Interview with Dorothy Allison

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Dorothy Allison

By Christine Stevralia

Dorothy Allison is the award-winning author of Trash, a collection of short stories, and two novels, Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller, both of which have been adapted for stage and screen. She has written two books of creative nonfiction, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, and a collection of essays, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature.  Her individual stories have been included in both The Best American Short Stories and The Best of the South.

We spoke with Allison at the Tennessee Williams Literary and Theatre Festival in New Orleans where she talked about class, gender equality, and the importance of taking risks.

You primarily write fiction, but you have also published two books of nonfiction. Do you see your nonfiction serving different purposes or having a different kind of power than fiction?

Essays and fiction are completely different. They don’t even begin in the same place. One is an argument or an exploration of an idea while the other is story. More than anything I love story. Now essays may contain story in somewhat abbreviated and limited form but the stories referenced in an essay are in the service of the argument. And frankly story can also be an exploration, in fact should be, more than anything, a process of exploration and discovery. You rarely know where you are going when you begin.

You have said of the time when you first started writing that, “All I wanted was not to be boring.” I think this is a fear that many budding writers experience. What makes a story not boring?

Oh dear, this is hard to say to young writers, but vitally necessary. To be not boring is to take risks, to run the great risk of personal revelation and, more importantly, humiliation. You imagine you can take revenge on those who have mistreated you or misunderstood you. You might begin with that in mind. That almost always becomes tedious and predictable. To engage the reader, first reveal yourself, your smallest places, your worst impulses, your genuine hidden fears and obsessions. Make yourself uncomfortable, and you are unlikely to be boring.

You write about class, which is something not many writers do. You say, “I have never been able to make clear the degree of my fear, the extent to which I feel myself denied: not only that I am queer in a world that hates queers, but that I was born poor into a world that despises the poor.” How did you manage to emerge from that fear and narrate your experiences?

To talk about class from the bottom is to talk about shame and self-hatred. To do it with any depth is to show yourself in some way the creation of that contempt and despair that is endemic to being helpless and resentful of the culture that holds you and those you love in such terrible disdain. Some of what is said about you and “your people” is simply horrible and all too frequently true in ways you cannot completely deny. I call it “going naked in public,” and I learned very early that it was safer to be matter-of-fact truthful about the reality of how we cooperate in our own destruction, rather than pretend we were always the innocent victims of class warfare. What cannot be honestly acknowledged cannot be changed. But that honesty is very painful, you have to develop some psychic and emotional muscle to manage it. For me there never seemed to be any choice. It was all life or death.

In Skin you say that, “it is certainly fear that has dominated the debate on female sexuality…” Will you talk a little about what you meant?

I truly believe shame is a system of social control, particularly in how it is used to control women, or rather to persuade women to deny themselves in order to bargain some measure of safety. [The fact is that you] are not safe so long as you are buying safety at the expense of your own soul.

It feels to me that society has made great strides toward gender equality, and we have the women of your generation to thank for our freedoms. How do you feel about the accomplishments of your generation, and how can we continue their work?

Perhaps our realities diverge, but I don’t feel as if we accomplished the freedom for which we struggled so hard. We did make enormous changes. I remember all too well being twenty-one and unable to obtain a credit card or rent an apartment without a man to co-sign for me. Women were not legal adults—they were dependent on their father’s or husband’s credit and legal standing. The exceptions were widows. Imagine if you will the Alfred Hitchcock short story one could make from that fact. In truth, I forged my stepfather’s signature to rent an apartment. I got a credit card by buying a stereo on time payments from a department store that then gave me a card, and, again, there was some forgery involved.

We did change a lot of that so that some of those stratagems are not quite so necessary any more, but there are strategies and subterfuges that some of us are forced to use to manipulate a culture that is still unjust. I know writers who have deliberately chosen male pseudonyms to counter the cultural bias that pays women less and discourages publication and awards for women writers. One can easily see the necessity that might force such choices by going to the VIDA website and taking a look at the statistics collected there.

What can be done? We have to confront economic and class injustice. We need to address the many women in captive cultures, not just the women not allowed to drive cars in Egypt but those in religious communities that force women into subservient roles, or make them bear children they do not want, or refuse them education or financial independence, or even reasonable access to healthcare.  I also believe absolutely that injustice directed at women rebounds on men. Our boys are not free until our girls are free.

Most of all we have to write powerful, engaging, scary and wonderful stories that help more people see how complex our lives genuinely are.  To change the world, it seems you must first engage the world. Tell a story to crack the heart and stir the imagination. Take some risks on the page and remake what is assumed to be unchangeable.