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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Dorothy Allison
(b. 1949)

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, to a fourteen-year-old mother, Dorothy Allison was raised near her large extended family. After her mother married, her aunts provided occasional refuge from an abusive stepfather. The violence and chaos of her upbringing, stemming largely from her family’s poverty, fuel Allison’s writing, as does the strength she saw in her relatives’ survival despite such hopeless conditions. Her chance to escape came when a National Merit Scholarship paid for her to attend Florida Presbyterian College. She later earned a master’s degree in anthropology from the New School for Social Research in New York.

Allison became active in the women’s movement in the early seventies, working for several feminist publications and helping establish Herstore, a feminist bookstore in Tallahassee, Florida. She credits feminism for enabling her to become a writer. Although she had begun writing as a child, she viewed writing the truth as such a dangerous activity that she burned everything she wrote. But in 1973 friends in the lesbian-feminist collective where she was living convinced her to stop destroying her work.

Her first book, The Women Who Hate Me, was a collection of poems, most written in reaction to the protest surrounding the 1982 Barnard College “Towards a Politics of Sexuality” conference. The intent of that feminist conference was to discuss sexuality in all its complexity, but anti-pornography protesters effectively shut down the event by appealing to university administrators and personally attacking conference participants. Allison’s poems, which are frequently angry, focus on women’s relationships and lesbian sexuality. An expanded version of the book was published in 1991 with the subtitle Poetry 1980–1990.

In 1988 Allison published Trash, a collection of emotionally intense, frequently violent, and often comic short stories. Class difference is a predominant theme, as many of her characters confront others’ stereotypical expectations of rural southerners. The misunderstandings created by often romantic stereotypes are particularly poignant in stories depicting lesbian relationships. Given Allison’s subject matter, it is not surprising that among the writers she credits as influences are Flannery O’Connor, James Baldwin, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, Muriel Rukeyser, and Toni Morrison.

Allison’s earliest published work established her audience and reputation primarily in the lesbian community. Her first novel, Bastard out of Carolina (1992), gained her national attention. It won the Lambda Award and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Loosely autobiographical, the compelling first-person narrative follows Bone Boatwright’s survival of her stepfather’s sexual abuse. In 1996 the novel became a film directed by Anjelica Huston.

Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, composed after Allison completed the novel, debuted as a performance piece at The Lab in San Francisco in August 1991. Revised for publication in 1995, the work, which traces Allison’s family history by describing family photographs, explores the paradoxical power of stories to both support and delude. While Allison writes of her need to tell stories as part of her own survival, she also describes the “meanest” ones as those “the women [she] loved told themselves in secret—the stories that sustained and broke them.” A short documentary based on the work, Two or Three Things and Nothing for Sure, by Tina DiFeliciantonio and Jane Wagner, won prizes at both the Aspen and the Toronto film festivals and aired on PBS in 1998.

In 1994 Allison published a collection of critical and political essays under the descriptive title Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature. Her second novel appeared in 1998. Cavedweller, a New York Times bestseller, portrays the relationships between a woman and her three daughters, two of whom she abandoned when she fled from their father. Reviews praised the language, characterization, and emotional power of the story but noted that the novel’s structure weakens in the latter half. Allison is currently working on a project inspired by Janis Joplin. She lives in northern California with her partner Alix and her son Wolf.

Kelly Lynch Reames
Oklahoma State University

In the Heath Anthology
Don't Tell Me You Don't Know (1988)

Other Works

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Dorothy Allison
Literary and biographical introduction.

Dorothy Allison: The Value of Redemption
A Curve Magazine article about Allison.

The Salon Interview
Laura Miller's Salon interview with Allison about working-class guilt, the film adaptation of Bastard Out of Carolina, and more.

Secondary Sources

Moria P. Baker, "Dorothy Allison's Topography of Resistance, " Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review 5.3 (1998); 23-26

Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon, "'Born on the Wrong Side of the Porch': Violating Traditions in Bastard Out of Carolina," Southern Folklore 55 (1998): 133-44

Connie Griffin, "Going Naked into the World: Recovery and Re/presentation in the Works of Dorothy Allison," Concerns 26.3 (1999): 6-20

Lynda Hart, "Bearing (to) Witness: The Erotics of Power in Bastard Out of Carolina," Between the Body and the Flesh: Performing Sadomasochism, 1998

Katrina Iring, "'Writing It Down So That It Would Be Real': Narrative Struggles in Dorothy Allison's Bastard out of Carolina," College Literature 25 (1998): 94-107

Carolyn E. Megan, "Moving toward Truth: An Interview with Dorothy Allison," The Kenyon Review 16.4 (1994): 71-83

Jillian Sandell, "Telling Stories of 'Queer White Trash': Race, Class, and Sexuality in the Work of Dorothy Allison," White Trash: Race and Class in America, ed., Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, 1997