Allison, Dorothy E. 1949–
Allison, Dorothy E. 1949–
PERSONAL: Born April 11, 1949, in Greenville, SC; daughter of Ruth Gibson Allison (a waitress and cook); companion of Alix Layman (a printer); children: Wolf Michael. Education: Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College), B.A., 1971; New School for Social Research, M.A.
ADDRESSES: Home—Box 112, Monte Rio, CA 95462. Agent—Frances Goldin, 305 East 11th St., New York, NY 10003.
CAREER: Writer. Founder: Independent Spirit Award, administered by Astraea Foundation; serves on the advisory boards of National Coalition against Censorship, Feminists for Free Expression, and James Tiptree, Jr. Memorial Award.
MEMBER: PEN International (advisory board member), Authors Guild, Authors League of America, National Writers Union.
AWARDS, HONORS: Lambda literary awards, best lesbian small press book and best lesbian fiction, both 1989, for Trash; National Book Award finalist, 1992, and Ferro Grumley and Bay Area Book Reviewers awards for fiction, all for Bastard out of Carolina; Gay and Lesbian Book Award, American Library Association, 1995, for Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature; Two or Three Things I Know for Sure was named a notable book of the year by the New York Times Book Review; Lambda literary award for fiction, 1998, for Cavedweller.
The Women Who Hate Me (poems), Long Haul Press, 1983.
Trash (stories), Firebrand Books (Ithaca, NY), 1988, expanded edition, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 2002.
The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry, 1980–1990, Firebrand Books (Ithaca, NY), 1991.
Bastard out of Carolina (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 1992.
Skin (essays), Firebrand Books (Ithaca, NY), 1993, published as Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature, 1994.
Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (autobiography), Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.
Cavedweller (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 1998.
Author of introduction, The Redneck Way of Knowledge: Down Home Tales, by Blanche McCrary Boyd, Vintage (New York, NY), 1995, and Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes, Modern Library (New York, NY), 2000; author of foreword, My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home, by Amber L. Holli-baugh, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 2000. Work represented in anthologies, including Building Feminist Theory: Essays from "Quest," edited by Charlotte Bunch and others, Longman (New York, NY), 1981; Lesbian Words: State of the Art, edited by Randy Turoff, Masquerade Books (New York, NY), 1995; Ida Applebroog: Nothing Personal, Paintings 1987–1997, by Ida Applebroog, Distributed Art Publishers (New York, NY), 1998; This Is What Lesbian Looks Like, edited by Kris Kleindienst, Firebrand Books (Ithaca, NY), 1999; The Beacon Best of 1999: Creative Writing by Women and Men of All Colors, edited by Ntozake Shange, Beacon Books (New York, NY), 1999; The Mammoth Book of Modern Lesbian Short Stories, edited by Emma Donoghue, Carroll & Graf (New York, NY), 1999; and The Vintage Book of International Lesbian Fiction: An Anthology, edited by Naomi Holoch and Joan Nestle, Random/Vintage (New York, NY), 1999.
ADAPTATIONS: Bastard out of Carolina was adapted for film by Showtime, directed by Angelica Huston, 1996, and as a sound recording by Penguin-HighBridge Audio, 1993. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure was produced as a short documentary, Two or Three Things and Nothing for Sure by Tina Di Feliciantonlo and Jane Wagner for the PBS series POV in 1998, and was also adapted as a sound recording by Nova Audio Books, 1995. Cavedweller was adapted as a sound recording, Brilliance/Nova, 1998, and was adapted for the stage by Kate Moira Ryan in a production directed by Michael Grief at the New York Theater Workshop in 2003.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A science-fiction trilogy.
SIDELIGHTS: Dorothy E. Allison became a recognized poet and short story writer in the 1980s with her collections The Women Who Hate Me and Trash. But it was not until the publication of her novel Bastard out of Carolina that Allison garnered mainstream attention as a writer. In this National Book Award-nominated work, as well as in more recent publications, Allison has se-cured her reputation as a writer who deals frankly and boldly with issues of gender, class, and sexual orientation. To quote Mark Shechner in the Buffalo News, Allison is an author "we have come to admire … and come moreover to depend on to remind us that there are hard places in this world that we are obliged to know something about."
In an essay published in the New York Times Book Review, Allison commented on the importance of literature that deals honestly with difficult themes of poverty, violence against children, and sexual orientation: "We are the ones they make fiction of—we gay and disenfranchised and female—and we have the right to demand our full, nasty, complicated lives." In an interview with Dan Cryer for Newsday, the author said: "I have a certain advocacy…. I don't believe in a writer who doesn't have politics, convictions. I do believe I'm writing about a huge part of the population that is essentially ignored or disdained, and I'm trying to take it seriously." This intense engagement with her subject matter has brought Allison a wide audience that includes literary critics and casual readers alike.
Allison was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, to a poor, unmarried fifteen-year-old girl. When Allison was five, her stepfather—her mother having since married—began sexually abusing her. The abuse lasted for several years before Allison was finally able to tell a relative; the relative informed Allison's mother, who put a stop to it. Nonetheless, the family stayed together. In her Newsday interview, Allison recalled that growing up poor and abused "was about being angry, helpless, held in contempt. It makes you want to eat your own soul, despise the world."
When she was eighteen, Allison left home to attend college in Florida. She was introduced to feminism, which she embraced, and which—as she noted in a New York Times Book Review essay—"gave me a vision of the world totally different from everything I had ever assumed or hoped. The concept of a feminist literature offered the possibility of pride in my sexuality." Later, she attended graduate school in New York City. However, it was not until after this period, in the early 1980s, that she began writing seriously. She published poetry and short story collections, and she began work on Bastard out of Carolina.
The incest, abuse, and poverty Allison experienced as a child figure heavily in Bastard out of Carolina, a fictional portrayal of a young girl's life in a poor Southern family. Ruth Anne Boatwright, the protagonist, relates how she earned her nickname, "Bone," when she was prematurely born—the size of a knucklebone—after her mother had an automobile accident. Allison admitted in an interview with Lynn Karpen in the New York Times Book Review that these introductory details are largely autobiographical. The author further commented, "A lot of the novel is based on real experience, but not the entire thing. The characters are modeled on members of my family and on stories I heard when I was growing up." In her Newsday interview she described Bone as "an alternative version of me. A little smarter, a little cleaner, a little less damaged."
Bone's illegitimacy, her plain looks, and her lack of talent for gospel singing make her an outcast among her peers, but she finds shelter among the women of her family. She particularly admires her Aunt Raylene, a former carnival worker who once had a love affair with another woman. Bone's mother, Anney, attempts to establish a more traditional home for herself and her daughter by marrying the son of a wealthy local family. Daddy Glen, Anney's new husband, is kind to his wife, but takes out his frustrations by physically and sexually assaulting Bone. Anney refuses to acknowledge these acts until a brutal confrontation occurs, which leaves Bone feeling, at the age of thirteen, that her life is over. A Booklist reviewer noted, however, that at this turning point of adolescence, Bone, like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, realizes that in order to live her life she must move on to new territory.
Reviewers of Bastard out of Carolina commended Allison for her realistic, unsentimental, and often humorous portrayal of her eccentric characters, and in 1992 the novel was nominated for a National Book award. In Publishers Weekly, a reviewer stated that Allison "doesn't condescend to her 'white trash' characters; she portrays them with understanding and love." A Washington Post Book World contributor complained that Bastard out of Carolina "has a tendency to bog down in its own heat, speech and atmosphere," but also acknowledged that Allison "has a superb ear for the specific dialogue of her characters." George Garrett, writing in the New York Times Book Review, praised the novel for being "as richly various, with its stories and memories and dreams, as a well-made quilt." Garrett further declared that Allison's "technical skill in both large things and details, so gracefully executed as to be always at the service of the story and its characters and thus almost invisible, is simply stunning."
Allison followed Bastard out of Carolina with a collection of essays, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature, and a memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. Reviewers reacted positively to both works, again praising the author's spare, straightforward writing style and expressing admiration for her hard-won success. Commenting on Skin in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Carla Tomaso noted, "one marvels at the incredible achievement this is for someone born poor and despised in the South." Susie Bright, reviewing Skin in the New York Times Book Review, maintained that the "tautness of Ms. Allison's storytelling comes from her ability to describe cruelty and desperate measures with such grace that it leaves a sensual impression unmistakable to the literary touch."
Allison's literary success has brought her widespread media attention and made her a popular draw on the lecture circuit. In an interview with Alexis Jetter for the New York Times Magazine, she spoke about the importance of storytelling in her life. "I believe that storytelling can be a strategy to help you make sense of your life," she told Jetter. "It's what I've done."
A Christian Century contributor wrote that the theme of Allison's Cavedweller is redemption, "the need for it, the courage it requires, and the time and effort that may be necessary to achieve it." Entertainment Weekly reviewer Margot Mifflin called the book "a sprawling, bighearted, Southern-fried slab of family drama." Advocate writer Carol Anshaw found the work "a woman's book through and through, filled with women's suffering, women's strength, women's survival."
In Cavedweller, Delia Byrd, a singer with a rock and roll band, returns to her Georgia hometown with Cissy, her daughter by a rock star lover who had been killed in a motorcycle accident. Delia had fled more than ten years earlier to escape an abusive husband and had left behind her daughters Amanda and Dede, now teenagers. Delia works to earn the town's respect, first cleaning houses, then by managing the town's beauty shop, as she reclaims her daughters and also nurses their father, Clint, who is dying of cancer.
Writing in Lambda Book Report, Deborah Peifer described Amanda and Dede as "lost girls, raised by their bitterly religious grandmother, a woman who smiles only at another's misfortune. Amanda has become her grandmother, religious and filled with hate for sin and sinners; Dede is prepared to take life on, no matter what it offers. Delia and her daughters are the heart of this novel, and their journeys, through hate and rage to love, acceptance, the possibility of redemption, with many and varied detours along the way, form its soul." Time contributor R.Z. Sheppard wrote that Allison "has a grip on the elementary physics of gender: women are centripetal, the force that binds. Men are centrifugal; for all their good intentions, they feel best when whirling away from the center."
Nation contributor JoAnn Wypijewski wrote that "'grief' peppers the pages of a story that's harder than Bastard, harder because the air of high Southern Gothic (the home terror, the family tragedy worthy of Flannery O'Connor) is trapped in the past, harder because the poverty is far more familiar and far better managed, harder because its central figures aren't at all the 'characters' Northerners find so comforting in 'Southern writing,' harder because it has a happy ending."
When Cissy is fifteen, her exploring takes her to the caves that are both threatening and comforting as she attempts to understand her sexuality and attraction to lesbian friends. Allison told Salon.com interviewer Laura Miller that she began writing the book by picturing Cissy in the cave. "The notion was of somebody in such trouble that the only place she was going to feel safe was in this hole in the ground. And I had the notion of a woman who, in order to redeem herself, basically buries herself alive." Wypijewski felt that it is at this point that Cissy "begins to emerge as something other than the novel's neutral slate. Allison uses an omniscient narrator in this book, unlike the hopeful-angry girl-voice of Bastard, but the perspective seems to be Delia's until past halfway though, when ever so slowly it shifts to Cissy. In a sense, this child has always monitored the action."
Valerie Sayers wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Cavedweller "is not a novel interested in formal invention, in ironic distance, or even in elegant prose. It doesn't give two cents for post-modern preening or cold intellectual approaches. It is clear-eyed about the economic forces that shape these women's lives, but it is also unabashedly emotional and hopeful about their futures. It reaches back to the conventions of straightforward storytelling and pays close attention to the way women get by, the way they come to forgive one another, the way they choose who they will be."
In an essay for Library Journal, David Hellman identified Bastard out of Carolina as a "grit-lit classic." He described the genre as being "full of pluck … [with] the abrasive quality of sand in your shoes. Like table-side grits, it is also comfort food for those who love it, nasty and unfamiliar stuff to those who don't." Allison herself recognizes the uncomfortable notes she strikes so well in her work. The Buffalo News quoted her as saying: "I know that some authors write for truth. I know that others write for justice. And some might even write for love. But I'm here to tell you there is another reason authors write fiction, and that reason is revenge." Whatever her motives, Allison emerged in the late twentieth century as one of the premiere practitioners of realistic fiction depicting the plight of the poor, the lesbian, and the class-conscious intellectual.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Allison, Dorothy, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (autobiography), Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.
Contemporary Novelists, seventh edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Contemporary Southern Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
Gilmore, Leigh, The Limits of Autobiography: Trauma and Testimony, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 2001.
Advocate, April 7, 1992, p. 70; March 9, 1993, p. 66; May 17, 1994, p. 72; September 5, 1995, p. 63; March 17, 1998, Carol Anshaw, review of Cavedweller, p. 62.
Booklist, June 15, 1992, review of Bastard out of Carolina, p. 1814.
Christian Century, March 10, 1999, review of Cavedweller, p. 291.
Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 1998, review of Cavedweller, p. 15.
College Literature, spring, 1998, Katrina Irving, "'Writing It down So That It Would Be Real': Narrative Strategies in Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina," p. 94.
Contemporary Literature, summer, 1998, Deborah Horvitz, "'Sadism Demands a Story': Oedipus, Feminism, and Sexuality in Gayl Jones's Corregidora and Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina," p. 238.
Entertainment Weekly, April 3, 1998, Margot Mifflin, review of Cavedweller, p. 89.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1998, review of Cavedweller, p. 70.
Lambda Book Report, July, 1998, Deborah Peifer, review of Cavedweller, p. 24.
Library Journal, March 1, 1992, p. 116; March 1, 1998, review of Cavedweller, p. 125.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 1, 1995, p. 3; July 30, 1995, p. 6; March 15, 1998, review of Cavedweller, p. 8.
Ms., September-October, 1995, p. 80; May, 1998, review of Cavedweller, p. 85.
Nation, December 28, 1992, p. 815; July 5, 1993, p. 20; March 30, 1998, JoAnn Wypijewski, review of Cavedweller, p. 25.
New Statesman & Society, January 8, 1993, p. 41.
Newsweek, March 30, 1998, Jeff Giles, "Return of the Rebel Belle: A New Novel from Dorothy Allison, Author of Bastard out of Carolina," p. 66.
New York Times Book Review, July 5, 1992, p. 3; June 26, 1994, p. 15; September 25, 1994, p. 29; August 13, 1995, p. 16; March 15, 1998, Valerie Sayers, "Back Home in Dixie," p. 19; June 20, 1999, review of Cavedweller, p. 24.
New York Times Magazine, December 17, 1995, Alexis Jetter, "The Roseanne of Literature," p. 54.
Observer (London, England), August 30, 1998, review of Cavedweller, p. 16.
People Weekly, April 6, 1998, Alison M. Rosen, review of Cavedweller, p. 31.
Progressive, January, 1995, p. 38; July, 1995, p. 30.
Publishers Weekly, November 18, 1988, p. 74; March 22, 1991, p. 77; January 27, 1992, p. 88; February 1, 1993, p. 12; May 29, 1995, p. 72; January 19, 1998, review of Cavedweller, p. 369.
Rapport, May, 1999, review of Cavedweller, p. 33.
Southern Literary Journal, fall, 2000, Vincent King, "Hopeful Grief: The Prospect of a Postmodernist Feminism in Allison's Bastard out of Carolina," p. 122.
Time, April 13, 1998, R.Z. Sheppard, review of Cavedweller, p. 221.
Times Literary Supplement, March 8, 1991, p. 18; August 28, 1998, review of Cavedweller, p. 21.
Washington Post Book World, May 3, 1992, review of Bastard out of Carolina, p. 11; April 5, 1998, review of Cavedweller, p. 1; May 9, 1999, review of Cavedweller, p. 10.
Women's Review of Books, September, 1994, p. 10; December, 1995, p. 14.
Curve Magazine, http://www.curvemag.com/ (September 7, 2001), Kathleen Wilkinson, "Dorothy Allison: The Value of Redemption."
Dorothy Allison Home Page, http://www.previewport.com/Home/ (September 7, 2001).
Gay.com, http://www.content/gay.com/ (September 7, 2001), Mary Ann Stover, "Dorothy Allison Weaves Tales from the Heart."
Printed Matter, http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/ (February 8, 1998), Elisabeth Sherwin, "Patron Saint of Battered Women Writes, Forgives."
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (March 31, 1998), Laura Miller, "The Salon.com Interview: Dorothy Allison."