In her potent memoir and manifesto, “Two or Three Things I Know for Sure,” Dorothy Allison writes, “Oh, I could tell you stories that would darken the sky and stop the blood.” And then she declares, “I am not here to make anyone happy. What I am here for is to claim my life, my mama's death, our losses and our triumphs, to name them for myself.”
It's true that Allison writes unflinchingly about dark matters, most resoundingly in her world-altering masterpiece, “Bastard out of Carolina,” the indelible story of a young girl called Bone and her poor, fiercely loyal and catastrophically violent outlaw family. But Allison does make people happy nonetheless. Her language is mesmerizing and transcendent in its beauty and revelations. And in person, she is charming, funny, incisive and ardent.
The Harold Washington Library Center has a green room where writers and other speakers can gather their thoughts and check their hair and lipstick in private before facing the public. But on this cloudy and raw November Saturday morning before her Chicago Humanities Festival event, Allison is sitting at a table facing the escalator that delivers audience members to the lobby outside the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium.
"They wouldn't let me take my coffee back there," she explains with a smile. "And I don't mind. It's more interesting out here." As fans gather, Allison admires one woman's bright yellow, sparkling blouse, and in no time they're talking about raising boys versus raising girls. Allison says that she was looking forward to having a daughter who would love glitter and sequins. Instead, thanks to "one of God's great jokes," she and her wife, Alix Layman, have a son, Wolf Michael. At least he had the good fashion sense to insist that Allison wear a wedding dress when she and Layman became one of the 11,000 or so same-sex couples who got married in California during the brief time it was legal in 2008.
Allison loves Chicago. She revels in the wild weather, the views from tall buildings, the energy of the people and "those big, green, gorgeous, scary gargoyles" on the Harold Washington Library Center, which she thinks of as "the defenders of literature." When I was asked to conduct a conversation with Allison for the program titled "The Power of the Writer's Voice," I thought, who better to address this than Allison? Having survived and witnessed poverty and terror, she writes with exceptional valor, integrity and compassion about working-class families, sexism, incest, rape and domestic violence. She often speaks about the writer's role in society — and the intersection of life and literature — with reverent insight and irreverent humor.
The first person in her South Carolina family to graduate from high school, let alone win a college scholarship and earn an advanced degree, Allison built the foundation for her extraordinary literary life by becoming an award-winning editor for early feminist and lesbian and gay journals. Her first book of fiction, "Trash," is a blazing short story collection that garnered the Lambda Literary Award and the American Library Association Prize for Lesbian and Gay Writing. A clarion essay collection, "Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature," followed, and her second novel, "Cavedweller," the haunting ballad of Delia Byrd and her daughters, became a best-seller. Both of her novels have been made into movies.
"Bastard out of Carolina" has just been reissued in a handsome 20th anniversary edition. In her afterword, Allison writes poignantly about the anguish and anger she feels each time this novel is banned at schools and libraries. But when I ask her about being a banned writer onstage, she jokes about being "in great company." Warming to the subject, she says:
"Some of my favorite writers have been banned, and for generally the same reasons. For being too dangerous, too provocative, too explicit, writing about violence, writing about sexuality. But writing is supposed to be dangerous. My assumption when I began writing was that you were never going to make any money. And you were never going to reach everyone. Therefore you had to do as much as you could in the service of something you genuinely believed in. And if you do that and people get upset, well, there you go."
When I ask Allison about how the women's movement inspired her to become a writer, she responds by sharing memories of when she was a young lesbian and feminist activist in the early 1970s, when a woman could not get a credit card or rent an apartment without having a father or husband co-sign the paperwork. She becomes livid all over again as she recounts how her outrage over such egregious sexual discrimination induced her to become "provocatively active." Allison leans toward the audience to work her peppery storyteller's spell as she looks further back to her childhood:
"I was born in 1949, and by the time I was 10, I figured out that my hope chest was not aimed in the same direction everybody else's was. And that life was going to be very, very complicated. And that I could either be provocative and declamatory, or shy, retiring and scared. And ashamed. I couldn't do much about scared; I was always going to be scared. But I could damn well fight off shame."
Yet commitment to ideas and a cause is not enough for a fiction writer. Allison has taught writing all across the country, including a stint as writer-in-residence in the fiction department at Columbia College Chicago in 2006. As she talks about working with "baby writers," her affection, empathy and respect are obvious. She is especially effusive when she recounts her experiences working with a young, gay, aspiring Puerto Rican-American writer named Justin Torres, whose manuscript became his acclaimed first novel, "We the Animals."
"The hardest thing to teach young writers is that it's wonderful to tell your truth. And that's what you should do. But it damn well better be beautiful," Allison says. "I was a child who learned to love my life in books. I remember being 10, 11, 12 years old and falling into novels like falling into a river. Books so gorgeous, language so powerful that it made what the stories were about reasonable. It has to be beautiful, it has to sing. That takes work. And that also takes letting go a lot of your personal agendas. Almost all writers come to writing with something they want to accomplish. Purpose is wonderful. The problem is you can get very strident. Very determined. Very political. Then your language suffers. And you write in a doctrinaire, clipped language that I don't want to read. I want language that makes me drunk. Or that takes me up out of myself."
How does Allison move from the vivid particulars of the compelling characters and suspenseful plot in "Cavedweller" to the deeper realm of shared human emotion?
"Where story comes from, I don't know. I know that I become obsessed with something. An idea, an image, a person, the way a person talks. And then something starts happening that I can't explain, and it has a lot to do with language. It's about growing up reading constantly, even constantly reading bad poetry and listening to tacky music. And getting the sense that everything happens on more than one level. On one level, it's all predictable and sad. But take it down, and it becomes essential and lovely; and take it further down, and everything echoes up.
"I learned from reading Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers and Flannery O'Connor. I learned that playing with language is the greatest thing in the world. ... It becomes glorious, complicated, layered and textured. And the surprise is that when you're fully in the creation, you don't always know what you're doing."
What Allison does know is that it takes conviction and hard work to reach the place where language flows. And that it is worth the effort, even now as we navigate an endless sea of electronic babble and the imperative to do everything fast and faster. Allison assures us, "I don't find any diminishment in the need for story. Or any diminishment in people's passionate engagement with literature."
Donna Seaman is a senior editor for Booklist. Her author interviews are collected in "Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books."
"Bastard out of Carolina"
By Dorothy Allison, Plume, 336 pages, $16