Dorothy Allison's Harrowing Personal Tales

Author Dorothy Allison explores a darker side of Southern literature with novels like Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller

It's been 11 years since the publication of her last novel, and Dorothy Allison is still reeling from a three-year period of acute writer's block. She has a novel in the works, but isn't sharing many details. It is to be called She Who, but when pressed for further info Allison quickly replies, "I talk about it as little as possible."

She claims to be embarrassed by the length of time that has elapsed between books, but looking back over her 26-year writing career it's obvious she's stayed busy since her first book debuted. A 1983 collection of poems titled The Women Who Hate Me, first published in chapbook form, initiated Allison into the writing world. Success came with the publication of Trash, a 1988 collection of short stories that won two Lambda Literary Awards as well as the American Library Association Prize for Lesbian and Gay Writing. In addition to her fiction, poetry, and a memoir written to be performed aloud, Allison has contributed to several feminist- and gay-issues journals and been featured in numerous anthologies.

Though Allison waves away questions about her new book, she's known for candor and openness about her personal life. She came out as a lesbian when the second wave of the feminist movement was gaining momentum in the early 1970s, and she credits a group of extreme feminists with encouraging her to pursue a writing career when she was in college. She has unflinchingly depicted child abuse, lesbian sex, domestic violence, class, and gender conflict in her trademark narratives of blue-collar Southern women's lives, and been highly forthcoming in revealing the parts of her own life that her stories have come from. One word Allison uses frequently in interviews is "mean"—she says she tells "mean" stories and is a "mean" person. Her work may indeed stand out for the exceptionally rough lives she inflicts on her characters, but Allison's personal connection to her writing and interest in giving a voice to people who often go unheard calls to mind compassion rather than meanness.

She has written two novels—Bastard Out of Carolina, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992, and 1998's Cavedweller. Bastard Out of Carolina centers on a young girl who goes by the name "Bone," born to an unmarried 15-year-old. Bone's mother marries a man named Glen, a restless middle-class troublemaker who physically and psychologically abuses Bone throughout her childhood and adolescence, obliterating Bone's relationship with her mother. Her mother's own fear and neediness prohibits her from confronting and divorcing Glen.

Cavedweller also chronicles a strained mother-daughter relationship. After the death of her boyfriend, Delia Byrd moves with her 10-year-old daughter from Los Angeles back to her hometown of Cayro, Ga., where she has left behind two other young teenage girls from a prior, abusive relationship. The story is told alternately by Delia and her youngest daughter Cissy, a sour misfit who loves science fiction and the darkness of caves.

Allison's novels both focus heavily on Southern motifs—cultural markers, family relationships, being impoverished and illegitimate. She beautifully illustrates the lives of poor South Carolinians, but avoids entirely the "eccentric Southern Gothic" theme that still haunts many Southern writers. That may well be the most singular thing about Allison's brand of Southern literature—she tells Southern stories, but more broadly they are stories of injustice and pain that can and do happen any place at all.

Because of the subjects she writes about, Allison has earned a reputation as an unofficial spokesperson for survivors of abuse. She's often faced with fans and readers who want to share their own painful pasts. She wants to be sympathetic, but it's not always easy. "Mostly people just want to say, ‘We made it through and we're still alive! Oh lord!'" she says.

Despite the subjects of her fiction, and the parallels to her own life, she insists that she doesn't write with catharsis in mind. It's incidental that her candor about her own history—growing up poor, coming out, surviving years of sexual abuse as a young girl—has made her an icon for readers with similar backgrounds. What's essential is that it gives her stories a startling frankness.

"I craft fiction," she says. "It's not therapy."

Allison says it's not always people who have lived through similar stories who approach her but "people with an emotionally complex life"—such as working-class kids who find themselves in an unfamiliar environment in college, surrounded by more privileged students who've been raised in an utterly different world. Allison experienced this sense of alienation firsthand when she began accepting positions and speaking engagements at some of the nation's top universities. Reflecting on students she met at Stanford University, Allison describes what she calls "golden children": "They're beautiful, they're smart, and they're good. You meet children raised to be generous, loving, and compassionate. Sometimes I'm jealous of them on behalf of my nieces and nephews."

Teaching young people whose life experiences diverged so widely from her own frustrated Allison; it didn't take long for her to adopt the motto "You can't teach people and hate them at the same time." Allison coped with this new challenge by imagining these "golden children" in the dire situations of the characters in her novels and the children she grew up with. It wasn't a wicked fantasy, but rather a meditation on the ways in which upbringing and experience influence who a person turns out to be. She admits that it may indeed have been a cold way of getting acclimated to the prep-school educated set, but it worked—and seems to have inspired the forthcoming She Who, in which a wealthy young woman finds herself forever changed after being thrown off a San Francisco parking deck.

"You throw someone off a building and suddenly they're a different person," she says.

Currently living in North Carolina as writer-in-residence at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C., Allison is now an enthusiastic teacher. Writers of literary fiction have few options for making a living other than teaching, and Allison says she feels the two careers draw from the same parts of a person.

"Teaching uses the same emotional energy as writing does," she says. "If writers don't like teaching, it's really tragic for their students."

Allison is also an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a Chattanooga-based society of about 50 writers who have made significant contributions to the development of Southern literature. She's currently on the touring circuit as part of the Benefit Reading Series, which features a small group of traveling writers who offer readings, lectures, and book-signings.

"Writers are never well enough off to give much cash away," she says. "We volunteer as our donation."

Since she gives them so frequently, readings feature ever-changing selections.

"I always bring at least three different pieces so it's fresh and not boring," she says.

Short stories are a personal favorite of hers, and as she has a nearly-complete book of them to be published after her new novel is released, it's likely that she'll use some of this material for her Knoxville visit. Allison finds herself traveling extensively, and accepts it as just another part of the writer's life.

"I find it exhausting," she says. "If you're a writer you will travel—you will stagger off of trains and buses."