Best known for her three interconnected novels Marked by Fire (1982), winner of the American Book Award (now the National Book Award); Bright Shadow (1983), winner of the Coretta Scott King Award; and Water Girl (1986), Joyce Carol Thomas is acclaimed for her poetic, lyrical language. Equally if not more significant, however, is her portrayal of black women characters, depictions that have earned her serious attention and favorable comparisons to Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Alice Walker. Thomas's novels, widely adopted for classroom use in both high schools and universities, describe the identity quests of young black women and men; they have been classified as YA (young adult) novels, but are also popular with adults who read novels by Maya Angelou and James Baldwin. Thomas, additionally a prolific writer of poetry, plays, and award-winning books for young children, turned to full-time writing in 1994 after another career as an English professor.
Joyce Carol Thomas was born on May 25, 1938, in Ponca City, Oklahoma, to Leona Thompson Haynes, a housekeeper and hair stylist, and Floyd David Haynes, a bricklayer. She moved with her family to Tracy, California, at age 10, and received her bachelor's degree in French and Spanish from San Jose State University in 1966 and her master's degree in education at Stanford University in 1967. She married twice: in 1959, to Gettis L. Withers, whom she divorced in 1968; and in 1968, to Roy T. Thomas, Jr., whom she divorced in 1979.
The title of her first novel, Marked by Fire, refers to the burn scar borne by Abyssinia Jackson, who survives a brush fire in a cotton field and, at age 10, is raped by a member of her church. This violent and terrifying incident renders her temporarily mute. The novel, set in Ponca City, Oklahoma (along with California, a prominent setting in her novels), follows her movement into adult life, aided by a close-knit community of women. The sequel, Bright Shadow, is similarly horrifying and includes the brutal murder of her favorite Aunt Serena by Serena's insane husband, a minister. Abyssinia attends college and falls in love with Carl Lee Jefferson, who deserts her; she learns to see life in the "bright shadows" that contain beauty as well as terror. In the next novel, Water Girl, the readers learn that, when she was young, Abyssinia had given up a daughter for adoption. In this novel, Abyssinia's long-ago adopted daughter, Amber Westbrook, discovers the identity of her birth mother while reading an old letter. Carl Lee reappears in The Golden Pasture, a novel about Lee's early attachment to his rodeo-riding grandfather. Using his rescue of an injured Appaloosa as a means of drawing Lee closer to his father, Thomas depicts Lee's lessening fear of and growing love for the man.
In Journey, Thomas experiments with the mixed genres of mystery and fantasy, mysticism and folklore. On one level of the novel, the resolute, brave Maggie Alexander solves a murder, while on another, more complex level, she intuitively learns lessons about "ingrained prejudices, intercultural violence, and the effect of both on children and adults" (Earhart, 451). When the Nightingale Sings experiments with new ways of presenting a coming-of-age tale, blending gospel, folktale, fairy tale. It is the story of a family reunion for young Marigold and her three adult sisters, and was performed as a musical play at the University of Tennessee in 1991. In her most recent novel, House of Light, which received excellent reviews, the middle-aged Dr. Abyssinia Jackson returns to Ponca City, Oklahoma, where she advises, nurtures, and heals the troubled women of the community. One of them, Vennie Walker, was inspired by women in Thomas's own life. In an interview with Lauretta Pierce, Thomas remarks, "Hearing of the sacrifices these women made for their families troubled me. I decided to write about a Black woman who gets tired of being insulted, who rises up, and says NO. No more! That's Vennie Walker."
Joyce Carol Thomas lives and continues to write in Berkeley, California.
Earhart, Amy E. "Joyce Carol Thomas." In Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1999.
Henderson, Katherine Usher. "Joyce Carol Thomas." In Inter/View: Talks With America's Writing Women, edited by Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson, 125-131. Louisville: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
Yalom, Marilyn. "Joyce Carol Thomas." In Women Writers of the West Coast, edited by Marilyn Yalom, 31-39. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra, 1983.
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