Talking With Dorothy Allison
By Owen Keehnen
Originally published in Chicago Outlines August 1994 and subsequently appeared also in Wisconsin In Step and Out in Albuquerque.
Dorothy Allison began her writing career with a collection of poetry called The Women Who Hate Me. Her next effort, the short story collection Trash won two Lambda Book Awards in 1989. In 1992 her first novel Bastard Out of Carolina was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. Firebrand Books has just published Skin:Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature. It is a powerful, passionate, and diverse collection of essays about her upbringing and family, her lifelong feminist activism, her status as a lesbian sex radical, and her life as a writer and a Southern expatriate with attitude.
Ms Allison is also a popular lecturer and teacher. She was an editor of 'Out/Look' from 1988-90 as well as a keynote speaker at the 1992 OutWrite Conference. She currently lives in the Russian River area of Northern California with her partner and her son Wolf Michael.
Skin is a great collection of essays, do you have a favorite?
It varies depending on the time of the month. I have weird feelings regarding the whole book. I look at it and see a decade of me. I read it and become overwhelmed. I think partly it was seeing all that happened which at the time I was too busy to notice.
You speak of the stigma and shame of class and situation. How do you explain your ability to overcome it?
Yeah, compensation. It's also a particular attitude that's encouraged in my family. In my family the attitude that gets you through is a kind of contempt for the rest of the world and it's expectations. You're so used to being castigated and assaulted that you don't pay too much attention to anything anyone says. It's a strength with built in flaws because you don't listen to anything either.
How does it effect expression?
It forces you to express yourself. I'm just old enough now that I'm beginning to notice that not everyone has this drive for self-revelation or examination that I got as part of the package from my family.
Would you consider the same drive the basis for your radical and activist roots as well?
I think so, but it mutated in me because I'm a lesbian and I happened to be born into the particular time that I was. It didn’t have the same impact on the generations before me and it didn't have the same impact on my sisters or the other women in my family, but I see it have the same impact on some of the younger queer generation. It's as though being queer gives you this certain perspective that when you meld it with that working class outrage is really powerful. Now it also leads half of us to drink and drugs and self-destruction.
You're said your goal in fiction is to enlighten. What do you want people to recognize about poor people, queers, and Southern women?
That we're human. I think we become infinitely complicated caricatures. We are either caricatures of contempt or that "Oh you are so strong" thing and that's contemptible too. We're always seen through that filter of other people's fear and expectations. Some days I read through the book and see that it doesn't matter what other people think because I’m still figuring it out for myself.
As a founding member of The Lesbian Sex Mafia, self-proclaimed sexual outlaw, dildo user, butch-femme embracer, and leather fetishist, what do you feel is important in being outspoken regarding lesbian sex?
The fact that the world doesn’t know it exists. It is absolutely true that one of the things I had to struggle with my family about was that they thought I was a lesbian because I didn’t like sex!!! This is what my younger sisters told me about their notions of what a lesbian was. It startled me how much the general society agrees. All the lesbian sex magazines and stuff put out in the past couple years still hasn’t basically changed that. Above ground culture defines sex as hetero fucking and when you don’t engage in that male/female in/out act they don’t see it as sex, they see it as a denial of sex. They still have these incredibly arcane notions of who lesbians are. I’m convinced Middle America thinks we are either Sandra Bernhard fucking Madonna or we are the schoolteacher who doesn’t have sex at all but lives very quietly with the librarian and their cats. There are these two images with no middle ground. I'm just interested in making plain that we’re as sexual and complicated as anyone else. They think we don’t have erogenous drives; they should come over here when I’m premenstrual!
Do you see a difference between erotica and pornography or is it marketing?
There's no difference. It's a matter of class and in the past decade of politics. Ironically I think lesbian sex has been historically considered upper class, at least in the traditional mind. The only lesbians they knew were Emily Dickinson, and she wasn’t doing it, or Natalie Barney and I don’t know if they thought she did it but they were sure that she swore in French if she did. It was all those runaway upper class girls living on Daddy’s payoff money to stay out of the states. So, the idea of lesbianism as something your female garage mechanic did with the woman behind the counter at Walgreens is just not in the public imagination.
Were you surprised by your National Book Award nomination for Bastard Out of Carolina?
Oh God yes. Out of nowhere. I was devastated, really unnerved.
Did you have fun at the banquet?
I had a great time. I took my agent and we dressed up. I made my dress. We went in velvet and rhinestones and got drunk on champagne and had a perfectly wonderful time. My girlfriend, who couldn’t get a ticket to get inside, was in the bar outside so we celebrated afterwards. We went back to the hotel Dutton paid for and ran up a room service bill that would daunt even me. We were ordering oysters and barbecued wings at 4 a.m. It was wonderful.
But at the same time you were cancelled from giving a National Book Award speech in Oklahoma supposedly because you were a lesbian. How do you deal with that?
Actually that didn’t surprise me. It was something I was much more used to than The National Book Award nomination.
Has the trauma of incest lessened from fictionally venting it in Bastard Out of Carolina?
By the time I wrote it I'd already got it in a different place. I couldn't have written the book if I hadn't already worked through a lot of the healing. I know I couldn't because I know what my book Trash is like and I see the difference between it and Bastard.
Most of Trash, your short story collection, you said was written in a rage and most of Bastard from grief. What is the emotional core of your second novel Cavedweller due form Dutton in 1995?
Understanding. The core of Cavedweller is the relationship between two sisters who hate each other. The other theme is this young woman who, through the course of the novel, develops a sexual consciousness. So it's a book of coming to understanding.
Is there lots of pressure after getting so many honors for your first novel?
No explanation necessary. What do you think is the basic ingredient of good fiction?
Real characters, and then language. I'm a sucker for really beautiful language. I need people I can believe in, and then to take me over the top I need people who will take my breath away.
Do you have a first memory of wanting to be a writer?
Yeah, around puberty, but it went away pretty fast. I didn’t know anybody who was a writer and I didn't know how to be one. I didn’t believe anyone like me could be something like that, mostly because we were so poor.
If it weren't for writing what do you think you would have done?
I planned on being a history teacher, that’s what I would have been if the world worked the way I thought it did. Then puberty came along and then the women’s movement came along. As a writer I’m a storyteller and that’s exactly how I see history, as a series of fascinating stories.
Coming from your painful past, what are you and your partner Alix trying to instill in you're young son Wolf Michael?
It's overwhelming. What we talk about is we really want him to feel secure and loved since both of us missed some of that. I got some from my mother, and what little I got saved me, so I'm making damn sure he feels a really strong and supportive family behind him. Also we're trying to connect him. My sister has come to visit; we're trying to develop a relationship between him and his daddy donor. We want him to feel he has a place in the world that's solid and real.
He sounds very lucky. It's been great talking to you.