born 11 April 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina
60. birthday 11 April 2009
Describing herself as a feminist and a working class storyteller who writes to change the world, Dorothy Allison is an accomplished writer and speaker who frankly tackles gender, class, violence, and sexual orientation.
Dorothy was born on April 11, 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, the first child of Ruth Gibson Allison, a poor, unmarried fifteen-year-old. Dorothy and her younger sister did not get to know their father, who died when they were still babies. Ruth worked as a waitress and clothes launderer and maintained close relationships with her own mother and sister. From an early age, Dorothy admired her grandmother and Aunt Dot as strong women and dazzling storytellers.
When Dorothy was five, Ruth married a route salesman who began sexually abusing Dorothy. At age eleven, Dorothy was able to talk of the continuing molestation to a cousin, who informed Ruth. Although Ruth took the children away from their stepfather for few weeks, they returned when the stepfather swore he would stop. However, the abuse did not end for another two years, at which point she and her sisters found ways to discourage their stepfather’s sexual advances.
Around the same time, Allison’s stepfather lost his job and the family could not pay their bills, so they decided to make a fresh start in Central Florida. Despite continuing poverty and her mother’s worsening health, Dorothy found relief when her classmates and teachers recognized her intelligence despite her “white trash” working class background. In her essay, “A Question of Class,” Allison notes, “because they did not see poverty and hopelessness as a foregone conclusion for my life, I could begin to imagine other futures for myself.”
Allison did begin to create another future, winning a national merit scholarship to Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College). Aware of her attraction to women since early adolescence, Allison fully embraced the women’s movement at college, studying feminist literature and living in a women’s collective, while sneaking out to date “butch” women. Upon graduation in 1971, she worked as a substitute teacher, maid, and Social Security Administration clerk, while volunteering at a feminist magazine and rape crisis center.
Allison soon moved to New York to pursue a master’s in anthropology at the New School for Social Research. During the 1970s and early 1980s, she was an award winning editor and writer for early feminist and lesbian and gay journals including Quest, Conditions, and Outlook. Allison also continued her own maverick lesbian-feminist activism, helping found the “Lesbian Sex Mafia,” a support group for lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, and transexual women engaged in consensual bondage, discipline, sadomasochism, and alternate gender identities.
With her first published work, a collection of poetry called The Women Who Hate Me (1983), Allison honored and scrutinized her class background and sexuality, and at the same time outraged mainstream feminists by lauding promiscuity, sadomasochism, and butch-femme roles. In 1988 she won two Lambda Literary Awards for a short story collection, Trash. In the preface, she declares the collection to be “the condensed and reinvented experience of a cross-eyed working class lesbian, addicted to violence, language, and hope, who has made the decision to live.” Parallel to the literary exploration of her Southern working class background, during this time Allison also reconnected with her sisters and mother, from whom she had distanced herself as a young adult.
Allison won the strongest mainstream praise for her largely autobiographical novel, Bastard out of Carolina (1992), a best seller and a finalist for the National Book Award. In Bastard, Allison offers a loving, humorous, and unsentimental portrayal of a girl from a poor family who suffers sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather. Allison presents her characters fully, powerfully capturing both painful incest scenes and the girl’s admiration of the strong women in her family, including an aunt who once had a love affair with another woman. The book has been translated into more than a dozen languages and was adapted into an award-winning movie in 1996.
In 1994 Allison released an essay collection, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature, which won the American Library Association’s Gay & Lesbian Book Award. A year later the New York Times Book Review named her memoir, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995), a notable book of the year. In her second novel, Cavedweller (1998), Allison further developed themes of poverty, family violence, and redemption. A New York Times bestseller and prize-winner, the book was adapted into a play and a movie (2003).
A member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and former board member of Feminists for Academic Freedom, Allison counts among her literary influences Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Jewelle Gomez, and Audre Lorde. In 1998 Allison founded The Independent Spirit Award to support writers who help sustain small presses and independent bookstores. She was awarded the 2007 Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction and her forthcoming novel is She Who.
Allison now lives in the San Francisco area with her partner of eighteen years, Alix Layman, and son, Wolf Michael. She maintains a busy speaking schedule and is Emory University Center for Humanistic Inquiry’s Distinguished Visiting Professor in spring 2008.
Quotes from Allison
“I wear my skin only as thin as I have to, armor myself only as much as seems absolutely necessary. I try to live naked in the world, unashamed even under attack, unafraid even though I know how much there is to fear.” – from Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature essay collection
“I don’t want to simplify when I write. I want people there with their warts on. I want you to love them even when you hate them.” - from Happy Endings essay by Kate Brandt
“It’s an illusion that writers have a lot of choice about what they write,” she explains. “Your stories are your stories. They’re the only ones you can really tell, and if you try telling ones the world would like you tell, you’ll do it badly.” – Curve Magazine 2001
“I write who I can write—people I can understand. I can understand deeply wounded, hidden kinds of girls.” – Curve Magazine 2001
“There are only supposed to be certain people who are worth the trouble and you basically have to be middle class or exceptional in some way, really beautiful or really smart or be kissed by Jesus for god’s sake—the rest of us, we’re background noise and our stories aren’t important. And I just don’t believe that. I think the working class is the story of this country. The rich and the upper class have been riding on our asses for hundreds of years, and I don’t want to see us made over into a story that glorifies them. Our stories are glory enough.” – Curve Magazine 2001
“feminism 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.”
re: intersecting oppressions
“we are the ones they make fiction of – we gay and disenfrancished and female – and we have the right to demand our full, nasty, complicated lives” –
“Entitlement … is a matter of feeling like we rather than they … I have never been able to make clear the degree of my fear, the extent to which I feel myself denied: not only that I am queer in a world that hates queers, but that I was born poor into a world that despises the poor. The need to make my world believable to people who have never experienced it is part of why I write fiction.”—“A Question of Class,” p 14
“And my family is consummate trash. Absolute. We are the people who become mechanics and laundry workers. And to say that there is something good and valuable in that heritage is an act of rebellion, and almost revolutionary.” - from Happy Endings Kate Brandt
“the inescapable impact of being born in a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible, and somehow deserved, has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it.”—“A Question of Class,” p 15
“I’m completely aware that people would like me to write a love story. It’s just that when I write a love story you probably are not goin’ to be able to tell. I don’t believe in romance in that sense. I actually believe romance is almost as much work as raising children.” – Curve Magazine 2001
The Women Who Hate Me (1983, poetry)
Trash 1988 (short stories), Lambda literary awards - best lesbian small press book & best lesbian fiction
The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry, 1980-1990 (1991)
Bastard Out of Carolina 1992 (novel) – National Book Award finalist, Ferro Grumley & Bay Area Book Reviewers Awards
Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature 1994 (essay collection) – Gay & Lesbian Book Award, American Library Association
Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995, memoir) – named notable book of the year by NYT Book Review
Cavedweller 1998 (novel) – Lambda literary award for fiction
The expanded edition of Trash (2002) - included the prize winning short story, “Compassion” selected for both Best American Short Stories 2003 and Best New Stories from the South 2003.
She Who (forthcoming from Penguin Putnam)
Allison’s website Accessed April 14, 2008. Includes photos & extensive timeline of publications & speaking events, etc.
Allison, Dorothy. Skin : talking about sex, class & literature. Ithaca, N.Y. : Firebrand Books, 1994.
Brandt, Kate. “Dorothy Allison: Telling Tales, Telling Truths,” in Happy endings : lesbian writers talk about their lives and work. Tallahassee, Fla.: Naiad Press, 1993, pp. 9-18.
Domina, Lynn. “Allison, Dorothy,” in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present. Ed. Taryn Benbow-Pfalzgraf. Vol. 1. 2nd ed. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000, pp. 23-24.
“Dorothy Allison.” Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 53. Gale Group, 2003. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
“Dorothy Allison.” Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
“Dorothy E. Allison.” Contemporary Novelists, 7th ed. St. James Press, 2001. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
“Dorothy Allison.” Contemporary Southern Writers. St. James Press, 1999. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
“Dorothy (E.) Allison.” Feminist Writers. St. James Press, 1996. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
“Dorothy Allison.” Gay & Lesbian Biography. St. James Press, 1997. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008.
Allison, Dorothy with Minnie Bruce Pratt. “The Progressive Interview: Dorothy Allison,” in Progressive, Vol. 59, No. 7, July 1995, pp. 30-34.
Miller, Laura. “Dorothy Allison Talks About Working-Class Guilt, The Film Version Of “Bastard Out Of Carolina” And Coming Out—As A Science-Fiction Fan,” Salon. March 31, 1998.
Stover, Mary Ann, “Dorothy Allison Weaves Tales from the Heart.” Gay.com September 7, 2001.
Wilkinson, Kathleen, “Dorothy Allison: The Value of Redemption.” Curve Magazine, September 7, 2001.
Additional articles (not consulted for this biography):
• Huston, Bo. “A Storyteller out of Hell,” in Advocate, 7 April 1992: 70-72.
• Jetter, Alexis. “The Roseanne of Literature,” in New York Times Magazine, 17 December 1995: 54-57.
• Kenan, Randall. “Sorrow’s Child,” in Nation, 28 December 1992: 815-16.
• Megan, Carolyn. “Moving Toward Truth: An Interview with Dorothy Allison,” in Kenyon Review 16, 1994: 71-83.
• Moore, Lisa, “Dorothy Allison” in Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook edited by Sandra Pollack and Denise Knight, Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1993.
• Sherwin, Elisabeth, “Patron Saint of Battered Women Writes, Forgives.” Printed Matter, February 8, 1998, http://www.dcn.davis.ca.us/
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