I am in awe of feminist author and activist Dorothy Allison.
Born in South Carolina in 1949 and now living in California, Allison has earned numerous accolades in the last thirty years for her six published books. (They include Lambda Literary Awards, ALA Awards for Lesbian and Gay Writing and a ridiculous number of others.) She is the rare writer to reach, in my opinion, wonderful heights in nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, though her two already-released full-length novels, Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller, are her most famous works.
It was like opening your eyes under water. It hurt, but suddenly everything that had been dark and mysterious became visible and open to change.
Indeed, Allison has been writing and speaking candidly about feminism (and queerness, S&M, class issues, child abuse; the list goes on) since the beginning of her writing career, serving as an editor for the journals Quest, Outlook, and the awesomely subtitled Conditions: a feminist magazine of writing by women with a particular emphasis on writing by lesbians. The now-defunct Long Haul Press published Allison’s first book, a slim volume of poetry titled The Women Who Hate Me, in 1983. Firebrand Books, which also published early work by Alison Bechdel and Leslie Feinberg, released Allison’s much-acclaimed collection of semi-autobiographical short fiction, Trash, in 1988 and went on to publish an updated edition of The Women Who Hate Me in 1991.
Bastard Out of Carolina, however, brought Allison the attention she deserves the following year. Like Trash, the novel drew from experiences in her own life such as growing up in a Baptist culture in the South, living in poverty, mistreatment due to being born out of wedlock, and familial sexual abuse. The story wraps up while the protagonist, Bone, is still a preteen, but Allison deftly captures the tragic situations the characters inhabit through the eyes of a child:
Trash steals, I though, echoing Aunt Madeline’s cold accent, her husband’s bitter words. “Trash for sure,” I muttered, but I only took the[ir] roses. No hunger would make me take anything else of theirs. I could feel a kind of heat behind my eyes that lit up everything I glanced at. It was dangerous, that heat. It wanted to pour out and burn everything up, everything they had that we couldn’t have, everything that made them think they were better than us. I stood in the garden and spun myself around and around, pouring out heat and rage and the sweet stink of broken flowers.
The novel was translated into over a dozen languages and adapted into a poignant film directed by Anjelica Huston. Allison followed up with the collection of essays Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature (which is probably my favorite of her books, though it’s a tough call) and the free-form memoir Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. Cavedweller—another rich and best-selling work of fiction involving motherhood, girlhood and poverty—hit the shelves in 1998.
As a bonus for über-fans (and I’m raising my hand here) Allison’s multi-genre proclivities allow us further insight into her fictional work. In Skin, for example, Allison discusses the process behind writing the story “Don’t Tell Me You Don’t Know,” which appeared in Trash. The story depicts a heartbreaking scene in which a young woman reveals to her aunt that she is infertile due to the long-undiagnosed STI she contracted from attacks by her stepfather. Though the tale stands on its own merit, the essay “Skin, Where She Touches Me” uncovers that Allison wrote it, in part, to tell her relatives why she could not have biological children.
Allison is slated to go on tour as part of the Michelle Tea-founded group Sister Spit in 2012 (along with New Queer Cinema auteur Cheryl Dunye) and she has a forthcoming novel called She Who from Penguin Putnam. While both are still a ways away, I already know I wouldn’t miss them for the world.
Top picture via womanandchildrenfirst.com.
Allison books from the Bitch Media Community Lending Library and my personal collection. Trash and Two or Three Things I Know for Sure are not pictured (though not for any lack of affection!)