The women in Audrey Thomas’s fiction are becoming saner—and stronger. Instead of grappling with internal demons, the terrors inside their heads, they are venturing to engage with the lunacy of the outside world, in particular with the antic struggles that bedevil women’s relations with men. In the early seventies, it began to look as if the current wave of feminism had spawned so traumatic an awareness of the untenability of women’s lives that they had to recoil—into madness or the supernatural. Realism seemed too limited, too narrow an arena for the pressing ambiguities faced by women. Audrey Thomas’ novels mark that up and down course. The early novels—a loose trilogy consisting of Songs My Mother Taught Me, Mrs. Blood and Blown Figures— trace her protagonist’s increasing dislocation. The latter two even extend this to the setting, in the metaphorical heart of darkness, Africa, source of the unconscious.
Songs My Mother Taught Me was the first (chronologically if not in publication date; it hibernated in a desk drawer after its initial rejection by a publisher). A classic coming of age story, it introduced us to Isobel, the recurring persona in the trilogy. Mrs. Blood, with its West African setting (Audrey lived in Ghana for two years), chronicles a difficult pregnancy and ultimate miscarriage through a narrator who is alternately Mrs. Blood and Mrs. Thing.
She has frequent flashbacks to North America and Britain, which fill in some of the gaps since Songs. The consistency of biographical detail at the base of these books adds further resonance. And Blown Figures at its simplest level is an attempt to resolve the trauma of what occurred in Mrs. Blood, with Isobel’s return to Africa, alone.
In the stories that followed, Ladies & Escorts and Real Mothers, Africa subsided from symbol into mere landscape, no longer quite so alive (and literally crawling) with danger. Moreover, her women sloughed off their housewives’ agoraphobia and carried their search for themselves into the wider world —and new locales, Mexico, Greece and British Columbia. Their newfound inde pendence often meant also divesting themselves of the men in their lives—a not always intended consequence. Audrey Thomas has become a sophisticated chronicler of the failure of modern relation ships, without overlooking the fall-out from these exploded mar riages, the children—the apex of contemporary triangles. Con nection between men and women fails because the ties between individuals are unequal. Increasingly, as women seize power, or come to subtly assume it from vain, weak men, the relationships dissolve, or last only as long as the women maintain a charade of male dominance. “It’s easier without a man,” observes one woman in Real Mothers, “but is it better?” This theme also infuses the surface of her intermediate novel, Latakia, in which the literary rivalry between lovers—the struggle for mental (territorial) land scape-exposes the cracks in the relationship. And her last novel, Intertidal Life, within its own scope, plays out the growing strength and independence—as well as the anguish—of a woman whose husband leaves her.
I first met Audrey Thomas (whom I must call Audrey here, because to conform to proper journalistic convention and call her Thomas simply feels too absurd; who is this man, Thomas, I keep thinking), I first met her ten years ago. That meeting was occa sioned by an interview and might also have marked the end of any further contact since she isn’t particularly fond of interviewers. I had been attracted to her work because of her experience in Africa. Having recently returned from East Africa, I was reading whatever I could find by Canadians who’d lived there and written about it. (There was a spate of them: Margaret Laurence, Dave Godfrey, Dorothy Livesay, and Audrey.) I even wrote a short paper, “The Image of Africa in the Fiction of Audrey Thomas,” during the dying days of my career as a freelance academic (it’s obvious why it was dying: my title lacked a colon). (The article was reproduced in Room, Volume 2, Number 4, 1977.) At the same time, I moved to the west coast and started to read books by local writers. Audrey, then, represented a double vision for me, bifocal, not blurred. She was here and she had written about there. And she conjured up some intriguing aspects of the west coast—living on an island, being a B.C. writer and publishing with a small local press. None of these things seem terribly germane any more. As she states in the interview, she could live anywhere, no longer so bound by the sea. Her last two books are published by large “eastern”—that is, Toronto-based—publishers, and as noted, Africa has receded as a compelling force.
In the intervening years, I’ve interviewed her half a dozen times —for CBC Radio, Books in Canada—and I’ve written about her work there and in Saturday Night and Room. Much of what I enjoy in her writing is noted by others in this issue, for it’s not an arcane pleasure, accessible only to the initiated. Increasingly, the work reflects a relaxed Audrey Thomas, leaning over the kitchen table: a raconteur who seems to ramble until the strands suddenly draw together like a net. A carefully crafted casualness enlivened by a fascination with language, dialogue, foreign words and theirorigins, an acuity of observation.
The interviewer—standing in for the reader —is always a step or two behind the writer, always preoccupied with books that are at least a year old to the author. It’s as if the writer leaves behind dummies, mounds of bedclothes for the interviewer to inspect and rummage through while she has escaped through the window on a knotted sheet. But because this interview was not in response to any particular title, I had the luxury here of rambling with Audrey—it is the most casual interview I can remember conducting and what it lacks in formality it makes up for in candor.
But of course Audrey’s view of herself isn’t necessarily the same as how she is perceived by others. For example, when we were in Japan last spring—she on an External Affairs junket, I on some journalistic enterprise —I was amazed by her energy. She’d warned me beforehand that she was ill, chronically fatigued and not herself. She talks about not having a great deal of energy, of having to conserve it. It’s a ruse, I suspect, like not admitting you’re swotting for your finals, but one that she’s convinced herself of. When I confronted her with this, alluding to our 18-hour days, she blandly replied, “Oh, if I were well, I’d be up and out at 6 a.m., walking around—it’s a great time to explore—and not just sitting in bed writing in my notebook." Or something like that. I could scarcely keep up, didn’t always, and knew I couldn’t if I’d stayed at it much longer. But, I am only foreshadowing what Bob Sherrin and Jenny Shaw describe in their articles. This special double issue is a curious assemblage of friends and critics as the varied tone testifies. We approached people rather than topics and then, when we stepped back and realized that no one had chosen to deal with Blown Figures, broke with Room precedent and decided to include a previously published work, a 1975 review of that book by Margaret Laurence. The fringe bene fit is that it’s a pleasure to be able to include Laurence in the issue.