Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 944
Dorothy E. Allison was born to a working-class family in the South Carolina town of Greenville, part of the Piedmont region. To escape debt, her family moved to central Florida when Dorothy was in her early teenage years; the terrible poverty and violence of her family and surroundings, together with her teenage recognition that she was a lesbian, contributed to her writings.
In Florida, Allison continued her education, both formal and informal. Formally, she was the first person in her family to finish high school and the first to attend and graduate from college. During those years, she also studied her family—their conflicts, fights, and thwarted desires—and compared their desires with her own. Much of this material would become part of her later writings. As a working-class woman in college during the 1970’s, Allison became an activist in the anti-Vietnam War movement. She was also active in civil rights struggles. Perhaps more important, she was active in the growing feminist movement; it was a movement that helped to make a place for Allison as a writer, lesbian, and working-class woman.
Sexuality, class differences, and identity in the larger societal context underlie much of her writing, as witnessed in her book of poetry The Women Who Hate Me. The title poem deals powerfully with questions of myth and identity in the lesbian experience. It shares with her later work the shocking, brutal style of truth-telling she uses to explore themes of violence, separation from family and place, abuse, and survival as a radical lesbian in an overwhelmingly heterosexual and middle-class world.
A collection of short stories, Trash, opened the door to Allison’s past. In these stories, Allison continued to explore the world of southern families, lesbian relationships, and feminist politics in a vigorous, uncompromising style. The stories are populated by outcasts, radical lesbians, Southern Baptists, and people starved for hunger and love. “River of Names,” the first story in the collection, deals with a series of cousins who died in mysterious bridge accidents, young girls who flee southern towns at thirteen, never to return, and a young boy who douses himself with gasoline and then goes up in flames. Many of these lost, angry, or abandoned souls reappear in Allison’s memoir Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. Images of lust, desire for freedom, and the crushing, self-defeating existence of poor whites in a restrictive world—whether it be homophobic southern society or the politically correct dynamics of the lesbian community—are rendered visible as part of the world Allison inhabits and expresses in her work. In this collection, as well as in the rest of her work, these questions are probed and their consequences illuminated. The issues themselves remain unresolved.
It is in her semi-autobiographical novel Bastard Out of Carolina that Allison explores in depth the issue of incest—its power and rage. Having survived repeated sexual assaults by her own stepfather when she was a child, Allison turns to a fictional family, the Boatwrights—a white, working-class southern family like her own—to portray brilliantly the poverty and coarseness that define a family amid the lush surroundings of a small southern town. In the novel, Allison views the world of sexual betrayal through the eyes of Ruth Anne Boatwright, who is raped by her stepfather, “Daddy Glen.” Betrayal, fear, lust, and confusion grow in the young girl, whose stepfather hurts her and whose mother remains ignorant and therefore does not intervene. Explosive, harrowing, and sure, Allison’s storytelling acumen gives rise to a tightly drawn novel of physical violence, family despair, and the tenacity of a small girl’s dreams in a world where hope fades and then dies.
Allison’s second novel, Cavedweller, is a more mundane but also affecting story of everyday ugliness. It begins with the death of Delia Byrd’s second husband, Randall Pritchard, and recounts her painful attempt to reclaim the two daughters she abandoned in Cayro, Georgia, when she left her abusive husband for Pritchard and a ten-year blues career with the rock and roll band Mud Dog. It is also the story of her third daughter, Cissy, thrown into an unfamiliar family drama by her father’s death and her mother’s powerful urge to go back home and reconstruct her prior life.
Mill workers, waitresses, and ex-convicts dominate Allison’s past; as an adult, she worked as a maid and a salesclerk. In addition, she edited a feminist magazine, taught, and organized within the feminist movement. In her work she steadfastly refuses to romanticize the working poor. She does, however, consistently work to depict them in all their complexity and to commit their lives as she sees them to the page.
This act—as well as the act of delineating the many sides of the lesbian feminist life—is exemplified in her book of essays Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature and in her memoir Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. In both books, she examines her complex relationship with her past and with the women and men she loves. Each book shows Allison’s growth as a writer, a lesbian, a feminist, and a speaker for her times. She expresses her views, in funny and poignant vignettes and essays, on sex and violence. She writes about her strained relationships with her sisters, and she writes with grace and power about becoming a mother to her son. Throughout her work, she retains a clear, strong voice that insists on the necessity of telling one’s own story and seeing that story through to fruition. In so doing, she embraces the anger, love, and contradictions of the world.