For me, and probably for a lot of writers, self-confidence is a friable and tenuous thing. The least little nay-saying inner voice can derail a whole project. I cherish my friends who inspire me with a sense of possibility. Here is a shout-out to one of the wisest women I know, author Dorothy Allison (remember, her watershed novel is BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA). Love this woman. Love her books. Her writing speaks for itself:
“I wear my skin as thinly 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….I tell myself that life is the long struggle to understand and love fully. That to keep faith with those who have literally saved my life and made it possible for me to imagine more than survival, I have to try constantly to understand more, love more fully, go more naked in order to make others as safe as I myself want to be. I want to live past my own death, as my mother does, in what I have made possible for others–my sisters, my son, my lover, my community–the people I believe in absolutely, men and women whom death does not stop, who honor the truth of each other’s stories.” –An excerpt from Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature by Dorothy Allison
Could she be any more honest and brave? Her bio reads like one of her novels, only with a happier ending. Born to a fifteen-year-old unwed mother who quit the seventh grade to work as a waitress, Dorothy learned the power and perils of storytelling at a young age. She recalls “hiding out under the porch” and listening to her aunts tell stories, and entering a library or bookstore “with a sense of desperate passion.” Books were her escape from the world. She told Salon Magazine, “To find a way out of the world as I saw it, I read science fiction. To sustain my rage and hope, I read poetry and mainstream novels with female heroines. And I read books by Southerners for ammunition to use against Yankees who would treat me mean.”
The public library has long been important to Dorothy. “My most profound library memory was the shock I got after we moved to central Florida and I went to the school library there. I was thirteen and had gotten used to the South Carolina school libraries which were pitiful—full of biographies of generals and judges but not much else. The central Florida Library was enormous and had a world of books I could borrow—novels, poetry and theologies, history books, and my favorite section of the Dewey Decimal system—with all those books on the occult. I tried to check out everything—which earned me a quick note from the librarian to my mama asking if she knew what I was reading. ‘Did I have permission to read those books?’ ‘Let her read anything she wants,’ my mama told the lady. But it took a signed letter to get me the access I wanted.
“I think I scared most librarians – because I wanted to read the books they thought I should not read—the grown-up fiction and those plays by Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers. But the librarian I worked for when I was in my junior and senior years was a marvel. Mrs. James was fearless and just assumed all young women were like her and wanted to read everything. She was the one who told me about inter-library loan. Suddenly I wasn’t just stuck with what was in the Maynard Evans High School Library. I could request books from other High Schools or even the main library downtown.
“By the time I got to the eleventh grade, I had pretty much exhausted the new books, but Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty got me an after-school job at the school library where I got to record and accession all the new books. That meant I got to read them first. I am still grateful to Lyndon Johnson, and always will be. He may be known to everyone else for his role in the Viet Nam war, but to me he will always be the man who helped me save money for college and made it possible for me to first read the collected poems of Muriel Rukyeser.”
For Dorothy, the library was “the secret world where I could go hide and fall out of this world and into that other one where anything was possible. It had solid wooden tables, sturdy chairs, carpets and air conditioning. If I could have, I would have moved in and lived there. As it was, it was my home away from home—a refuge and a promise. I used to sit on the floor and lean against the bookcases, lean back and dream about having my own place some day—a place where books would be stacked just as high—novels and anthologies and blank books in which I could write my own poems. The library made me think all that was possible, and it was.
“I think the best thing about the library is and was how it always felt to me—not just that it was the repository of what I loved—books themselves—but that it was a place in which a reverence for the word was implicit. Libraries have always seemed to me temples of wisdom—places where study and quiet concentration were honored, and where wanting to read was admired, not held in contempt. I was the child of a truck driver and a waitress, a girl who lived in a claustrophobic house where both the television and the radio were playing loud all the time. The only books in our house—other than the few that were my own—were the big illustrated Bible and my mama’s collection of Mickey Spillane and Ross MacDonald. It worried my family that I tended to hide in a corner and read so much. I was constantly being told to ‘put down that book and go out and play’. But at the library, no one interrupted me, or if they did, they did it softly and with respect. At the library, reading was holy—which is how it felt to me, how it still feels to me.
“In my house, I limited my son’s access to computer and video games, but the house rule on books is simple. If he wants to read it, we will try to find it. And we not only go to the library frequently, we donate books to our local libraries all the time. I want the children in my county to have what I always wanted—new novels on the shelves waiting to be read. It’s just lucky that now publishers actually send me many of them, so that I, in turn, can pass them on.”
The Greenville, South Carolina native describes herself as a Southern novelist, feminist, confirmed flirt, femme, expatriate rebel, and born-again Californian. In a 1999 Salon interview, Dorothy says, “I was born to a very poor, violent family where most of my focus was purely on survival, and my sense of self as a lesbian grew along with my sense of myself as a raped child, a poor white Southerner and an embattled female. I was Violet Leduc’s Le Batard much more than I was Le Amazon, that creation of upper-class Natalie Barney. People tell me that class is no longer the defining factor it was when I was a girl, but I find that impossible to fully accept. Class is always a defining factor when you are the child one step down from everyone else.”
At the age of thirteen, she “…was always calculating how to not kill myself or how not to let myself be killed. That tends to stringently shape one’s imagination. I did not plan to fill up a hope chest and marry some good old boy and make babies….I was a smart, desperate teenage girl trying to figure out how to not be dismissed out of hand for who I was. I wanted to go to college, not become another waitress or factory worker or laundry person or counter-help woman like all the other women I knew. Everywhere I looked I saw a world that held people like me in contempt.”
After winning a National Merit Scholarship, Allison attended college and went on to study anthropology at the New School for Social Research. But storytelling was in her bones, and that, combined with an awakening feminist spirit, informs and inspires her award-winning work. For Dorothy, feminism “…was like opening your eyes under water. It hurt, but suddenly everything that had been dark and mysterious became visible and open to change.” The author believes her first book, The Women Who Hate Me, (1983) “wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t gotten over my own prejudices, and started talking to my mother and sisters again.”
Her literary influences are surprising. One was Flannery O’Connor — “that astonishing, brave visionary who told hard truths in a human voice — an outsider holding a whole society up to a polished mirror. She was as ruthless as one of her own characters, and I loved her with my whole heart…If I set aside Flannery O’Connor, I would have to say that science fiction made me who I am today. I spent my childhood buried in those books. Every science-fiction novel I fell into as a child…widened my imagination about what was possible for me in the world. There were those perfectly horrible/wonderful stories about barbarian swordswomen who were always falling in love with demons, and there were the Telzey stories and the Witch World books and countless brave and wonderful novels told from inside the imaginations of ‘special’ young girls….On another world, in a strange time and place, all categories were reshuffled and made over.”
Dorothy’s novel, Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), skyrocketed her to fame, boosted by a full page in the New York Times Book Review which proclaimed the novel “as close to flawless as any reader could ask for,” lauding the author’s “perfect ear for speech and its natural rhythms.” The Boston Globe her “one of the finest writers of her generation.” The novel rose to the top of national best seller lists and has been translated into more than a dozen languages. It was adapted and made into an award-winning and controversial movie, directed by Angelica Huston.
“In my family,” Allison says, “…we all commit some unforgivable sin and then spend the rest of our lives trying to redeem it in some fashion. And the romance of self-destruction: I truly do not know why some of us can resist it and some of us can’t, why some of us kill our children and some of us try to send them whole into the world.”
Dorothy serves on the boards of PEN International, the National Coalition Against Censorship and Feminists for Free Expression, and the advisory board of the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, presented annually to a science fiction or fantasy work that explores and expands on contemporary ideas of gender.
Her advice to writers is succinct: “You learn to live with uncertainty and poverty if you are going to be a writer. I’m still very blunt: If you want to be a writer, get a day job. The fact that I have actually been able to make a living at it is astonishing. I know so many great writers who can’t and, oh, it is not about justice. I am trying to carry it off with grace and a sense of humor.
“Understand me,” she writes. “What I am here for is to tell you stories you may not want to hear….And to scare hell out of you now and then. I was raised Baptist, I know how to do that.”
Some of Dorothy Allison’s Favorite Books
Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown.
Sula by Toni Morrison – “I remember…how this great grinding noise went through my brain. Of course, I thought.”
Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers.
My Antonia by Willa Cather.
The Persian Boy, Fire From Heaven and The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault.
Odd Girl Out and Beebo Brinker by Ann Bannon.
Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller.
The Female Man by Joanna Russ.
The Life of Poetry by Muriel Rukyeser.