extent of the personal material may be, Thomas is, like her fellow Canadian story writer Clark Blaise, creating a body of self-consciously autobiographical fiction, what I would call meta-autobiography. Woolf is clearly not Thomas's only influence. So, too, are the confessional poets, particularly Sylvia Plath.

Like Plath, Thomas has searing indictments to offer on the power relationships between men and women. Though much of her energy in the 1970s was taken up with a trilogy of novels—Mrs. Blood, Songs My Mother Taught Me, and Blown Figures—in the latter part of the decade Thomas turned to short fiction once again, and during those years she produced some of her most pointed critiques of gender relations. In fact, she described these stories, collected in Ladies and Escorts, as particularly concerned with the male-female relationship. In "A Monday Dream at Alameda Park," for example, a restive professor wishes to return to a naive memory of the 1960s, and so he dumps his wife in favor of a belated flower child. It is always the husband who has the option of choice, and it is the wife who angrily grinds her teeth and sits on the sidelines to watch the antics of the aging Peter Pan.

In the short fiction of the 1980s, however, Thomas—and her heroines—have moved on. Several of the stories in Real Mothers and in Goodbye Harold, Good Luck show women recovering from failed relationships and taking the initiative to form new ones, even if the new relationships, too, promise further rounds of the war between the sexes. This is the case, for instance, in "Real Mothers." Some of the heroines reveal a new mobility and choice in the act of taking to their heels when a relationship proves too stifling, as in "Goodbye Harold, Good Luck."

Thomas's fiction obviously places an emphasis on heterosexual relationships. It might be more accurate to say that she is obsessed with them. This bias is closely related to her art of meta-autobiography. As Thomas once reflected, "I think everybody writes autobiography. I think everybody writes one story, has one thing that really interests them, and I suppose what really interests me is the relationship between men and women and how we lie to one another." Although her later fiction does not break with this obsession, there is a new direction, an increasing concern with the mother-child bond, in stories like "Crossing the Rubicon" from Real Mothers. Indeed, the new strands of Thomas's fiction of the 1980s cross, with a number of the stories dealing with the implications of a woman's new relationship with a man on her growing children.

Like other women writers of the Canadian West Coast, Thomas shows a willingness to experiment formally, which brings her closer to the postmodernist poems and short fictions of Quebecois women like Nicole Brossard than to the writers of central Canada. But what sets Thomas apart from almost any other writer in Canada is her rich mélange of self-conscious fabulation, feminism, and autobiography.

—Lorraine M. York

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Thomas, Audrey

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