Spring 2008: Of Note

Portrait of Dorothy Allison

Novel concept: Allison deals with dark themes in her stories, but also writes of grace and redemption.

Bryan Meltz

Rewriting Life

Visiting Professor Dorothy Allison writes to revise the world she knows

By Paige P. Parvin 96G

The essential Dorothy Allison

Trash, 1988, winner of two Lambda Literary Awards

Bastard Out of Carolina, 1992, National Book Award finalist

Cavedweller, 1998, New York Times Notable Book of the Year

She Who (forthcoming)

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Considering her claim that she was “a kid whose life was saved by books,” Dorothy Allison is not very complimentary of writers.

“Writers are liars,” she says bluntly, warming her hands around a cup of tea in her Clairmont Campus apartment, where she sits at a table that would serve dining purposes were it not strewn with papers. “Writers are not nice people.”

The papers, of course, are the manuscript of Allison’s latest book, She Who. Only a writer would dare malign other writers with such authority.

Allison’s third novel, due out in 2010, weaves together the stories of three women from dramatically different backgrounds, each of whom has been damaged by violence. One of the primary characters is assaulted and then thrown off a parking deck.

This is what Allison means when she says writers are not nice people.

“What writers do,” she says, “is, you imagine the most horrific thing you can think of. And then you stay in that place for a while. It must be a kind of disorder.”

In Allison’s award-winning first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, that place looks suspiciously like the South Carolina county where Allison was born and raised. The central character, a young girl called Bone, is the first child of a fifteen-year-old, single waitress. When her mother marries, Bone falls into a nightmare of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather—all chapters of Allison’s own life.

But while Allison acknowledges that the 1992 National Book Award finalist is semiautobiographical, she cautions against easy assumptions that she and Bone are one and the same. For Allison, writing is a way to reshape the events of her life and others’, to reimagine outcomes, and to create something with new meaning.

“Particularly when you are young, you write out of the world you know,” she says. “But you are also writing in defense, to give your explanation of the world you know. Writing lets you make a different version of things. I made Bone in order to love a little girl like the little girl I was.”

The first person in her family to graduate from high school, Allison went to Florida Presbyterian College on a National Merit Scholarship and studied anthropology at the New School for Social Research. Electrified by the early feminist movement, Allison served as the editor of several feminist and gay and lesbian journals before her short story collection, Trash, was published in 1988. Trash won two Lambda Literary Awards and the American Library Association Prize for Lesbian and Gay Writing; her second novel, Cavedweller, was a 1998 New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She currently serves on the board of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Now living in northern California with her partner, Alix, and their son, Wolf, Allison suffers from something akin to survivor’s guilt. Her mother died in 1991, but she has reconnected with her two sisters after a period of silence. When you are raised poor and become successful, she says, “The rest of your family thinks you feel differently about them. They become afraid of you. But it is not that they are not smart—they have a smart the rest of the world doesn’t honor.”

The Southern working poor continue to loom large in her stories. “Working-class Southerners read my fiction differently,” she says. “The experience of being beaten as a child and being poor reaches across boundaries.”

Allison first visited Emory in 2000 during the Emory Summer Writers Festival and enjoys a longstanding friendship with the director of the Creative Writing Program, award-winning novelist and playwright Jim Grimsley. This spring Allison is serving as the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry Distinguished Visiting Professor.

In teaching intermediate fiction in the Creative Writing Program, she says she is focusing heavily on revision, one of the most critical skills a promising writer can develop.

“I treat them as real writers,” she says of her Emory students. “I encourage them to think about getting published. They’re a really good bunch.”

Allison also is collaborating with Theater Emory to adapt one of her stories, “Tell Me Something We Don’t Know,” for the stage.

At the many universities she visits, Allison is surrounded by what she calls the “golden children”—those who grew up with swimming pools and new sneakers, family vacations and golden retrievers, who were raised with care and without cruelty. They are a constant reminder to Allison that she was a scholarship student who scrambled for every opportunity.

“Those of us who get scholarships escape our origins, but we can’t escape their impact,” she says. “If you cannot love yourself, you have to at least get to a place where you can honor yourself. But I’m hoping for the love.”

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Spring 2008

Of Note