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Audrey (Grace) Thomas Biography

Audrey Thomas comments:

Nationality: Canadian citizen. Born: Audrey Callahan in Binghamton, New York, 1935. Moved to Canada, 1959; lived in Kumasi, Ghana, 1964-66. Education: Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, B.A. 1957; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, M.A. in English 1963. Career: Since 1990 visiting professor, Concordia University, Montreal. 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, and David Thompson University Centre, Nelson, British Columbia. Awards: Atlantic Firsts award, 1965; Canada Council grant, 1969, 1971, 1972, 1974, and Senior Arts grant, 1974, 1977, 1979, 1987, 1991, 1994; Marian Engel award, 1987; Canada-Australia Literary prize, 1990; Ethel Wilson award and BC Book prize, 1985, for Intertidal Life, 1991, for Wild Blue Yonder, and 1995, for Coming Down From Wa. Honorary doctorate: Simon Fraser University, 1994; University of British Columbia, 1994.



Mrs. Blood. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1967.

Munchmeyer, and Prospero on the Island. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1972.

Songs My Mother Taught Me. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1973.

Blown Figures. Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1974; New York, Knopf, 1975.

Latakia. Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1979.

Intertidal Life. Toronto, Stoddart, 1984; New York, Beaufort, 1985.

Graven Images. Toronto, Penguin Canada, 1993.

Coming Down from Wa. Toronto and New York, Viking, 1995.

Isobel Gunn. Toronto, Viking, 1999.

Short Stories

Ten Green Bottles. Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1967.

Ladies and Escorts. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1977.

Personal Fictions, with others, edited by Michael Ondaatje. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Real Mothers. Vancouver, Talonbooks, 1981.

Two in the Bush and Other Stories. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1981.

Goodbye Harold, Good Luck. Toronto, New York, and London, Viking, 1986.

The Wild Blue Yonder. Toronto, Viking, 1990.


Radio Plays:

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


Manuscript Collection:

National Library of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

Critical Studies:

"Audrey Thomas Issue" of Room of One's Own (Vancouver), vol. 10, no. 3-4, 1986.

I write primarily about women—modern women with their particular dreams, delights, despairs. Also how these women relate to men and the terrible things we do to one another in the name of love. I am also interested in what happens to a person set down in a strange city or country, without a familiar environment, friends, or job to define him, when he must ask serious questions. Madness, too, interests me, and the delicate balance between sanity and madness.

I like to tell a good tale, and at the same time I like to make the reader work. I assume my readers will want to run a bit for their money.

* * *

Audrey Thomas, a prolific Canadian-American author, uses the knowledge that societal roles are all too often understood to be rigid and blameless, supported by the highest religious, political, and social authorities as a base from which to build her explorations of the possibilities and multiplicities that are in direct contention with this human pull toward the accepted "norm" within society's network of ideology. Her characters pull to the surface all that is unstable, relative, and questionable as they continually explore the arbitrary nature of gender and caste systems, the power struggles between men and women, and the complexities of attraction and passion that are ever present within both the text and within the life of the author herself. Her work, autobiographical in nature, displays an interest in feminism and a love of experimentation, both with language and with literary devices.

Thomas, a significant figure in Canadian feminist literature for more than thirty years, has been, on numerous occasions, ranked among the best in her field. In Thomas's fiction, gender, culture at large, and character form a complex mixture of contradictory and variable patterns that can be readily seen in her latest novel Isobel Gunn, published in 1999. Here, the hierarchy of selves is so confused and confusing, that while arranging the personality through division and category, it calls attention to the potential weakness in its own foundation as an ordering system. And, we find that the many voices present are hailing forth our ability to call into question a certain discourse, or way of thinking. The examples of real versus constructed "realities" in Isobel Gunn are numerous and varied and thus expose many of the ideological inconsistencies of societal roles in individualistic America.

Thomas has demonstrated in her quasi-autobiographical fictions how small the territory of incident need be for the writer to create a continent of psychological complexity. Such categories as novel, novella, and short story are not easily applied to Thomas's work, for continuities are always present, within and between genres. The short stories that form her first novel, Ten Green Bottles, for example, are closely interrelated; all of them are told by an unhappy female persona, so in the end the book takes on in one's mind the character of a sequence of psychologically linked incidents. More loosely, the later collections—Ladies and Escorts; Real Mothers; and Goodbye Harold, Good Luck—appear as true organic unities in their representation respectively of the pain and sadness in sexual relations and the reality of generational links.

Similarly, the two novellas published in a single volume, Munchmeyer and Prospero on the Island, are not in reality separate works. They are linked by the fact that Munchmeyer (itself a kind of mirror work in which it is hard to tell what is meant as plot and what is the novelist-hero's fantasizing) is presented as the novel that had been written by Miranda, the narrator in Prospero on the Island, and is being discussed by her with "Prospero," an elderly painter friend who lives on the same British Columbian island. And the novels—Mrs. Blood, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Latakia and Intertidal Life—are in turn constructed within loose frameworks, so that structurally there are considerable resemblances between the groups of interrelated stories and the highly episodic novels.

It soon becomes evident that the structural principle of Thomas's fictions is one in which the psychological patterns take precedence over the aesthetic or self-consciously formal. The experience in them is, in merely physical terms, limited and largely repetitious; it also runs fairly closely parallel to Thomas's own life. She was born and brought up in upstate New York, spent time in England and Ghana, traveled in the Levant, and in recent years has been dividing her life between Vancouver and the nearby islands of the Gulf of Georgia, with their mixed population of aging English expatriates, writers, and artists.

In fictional terms it is equally interesting to observe that the central persona of the books appears to be the same, yet treated unchronologically. For example, a middle period book, Songs My Mother Taught Me, deals in a rather shapelessly flowing narrative with the childhood memories that already find their place as fleeting recollections in earlier stories. Mrs. Blood, which harrowingly evokes a somewhat perilous pregnancy in West Africa, also incorporates the persona's sentimental journeys in England. In the novella Prospero on the Island creation and memory meld together with the personanow-turned novelist reflecting on the creative present to which all these pasts contribute.

As in the case of even the novella, Munchmeyer (the one item presented as totally fictitious), it is hard to tell when the actuality of the author's life merges into the invented narrative. An added complication arises from Thomas's acute sense of place, whose expression she has developed from book to book, so that in two of her more recent novels, Latakia and Intertidal Life, the evocations of the Levantine background and of the Pacific coast, respectively, become almost as important as the always frustrated and pathetic relationships between human beings.

There are no absolutes in Thomas's work. Instead, it is full of endless movements of giving and receiving. Each character, each word, reinscribes something; each constructs the web it tries to decipher. When lost in her worlds, one must pay attention to not only that which is visible and present, but to the non-text as well, the unknown that is always being conquered and always conquering, to that which lies beyond the boundaries of society, the silences. In these images of grotesque ideas of familial bonds and honor, in examples of love and selfishness, in battles between various kinds of truths and lies Thomas seems to reveal many of her perplexities about the society in which she lives, but she does not offer solutions to these internal and external contradictions. This, perhaps, is exactly what makes her novels, as well as her shorter works, timeless masterpieces of perpetual questioning.

—George Woodcock,

updated by Tammy Bird

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