Born 11 April 1949, Greenville, South Carolina
Daughter of Ruth Gibson Allison; children: Wolf Michael
When Dorothy Allison was born in 1949, her mother, Ruth Gibson Allison, was only 15 years old. In addition, she was poor and unmarried. This early experience of dramatic poverty would influence much of her work. Eventually, Allison's mother married a man who was not Allison's father; this stepfather abused her sexually for several years, until Allison described the experience to another relative. When Ruth Allison learned of these events, the abuse stopped, although she remained married to this husband. This experience of abuse would also inform much of Allison's writing.
After high school, Allison attended Florida Presbyterian College, currently known as Eckerd College; she earned her B.A. in 1971. She was introduced to feminism during her college years, an experience she credits with validating her life and feelings. She later earned an M.A. from the progressive New School for Social Research in New York City. She currently lives in California. Unlike many writers who have come of age during the last generation, Allison did not serve an apprenticeship in a creative writing program; she did not begin to consider herself a serious writer until after she earned her master's degree. She has been nominated for a National Book Award and has won a Lambda Literary award.
Allison is most well known for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), a book with many autobiographical overtones, although Allison asserts it is not simply an autobiography under another label. Yet much of the plot and many of the details do resemble Allison's life. The protagonist is a young girl named Ruth Anne Boatwright, known by her nickname, Bone. Bone is illegitimate, her family is exceptionally poor, and she suffers sexual abuse by her mother's current husband, Daddy Glen, whom her mother had married in part to relieve her family of its poverty. Despite the fact that her mother denies this abuse until she can no longer ignore it, Bone achieves some security in her family's community of women, especially with her Aunt Raylene, who had once engaged in a sexual relationship with another woman. While much of Bone's experience is marked by a sense of desperation, she nevertheless is also characterized by the grit of a survivor.
Bastard Out of Carolina was both a critical and a popular success, although some readers found it too blunt in its descriptions of poverty and abuse. Allison's writing is consistently direct and never sentimental. Regardless of a reader's aesthetic preferences, some of Allison's scenes are painful to read, but this is precisely her goal. She has stated that individuals of her background and experience have too often been the objects of writing by others; her goal, on the other hand, is to tell her own story rather than be told about, to present her life and the lives of people like her as fully as possible. Like many fiction writers, she claims stories create what meaning one can find in life.
In addition to Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison has published poetry, short stories, and essays, as well as a second novel. Her collection of stories, Trash (1988), received more attention than books published by small presses often do. These stories are characterized by many of the same themes as her longer fiction. More recently, Allison has published a collection of essays and a memoir, both of which address issues similar to those she raises in her fiction. Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature (1993), is provocative both in terms of the ideas it addresses and the style with which it addresses them. Her language, and her style in general, is easily accessible; her consistent choice to be direct precludes any option to participate in jargon that would exclude some of her intended audience. Although Allison is clearly a feminist, she does not avoid some of the current tensions within the mainstream feminist movement, including class differences and the implications that accompany them. Nor does she shy away from open acknowledgment of sexuality, sexual preference, and desire, even (or especially) when such a direct style may make some readers uncomfortable. She is no more willing, in other words, to tone her story down for middle-class feminists than she would be for conservative men.
Allison's recent book, Cavedweller (1997), is her second novel. Cavedweller is less obviously autobiographical. Critics have found this novel somewhat less stunning than her first, but that is perhaps inevitable. For the foreseeable future, Allison is likely to remain known most as the author of Bastard Out of Carolina, which was turned into a controversial film by Anjelica Huston.
The Women Who Hate Me (1983). The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry, 1980-1990 (1991). Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995).
CANR (1998). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).