"I tell my students you have an absolute right to write about people you know and love. You do. But the kicker is you have a responsibility to make the characters large enough that you will not have sinned against them." -- Dorothy Allison
Dorothy Allison (born April 11, 1949) is an American writer, speaker, and member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers. She was raised in Greenville, South Carolina, the first child of a 15-year-old, unwed mother.
"Change, when it comes, cracks everything open.""Class, race, sexuality, gender and all other categories by which we categorize and dismiss each other need to be excavated from the inside.""Fiction is a piece of truth that turns lies to meaning.""I think I would have died if there hadn't been the women's movement.""One of the strengths I derive from my class background is that I am accustomed to contempt.""Two or three things I know for sure, and one is that I'd rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me.""When I was growing up, I always read horror books, while my sister read romance novels."
Dorothy E. Allison was born on April 11, 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina to Ruth Gibson Allison, who was fifteen at the time. Ruth was a poor and unmarried mother who worked as a waitress and cook. When Allison was five, her step dad began to sexually abuse her. It lasted for seven years (until age 11) and then she was able to tell a relative, who told Ruth, and it stopped. The family still would remain together. The physical abuse lasted for another five years, and she contracted gonorrhea from her stepfather. This went undiagnosed until Allison was in her 20's, making her unable to have children.
The family would move to central Florida to escape debt. Allison had witnessed her family members die because of the extreme poverty. Allison soon became the first person in her family to graduate high school. At age 18, she got out of the house and would soon attend college.
In the early 1970s, Allison attended Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College) on a National Merit scholarship. While in college, she joined the women's movement by way of a feminist collective. She credits "militant feminists" for encouraging her decision to write. After graduating with a B.A. in anthropology, she did graduate studies in anthropology at Florida State University.
Allison held a wide variety of jobs before her career took off: she was a salad girl, a maid, a nanny, a substitute teacher, helped establish a feminist bookstore in Florida, worked at a child-care center, answered phones at a rape crisis center, and clerked with the Social Security Administration. She trained during the day and at night she sat in her motel room and wrote on yellow legal pads. She wrote about her life experiences, including the abuse by her stepfather, poverty, her lust for women. This became the backbone of her future works.
In 1979, she moved to New York City, where she began classes at the New School for Social Research where she would receive her M.A. in urban anthropology in 1981.
She was a panelist at the Barnard Conference on Sexuality in 1982, where the New York chapter of Women Against Pornography picketed outside, calling the panelists "anti-feminist terrorists", and even accused Allison of being a proponent of the sexual abuse of children because of the content in her works. She responded to these critics in The Women Who Hate Me: Poems by Dorothy Allison, a collection of poems that won her recognition among the gay and lesbian community.
At this time, she was teaching college courses, served as a guest lecturer, and contributing to publications like The Village Voice, the New York Native, and the Voice Literary Supplement.
In 1988, Allison published Trash: Short Stories, a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, which won her two Lambda Literary Awards. The book was inspired by a negative review of Mab Segrest's novel My Mama's Dead Squirrel that infuriated Allison. Segrest's work was one of her favorite novels and she was repulsed by reviewer's use of words like "white trash" and his insulting attitude toward Southerners. To dispel the stereotype that Southerners were stupid, brain-damaged, or morally lacking, she spent the next two years pumping out Trash. The title of the book derives from the word used as a racial slur against her family.
She had spent nearly a decade attempting to finish her first novel Bastard Out of Carolina, which she took half-finished to Dutton Publishing in 1989, where she received a $37,500 cash advance to complete it. It appeared in 1992.
It would later be adapted as a film on TNT directed by Anjelica Huston, but was aired instead on Showtime because of its graphic content. The Canadian Maritime Film Classification Board initially banned the release of the motion picture, until it ban was reversed on appeal. In November 1997 the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a decision to ban the book in schools because of its graphic content.
In 1998 Allison published Cavedweller, which received numerous awards. She founded the Independent Spirit Award. It was while writing process this novel that Allison, with her partner Alix Layson, a printer, became a mother of a son named Wolf Michael.
In 2002, Allison re-released Trash, but added a new short-story "Compassion", which was selected for both The Best New Stories from the South 2003 and The Best American Short Stories 2003.
In 2007, Allison announced that she is working on a new novel, She Who, to be published by Riverhead Press. The story follows three female protagonists in California, all of whom lives have been shaped by violence.
She had a three month residency at Emory University in Atlanta in 2008 as the Bill and Carol Fox Center Distinguished Visiting Professor.
Themes in Allison's work include class struggle, child and sexual abuse, women, lesbianism, feminism, and family.
Allison's first novel, the semi-autobiographical Bastard Out of Carolina, was published in 1992 and was one of five finalists for the 1992 National Book Award. Graphic in its depiction of Southern poverty, family ties, illegitimacy, child abuse, and rape, Bastard went on to win the Ferro Grumley and Bay Area Reviewers Award for fiction. The novel has been translated into over a dozen languages. A film version, directed by Anjelica Huston, premiered in 1996 on Showtime amid some controversy for its disturbing content. The film was banned by Canada's Maritime Film Classification Board, both theatrically and in video release.
Cavedweller, Allison's second novel, was published in 1998 and became a New York Times bestseller. It won the 1998 Lambda Literary Award for fiction and was a finalist for the Lillian Smith Prize. Cavedweller has been adapted for the stage and screen, most notably in the 2004 film starring Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon.
Her influences include Toni Morrison, Bertha Harris, and Audre Lorde. Allison says The Bluest Eye helped her to write about incest. In 1975, Allison took a class from Harris at Sagaris, a feminist theory institute in Plainfield, Vermont. Harris told her to be "honest and fearless, especially when writing about lesbianism". In the early 1980s, Allison met Lorde at a poetry reading. After reading what would eventually become her short-story "River of Names," Lorde approached her and told her that she simply must write.
Allison founded The Independent Spirit Award (not to be confused with the Independent Spirit Awards) in 1998, a prize given annually to an individual whose work within the small press and independent bookstore circuit has helped sustain that enterprise. The award is administered by the Astraea Foundation and is designed to encourage people and institutions which are vital to supporting new writers and introducing readers to works that may otherwise go unread.
She has contributed to Conditions, the Village Voice, the New York Native, and the Voice Literary Supplement.
Allison is a member of the board of International PEN. She serves on the advisory boards of the National Coalition Against Censorship, Feminists for Free Expression, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, a prize that is presented annually to a science fiction or fantasy work that explores and expands on ideas of gender.
Allison remains dedicated to safer sex and is active in feminist and lesbian communities. She is one of the founders of the Lesbian Sex Mafia, an information and support group form women of all sexual orientation and identity.
She lives in Monte Rio, California with her female partner, Alix Layman, and son, Wolf. Allison was chosen to be Writer in Residence for Columbia College, Chicago, in 2006. She served as the Emory University Center for Humanistic Inquiry’s Distinguished Visiting Professor for spring 2008. Allison also acted as the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College for the fall of 2009.