by Madelyn Arnold
SGN Contributing Writer
As The Village Voice says: "Dorothy Allison writes better about fury and forgiveness and all... in between than any ... [other] contemporary writer..." Bent Writing Collective's October 14 production featured Allison as it's "Mentor" speaker. Tyra Hardy, who engendered Bent, introduced Allison as I have seldom heard anyone introduced, crediting her with no less than saving her life. That Allison's work had made her see herself as able to write, that what she had to write about was worthwhile and important.
New York Times Book Review demands that we: "please reserve a seat of honor at the high table of the art of fiction for Dorothy Allison." High praise indeed. And most of us who have read Allison's work agree " this writer does.
Hardy finished with: "and now, the immortal Dorothy Allison."
CATCHING UP WITH DOROTHY ALLISON
Madelyn Arnold: Lets see, is this your " please correct me " fifth book?
Dorothy Allison: I don't remember. This is my third novel, and I'm working on poems... but I won't be publishing them for a long time.
MA: You know how critics say that writers, however marvelous they are, are essentially writing the same book over and over. That is, the same subject. What do you find yourself repeatedly writing?
DA: Well, in some way, I will always be writing about violence in the home, about violence in families. How people that need each other " that care for each other " tear at each other. We're pretty ruthless with each other, and I want to write about that in a particular way. Like the story I read tonight [Tell Me Something I Don't Know] " I don't want to candy-ass anything; we fuck each other up, but no margin is given for the complexities of how that happens. And no margin is given to the people that are hurt, so they can be different.
MA: About class... You were saying you don't write about rich people, that you know about them because you worked for them.
DA: For survival. I know what I need to know about them.
MA: Do you look out at that big garden of yours to see where your next meal is coming from because you need to, or because you want to?
DA: I think [about] the way I grew up. I took in such a level of fear and horror that I am constructed in such a way... it may be that I will never have to live off my tomatoes, but if it happens that I do, I'll be ready. ... My family makes fun of me " my son and my partner laugh about it and tease me about it, but I stockpile food. I live in a state of conditioned fear, and I don't know how to get rid of it. I laugh about it, and I've worked hard to take care of it... but... push comes to shove, I'm ready. I can't stop that mechanism in the back of my head that's always calculating. People who have not grown up with that kind of... terror [and] helplessness... when nothing you do [could affect] your circumstances...
MA: So, the fact that you put words on paper, and those words have gone out to the world, that hasn't "cured" this problem? Or how much has it changed?
DA: Me or the world?
MA: I do think you have changed the world, or changed our view of how our writings can have an impact on the world. I think you're one of the few writers recently who has " as that woman [Tara Hardy] was saying tonight... How do you see the way your writing affects the world? How do you see yourself? As primarily an entertainer? Is this a Camp Meeting?
DA: Yes, sometimes it is a Camp Meeting. Sometimes it's just that I'm broke and I show up to earn some money. But the difference between that and coming here to speak to these young writers about what they're doing... who are trying to make sense... you know what it's like when you start a story, you don't know where it's going to go. It takes you along with it and you discover what you meant to say.
It's everything to come and speak to people like this... they shine like new pennies " they are discovering they have something terrific to say, and how to say it.
It's old news that expatriate-southerner Allison loves Southern California. She lives outside Guerneville with her son, Wolf, and her partner, Alix Layman, in the "house that Bastard built". In fact that book, Bastard Out Of Carolina, jerked her out of relative obscurity as a Lesbian feminist writer and into the limelight of awards and great praise from the straight press.
MA: It was enough to go to a girl's head. Did it go to yours?
DA: Not really. Of course, it changed my condition of life. I was able to buy my house, where I have this big garden... I bought my own property... that's just about unheard of. I guess you could say I've been able to remain unshakable, and myself no matter where I am and what I'm doing. But I can't get any work done on my novel when I'm taking little jobs around the country " but that's when I work on short stories, like what I read tonight. For money I do these readings, teach workshops and classes away from home. Home is nice. Home is home.
MA: You and your partner... is it safe to say that at least one of you is married to you? Do you consider yourself married, now?
DA: As married as we can be. I don't believe in marriage. I write terrible family stories " that's what I write. ... And I write about class? That's what I write in these terrible family stories. There is a political language that people are afraid of " when I write about my family, and people like my family " I am translating that language. I'm not writing about rich people, who cares about that? I probably know more about them than they know about me. But they don't interest me, so I don't write about them. No, the stuff I'm most concerned about is how we need each other but don't take care of each other.
MA: What do you mean you don't believe in marriage?
DA: I mean, the government should get out of the marriage business. It shouldn't be messing with who bonds with whom " that's not its job. You can see what a great job they've been doing!
DA: I'm older than dirt, now, and you and I, we watched it, its all happened before: poverty, inequality, our government attacking other countries. The Movement was the education we should've been having, and now people are getting this education. They're shocked. We were shocked. Speaking of shocked, I was really distressed to see that one of the oldest Movement bookstores, one that was left up here in the Northwest, a place I always went to when I was up here, it too was gone. Red & Black Books was gone. I guess it was about the last one... Oh. And I do NOT believe in protective legislation.
MA: What do you mean?
DA: I mean if it's necessary for some group to have some kind of protection to do something, everybody should have it... Of course, it's been used to protect women right out of jobs -- women and children that is.
ATTACKED BY LOVE
Unlike a lot of writers, Allison didn't really begin writing until college. The first member of her family to graduate from high school, she went on to attend Florida Presbyterian college on a National Merit Scholarship and in 1979, studied Anthropology at the New School for Social Research. It was in college where love attacked her, as it does so many of us. This led to her first publication, which was in the college literary journal she headed.
DA: Amazing Grace, which went out of business right after it first appeared. That was in 1973, and what I wrote was a psychedelic poem about being badly treated by my girlfriend. The same thing almost everyone writes about at first. It's a funny thing, but my mother has loved everything I've ever written. I didn't come out until college. I mean, I had crushes -- I came out in my head -- but I didn't have the guts to come out physically until college. I tell you, it was pretty amazing: these middle-class girls had cars, and I never had cars. I loved them. They were a strange species and, therefore, downright fascinating " and vice versa, which becomes ever so NOT a compliment. We actually got along fine, thanks to my training as a waitress. I did feel some conflict, but it was the 70's... everybody was supposed to rise above these conflicts. And, now, I just don't care. I'm downright perverse.
Dorothy Allison was early an award-winning editor for Quest, Conditions, and Outlook " all early feminist and Lesbian & Gay journals. But when she burst into print, it was with a chapbook of poetry, The Women Who Hate Me, now out in its second edition. Her short story collection, Trash (1988), won two Lambda Literary Awards and the American Library Association Prize for Lesbian and Gay Writing.
She achieved mainstream recognition with her novel Bastard Out of Carolina, (1992) a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award. It won Ferro Grumley and Bay Area Book Reviewers Awards for fiction and an ALA Award for Lesbian and Gay Writing, which became a best seller, and, later, an award-winning movie directed by Angelica Huston. Her subsequent novel, Cavedweller (1998) became a national bestseller, NY Times Notable book of the year, finalist for the Lillian Smith prize, and an ALA prize winner. It won the 1998 Lambda Literary Award for Fiction.
But there's more....
A 1995 chapbook of Allison's performance work, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, was selected as a notable book of the year by the New York Times Book Review and translated into a short documentary entitled "Two or Three Things and Nothing for Sure". Ittook prizes at the Aspen and Toronto film festivals and premiered on PBS in the summer of 1998 as part of the acclaimed POV series.
Dorothy Allison's small press books include Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature (1995), a collection of Allison's essays, speeches and performance pieces, which won the 1995 American Library Association Gay and Lesbian Book Award.
In 1998, Allison founded The Independent Spirit Award, a prize given each year to an individual whose work with small presses and independent bookstores has helped to sustain them. The award "is designed to encourage the people and institutions which support new writers, and introduce readers to works that might otherwise go unheard and unread".
Allison is a member of the board of PEN International, the Advisory board of the National Coalition Against Censorship, and Feminists for Free Expression. She also serves on the advisory board of the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, a prize which is presented annually to a science fiction or fantasy work that explores and expands on contemporary ideas of gender.
Dorothy Allison will be writer in residence at Emory in Atlanta, Georgia, during the Spring of 2008.