Audrey Thomas 1935–
(Born Audrey Grace Callahan) American-born Canadian short story writer, novelist, essayist, and radio dramatist.
The following entry presents an overview of Thomas's career through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 13, and 37.
One of Canada's most respected fiction writers, Thomas is primarily concerned with examining feminist issues in her works, which frequently depict deeply intimate moments in human relationships. Admittedly fascinated with language, Thomas often uses wordplay, etymology, and selections from dictionaries and reference sources to delineate modern women's search for selfhood and independence.
Thomas was born in Binghamton, New York, in 1935. At fifteen she left her unhappy childhood home to attend boarding school in New Hampshire, which led eventually to a scholarship at a Massachusetts finishing school. In 1953 Thomas entered Smith College, graduating with a degree in English in 1957. During her junior year at Smith, Thomas attended St. Andrew's University in Scotland with her best friend, where she thrived intellectually. While overseas, she traveled to Spain, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, and Scandinavia. After graduating, she returned to Britain to take a teaching position in the slums of Birmingham, England, at Bishop Rider's Church of England Infant and Junior School. In 1958 she married Ian Thomas, a sculptor and teacher at the Birmingham College of Art. The couple moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1959, where Ian had accepted a teaching position. Thomas taught school for a year, then enrolled in the Master's program at the University of British Columbia, which she completed in 1963. She went immediately into the doctoral program, concentrating in Anglo-Saxon poetry. At this time, Thomas was also beginning to write fiction. She shared some of her work with professors, but found the academic atmosphere patronizing toward young women writers, who, she found, were expected to write only children's books if they wrote fiction at all. When her thesis on Beowulf was rejected, Thomas left academia to concentrate on writing fiction. Her first story, "If One Green Bottle …," appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1965 while Thomas was in Ghana, Africa, where her husband held a teaching position at the University of Science and Technology. Thomas's experiences in Africa later strongly informed much of her writing; Mrs. Blood (1970), Songs My Mother Taught Me (1973), Blown Figures (1974), and Coming Down from Wa (1995), as well as many short stories, all contain Thomas's African themes. In 1969 Thomas began writing full-time. She and her husband moved to Galiano Island, British Columbia; they separated in 1972 and later divorced, another personal experience that Thomas explores in her work. In 1971 Thomas returned to Africa alone for a three-month tour of that continent. Partly because of this trip, the theme of women traveling alone recurs in her fiction. To support herself and her three daughters, Thomas returned to teaching, taking posts in creative writing departments at several western Canadian universities. She has been involved with many Canadian literary organizations and has won numerous awards for her writing.
While not widely considered an experimental writer, Thomas does use distinctively post-modernist methods, such as stream-of-consciousness narrative and collage, in much of her work. Drawing from other sources, including reference works, historical records, advertisements, and newspaper clippings, and creating visual images with words on the page, she often weaves together a variety of disparate and nonlinear elements to tell her stories. Thomas used this technique most explicitly in her novel Graven Images (1993), which recounts the relationship of two middle-aged women seeking information about their ancestors. Characters traveling abroad or searching within themselves for meaning and selfhood is another common thread running through Thomas's works. The stories in Goodbye Harold, Good Luck (1986) are set in Canada, Greece, Scotland, and Africa. While Thomas's characters are usually women attempting to carve their own paths in a male-dominated world—as in the stories in Real Mothers (1981) and The Wild Blue Yonder (1990), where in many cases the women in question are both emotionally and physically threatened by the men in their lives—Thomas used a male protagonist in Coming Down from Wa (1995). In this novel Thomas returned to the African setting she had used earlier in Mrs. Blood, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Blown Figures, and other works. In Coming Down from Wa, a young art history student travels to Africa to do research on both his thesis project and the mystery of his parents' self-imposed isolation in western Canada after their return from a volunteer effort in a small African village called Wa in the 1960s. Autobiographical elements, such as her experience in Africa, are also a major characteristic of Thomas's writing. Mrs. Blood and "If One Green Bottle …" (published first in the Atlantic Monthly and later in the collection Ten Green Bottles ) both feature women coping with miscarriages, which Thomas herself underwent. Real Mothers, published after Thomas's divorce, includes several stories centered on the effects of divorce on women and children. In Munchmeyer and Prospero on the Island (1971), Latakia (1979), and Intertidal Life (1984), Thomas explores the tension writers often feel between their work and their personal lives, particularly women writers, who—like Thomas and many of her female characters—must balance motherhood with their careers and with their psychosexual needs.
Critics almost unanimously consider Thomas a complex, demanding writer whose work continually moves in new directions. But because of her experimentation with textual forms and her aversion to simple, happy endings, some find her overly didactic and lacking in humor. Nonetheless, Thomas's exploration of the conflicts of modern sexual relationships, the constant clash of self and other experienced by twentieth-century women, and the need for both understanding of the past and independence in the present have received high praise from critics, particularly Thomas's acute ability to capture moments of intimacy and epiphany. Feminist critics in the 1980s and 1990s have commended Thomas's experimentation with language as an attempt to break free of traditional male-centered discourse and to deconstruct stereotypically romantic images of women and relationships, replacing them with more realistic notions of womanhood that allow for less ideal feelings such as confusion, pain, and anger. Margaret Atwood has written of Thomas: "[With] each of her books, the reader feels that the next will not only be better but different in some unimaginable way."