Dorothy Allison

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Gale Harris (review date Spring 1993)

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SOURCE: “Ashamed and Glorified,” in Belles Lettres, Vol. 8, No. 3, Spring, 1993, pp. 4–6.

[In the following review, Harris offers a positive assessment of Bastard Out of Carolina, noting the novel's vivid descriptions and skillful use of vernacular.]

Bastard Out of Carolina is a novel wrung from the heart. Here in Greenville County, South Carolina, members of the extended Boatwright family often subsist on flour-and-water biscuits and move from one ramshackle house to another. Men drown their disappointments in the fleeting sweetness of life in drink and brawls, and women hide their disappointment in their menfolk behind a bitter indulgence of male destructive behavior. People often seem to suffer as much from too much pride and too many second chances as they do from too little pride and too few opportunities to prove themselves. Children are exposed to unspeakable brutality and overwhelming tenderness. For those with roots in this world, Bastard Out of Carolina may add compassion to harsh memories. For those unfamiliar with what it is like to live in such an environment, Bastard Out of Carolina is a guided tour across the tracks. Now available in paperback, the novel deserves every glowing review, every literary honor, and every enthusiastically twisted arm that it has inspired.

The Boatwrights are constantly fighting the label “poor white trash,” the stamp of “no-good, lazy, shiftless.” Their weapons include the loving kinship of family, stubborn pride, and anger. But the family's way of adapting to scorn and poverty has created an environment that injures as much as it supports.

Family is family, but love can't keep people from eating at each other. Mama's pride, Granny's resentment that there should be anything to be considered shameful, my aunts' fears and bitter humor, my uncles' hard-mouthed contempt for anything that could not be handled with a shotgun or a two-by-four—all combined to grow my mama up fast and painfully.

Fierce pride drives Anney Boatwright, Ruth Anne's mother, to fight for the removal of the oversized, red letters ILLEGITIMATE from her daughter's birth certificate. Anney's loneliness and hunger for love compel her to marry Glen, whom she needs “like a starving woman needs meat between her teeth.” But when Anney is faced with conflicting demands on her love, she is unable to shield her daughter from her husband's violent rages.

Determined to protect her mother from recrimination, Ruth Anne (known as Bone by her family) begins a lonely odyssey to discover not only what makes her a Boatwright, and thus capable of survival, but also what makes her special and worthy of love. She becomes passionately absorbed in gospel music because it “makes you hate and love yourself at the same time, makes you ashamed and glorified.” She considers a religious conversion because she wants the way she feels “to mean something and for everything in my life to change because of it.”

But another force building in Bone is an anger that is directed against not only her stepfather, Daddy Glen, but against people who think they are better than the Boatwrights. One manifestation of this anger is an uneasy friendship with another social outcast, the albino Shannon Pearl, who “simply and completely hated everyone who had ever hurt her.”

Although Bone's “funny dose of pride” will not allow her to take anything belonging to more privistantly etch a character or situation. Bone's notorious Uncle Earle “looks like trouble coming in on greased skids.” Another uncle warns that Daddy Glen “could turn like whiskey in a bad barrel.” When Glen does turn on Bone with emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, she falls...

(This entire section contains 778 words.)

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“into shame like a suicide throws herself into a river.”

But a flawless style does not account for the hold that Bastard Out of Carolina has on the heart. The emotional intensity and honesty of this book, along with its complex and compassionate portrayals of even the most villainous character, allow the reader to trust the author and enter her world. Even when a succession of tragedies descends like a storm in the mountains, we are not allowed to withdraw. We care too deeply about all the characters, because they have vital lessons to teach us—lessons about prejudice and pride, love and anger, family and protection—and we know that we need to stand by them.

Allison's characters show us that we all are vulnerable—children, women, and men—and that we all want “the simplest thing, to love and be loved and be safe together.” The efforts people make to cope with the frustrations of this desire form the transforming struggles of life and the basis of this novel. Dorothy Allison has given us what will undoubtedly become an American classic.

E. J. Graff (review date September 1994)

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SOURCE: “Nothing but the Truth,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 12, September, 1994, pp. 10–11.

[In the following positive review, Graff praises Allison for writing about such controversial subject matter in Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature.]

I moved East in 1980, fresh from a small-town university “women's” community whose worst splits were over who'd slept with whose girlfriend. So I was surprised when, in Boston, I saw odd, wounded looks on women's faces when they talked—or declined to talk—about recent political history. Someone's restaurant had been boycotted and failed. Someone else refused to meet me, ever, at the women's center, site of an infamously vicious community meeting. Someone else's phone was tapped. Apparently here not “women's” but “community” belonged in quotes. I quailed as I realized how serious were questions of what it meant to be a woman—or more to the point, a feminist. Knowing I was not emotionally constructed for controversy, over and over I backed away. I was a coward, perhaps, secretly devoted as much to literature as to feminism, unwilling to be disemboweled for either.

Dorothy Allison—whose novel Bastard Out of Carolina (Dutton, 1993) was a National Book Award finalist, putting her on the national literary map after many years as a lesbian feminist writer and activist—has published a collection of essays that looks back from the other perspective: the true believer who at every opportunity dove into the fray, who abandoned much of herself for her era's utopian ideas, and who has reconstructed herself and her politics to reject simplifications the revolution (or some adherents) seemed to require. As Skin makes clear, Allison now believes—with a writer's passion—in truth in all its particularity, the truth of each individual's life. In her theology truth may not necessarily be beauty, but the telling of it changes the world. And changing the world remains Allison's goal.

Some of the essays are breathtakingly thoughtful, essays I'd hate any feminist to miss. Allison's ability to think through the complexities of personal experience can be piercing, linking class shame, family expectations, sexual taste and behavior, revolutionary fervor, and the failings and possibilities of literature. At her best, she clarifies how dangerous it can be to abandon any part of one's own reality in the hope of a better world to come. And she writes heartrending memoir, evoking loss without erasing love's ambivalence, particularly in “Skin: Where She Touches Me.”

The collection is unfortunately uneven. Some, particularly sketches that originally appeared in the New York Native, are so thin they seem to be only padding. In “Gun Crazy” or “Neighbors,” for instance, why couldn't Allison have applied her formidable mind to drawing into fuller view her ideas about women, guns and power, or about being an “out” householder in a mixed neighborhood? Some are long outdated, rejecting ideas no longer current (who still believes in the “political” or “spiritual” lesbian invoked in “Conceptual Lesbianism”?). Perhaps inevitably in a collection of essays written for other occasions, the pieces can be repetitive; one gets tired of hearing about, say, Bertha Harris.

None of which undermines the best pieces. The first, “A Question of Class,” is most powerful, exploring how much of herself Allison abandoned to be a good feminist, and why. She prettied up her class background in droll stories, hid sexual tastes distasteful to her middle-class lesbian collective, and abandoned her love of crafted literature in the name of feminist egalitarianism. All this she links with her childhood's extremities—both severe abuse and her family's shame at being despised for what felt like hopeless poverty—which trained her in a desire to escape, a “conviction that the life you have lived, the person you are, is valueless, better off abandoned.” Looking back at how sleeplessly and fervently she worked on every feminist endeavor, she asks: “If I had not been raised to give my life away, would I have made such an effective, self-sacrificing revolutionary?” Her question reminded me of Under a Cruel Star, the memoir in which Heda Kovaly explains how her generation of Czech Jews, feeling they'd only accidentally survived the Nazi camps, willingly abandoned their lives to a vision of a brave new world—leaving a selfless void from which emerged a dangerously totalitarian politics.

Does Allison call feminist politics Stalinist? Not quite. But she doesn't flinch from suggesting that internecine feminist battles warped her life. Like many, I first heard of Allison after the notorious 1982 Barnard College “Scholar and the Feminist” Conference, at which the anti-porn faction attacked Allison and others, setting the stage for the next ten years' “sex wars.” “Public Silence, Private Terror” talks about how Allison conceived and founded the Lesbian Sex Mafia—a group for women whose sexual desires were then considered politically incorrect—in the same spirit as early CR groups, but was unprepared for the violent response when they first spoke out. Those who've followed the debate since then know how Allison and other “pro-sex” or “sex radical” feminists insist that a demand for sexual conformity betrays us all, personally and politically. “What kind of women might we be if we did not have to worry about being too sexual, or not sexual enough, or the wrong kind of sexual for the company we keep, the convictions we hold?”

Yet I found the sex essays unsatisfying. Some of them rehashed now-familiar ideas; some (“Femme,” “A Personal History of Lesbian Porn,” or “Her Body, Mine, and His”) illustrated desires that today sound fairly tame, reasonably enough for someone who might not wish to invite more attack. I did wonder why Allison does not explore desire's contradictory legacies, which glare through her memories of how a life of “bare dirt yards” was sex's legacy for her family's lusty women, or how she herself once desired “mean” women who “were going to eat me alive.” Clearly she knows that sex does not always lead to the good. Is she afraid such a discussion would be ammunition to her foes?

More than that, I was disappointed that Allison does not look much farther than the 1980s debates. She dryly notes that if the sex wars are over, she'd like to know who won, suggesting that her side has not. The reality seems to me more complicated. During the Gay Games in New York last June, lines snaked around the block waiting to get into the Clit Club; single and younger lesbian friends of mine talk casually about stopping in at the new women's sex shop, and take for granted the pursuit of sexual pleasure as an irrefutable good; “sex-positive” books and magazines sit openly on feminist bookstore shelves; Allison's own essays notice, as if it were news, that “dildo” is no longer a politically dirty word. And yet the mainstream media loves to represent the MacKinnon-Dworkin perspective as the feminist ideology about sex. It's as if MacKinnon's rhetorical distortions so conveniently fit the Carrie Nation censor/crusader caricature that the media need look no farther. As a result, the media centers can hoist on their shoulders someone as historically uninformed as Katie Roiphe. No wonder a number of my younger friends—straight, bisexual, lesbian—prefer a “pro-sex” ideology, dismissing feminism as Victorian and beside the point.

So is it our fault, not the media's? Have feminists somehow failed to explore and articulate sexuality's inevitable pleasure/danger fissure in a way that does not divide simplistically into pro- or anti-, that ignores neither rape nor joy, offering a synthesis intelligible to the mainstream? Perhaps I'm looking to the wrong person when I wonder what Allison thinks of such post-eighties complications, but I was disappointed that she didn't take us farther.

My heart lifts, though, when Allison turns her mind to literature, my own true love. I first saw her in person at OutWrite '92, the lesbian and gay writers conference, where she gave a keynote talk. As she demanded that each writer in the audience tell their hardest truths, her voice seemed to grip and shake me from inside my ribs. Embarrassed at being Young Hopeful Writer seeking Older Well-Known Writer, I pursued her almost desperately through the conference halls. I had written a story that terrified me; generously she invited me to send it. When I finally had the nerve to do so, she wrote an encouraging response.

That generous spirit of defiance—her word for herself is “stubborn”—comes through all her literature essays, including the OutWrite talk, published here. She makes explicit her faith: that by representing our lives in all their messiness, danger and disquiet, by refusing either uplifting lies or contemptuous simplifications, writing can heal the world's split of “us” from “them.” She does not reject her political faith; she looks around and sees a changed world. But she links that faith, now, with a writer's ambition that requires not just courage but also craft. In “Believing in Literature,” she writes:

What did I want? I wanted the thing all writers want—for the world to break open in response to my story. … I wanted my story to be unique and yet part of something greater than myself. I wanted to be seen for who I am and still appreciated—not denied, not simplified, not lied about or refused or minimized. The same things I have always wanted.

I have wanted everything as a writer and a woman, but most of all a world changed utterly by my revelations.

(p. 180)

This is a faith so widely shared—not only by writers and women—that the essay above was excerpted last July in the New York Times Book Review. And Allison reminds us that such literature is not written by “good girls” but by those willing to lose others' respect, to say the unspeakable, to risk betrayal—as has she.

Truth can vanquish shame; truth can overcome hatred; truth can heal the world. It's a belief for which many a writer, revolutionary and religious evangelist has signed up. That truth might be relative, constructed, or contested appears not to have occurred to Allison, but who am I—another earnest truth-seeker—to complain? While I would have preferred more new essays and a less historical collection, I'd go anywhere to have my faith reinvigorated by this preacher.

Dorothy Allison with Carolyn E. Megan (interview date Fall 1994)

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SOURCE: “Moving toward Truth: An Interview with Dorothy Allison,” in Kenyon Review, Vol. 16, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 71–83.

[In the following interview, Allison and Megan discuss Allison's past and the parallels between her life and works.]

In March 1993 Dorothy Allison's novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, nominated for the 1992 National Book Award, had just been published in paperback, and she was at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on a reading tour. She answered the door to her posh suite dressed in T-shirt and jeans saying, “Look at this place! Grace Paley stayed in this room!” Readers were lining up in city after city to hear her read, but she was still becoming accustomed to her fame.

Her work includes collections of poems, The Women Who Hate Me; stories, Trash; and essays, Skin. A novel, Cavedweller, will be published in 1995. She lives in northern California with her companion, Alix, and their son, Wolf Michael.

[Megan:] You've said you began Bastard Out of Carolina as a poem. It seems there are a lot of roots of Bastard in your collection of poems, The Women Who Hate Me. Does all your work begin as poetry?

[Allison:] It's what I always do. Almost everything I write begins in some lyric form. It's how I began; it's how I learned; it's what I do. Almost never does it continue as a poem anymore because I have become much more interested in narrative storytelling. There are places in Bastard that are tone poems that somehow survived the editing process. My editing process is extensive. I go through a lot of rewriting.

It sounds as if you use your sense of sound and language in coming into a narrative. Does that change how you think of the narrative?

No, it doesn't. I think of it all as the same process. What was different was moving from short stories to a novel in terms of structure and language. It became such a larger canvas. Well, I don't know how in the world I thought I knew what I was doing. I knew I didn't know what I was doing. Maybe you just throw yourself in with total immersion. My trick was to get a book contract. With a book contract, you either give them their money back or finish it. On sheer nerve I started it and taught myself to do it. It changed everything, because a lot of the forms that I had learned in terms of working with poetry and short stories just did not apply.

So when you come into a novel, are you using the same sensibilities you came into your poetry with? I would imagine working in poetic form you begin with hearing the language.

I work a lot more with dialogue, which is the thing I moved into more and more from the poetry. But you can look at some of the earlier poems, and there are places where that happens. In The Women Who Hate Me you can see where people talk. But moving into short stories, what I would do is to get first the dialogue, and with the novel that became central. In a large sense, the book [Bastard] is structured so that at different points people are primarily talking. And they all tell stories, and they have a way of storytelling that in some way parallels gospel music. Like choruses that repeat … and essentially they repeat each other's stories to a certain extent. Just different versions. There are a whole lot of stories about the Cherokee great-granddaddy, and they all had their own view about it and they each had to have a different voice. So it became like a series of tone poems, slowly pushed further and further, getting into those characters. And everything was constructed around what these people, who were essentially the aunts and uncles, were giving to this Bone: a sense of who she was in the world—what her possibilities were.

And Bone seems to save herself by telling stories. There's a scene in Bastard where Daddy Glen has broken Bone's clavicle, and Bone imagines an elaborate scenario in which she forgives Daddy Glen and then dies.

Oh, high drama.

So storytelling speaks to Bone's survival.

That's what I intended. It becomes a technique whereby she retains a sense of power in a situation where she has none. And comfort, just sheer physical comfort of retelling herself the story in which she is not the victim. She learns that from her family.

Bone is retelling stories even when she masturbates. She becomes the perpetrator and the victim all at once.

She becomes the heroine. Even when she's the martyred heroine, she's still the heroine and they love her fiercely.

Is the writing what saves you?

Oh, absolutely. It became the way out of an enormous amount of guilt. It became the way I figured things out. When I couldn't find my story, I wrote it. I trusted books; I grew up that way. And so I made my own story, writing it down so that it would be real, and I could see it and step outside of it. It was some kind of comfort, and yes … sometimes the whole purpose is to make yourself a heroine.

The prologue to your collection of stories, Trash, also reflects writing as a means of survival. The narrator says that one day she decided to live, and that living meant telling her stories.

Kind of a truth telling. Whereas I would not guarantee that all the stories the aunts and uncles tell are true, Bone is moving toward a kind of truth, and that's real important. She's caught in a network of lies and misrepresentation. All the things she's being told about herself by Daddy Glen are horrible. And she takes those things, and we watch it have an impact on her. The only thing that saves her are the stories, the ones that she needs to make for herself.

Anger seems to save Bone. Is that true for you: Is anger where your writing originates? Has taking on anger saved you?

Not only to take on anger, but to realize the justification of it. The thing that happens with you if you're poor, or you're powerless, or you're in the situation that Bone is in, suffering any kind of physical or emotional abuse, is that you begin to feel kind of numbed. You get so wounded that you freeze up; you don't get angry. Which is really hard for people to understand. And if you do get angry, all the anger is inner-directed. What I tried to do in the book was to show Bone taking all that in and believing it, believing herself a monster … thinking that it was her fault, trying desperately to protect her mother, to hide what was going on, just to find some way to stoically endure it. I knew that in my life, and that nearly killed me. But I didn't get angry until I was in my twenties. When I constructed this novel, I constructed it in such a way that Bone gets angry at thirteen, and I think it'll save her. I think it is the best ending I could put on the book. She begins to hold people responsible.

How were you able to deal with your anger and to hold people responsible on your own?

I didn't do it on my own. I had a great deal of help. It was in 1973, so I was twenty-four, and I went into the women's center in Tallahassee, Florida, and walked in on a consciousness-raising group. I had never been to one before. The center was forming a magazine, and I had misread the schedule and got there a little early. I was too embarrassed to leave, so I stayed. And everything changed … everything changed. I wasn't the kind of person that would seek out help. I had been raised to be really fiercely independent. Never ask for help, never go for it … but this wasn't that anyway. It was people sitting around basically telling stories, and I knew how to do that. But there were people telling stories that I had never heard before. And there was a woman there who started to talk about her own experience of incest. And it didn't matter that she was using a lot of early feminist rhetorical language. What mattered was that it was my story, and she was so different from me—middle class—she was wearing pearls, for God's sake. She had one of those amazing, elaborate flip-up hairdos, and she was at the university. And she was telling a story that I knew in my bones absolutely.

It was the first time you had heard the story?

First time from anyone else. I had read a lot of books, all those case studies, all the stuff that was available then. But I had never sat across from another human being that I could look at and see that this is not a crazy person. This is not an evil, monstrous human being … this is your average everyday normal girl, and she's survived the same thing I have. It made it all different. It made me different. So I kept coming and talking and became a rabid feminist. I just spent a few years of my life just figuring out what the hell happened to me … how I had gotten into this enormously tight, walled, closed place.

Did writing help you figure that out?

Writing helped me break out of it. Writing became the way that I could say things that otherwise I had no other way to talk about. Mostly, to begin with, I wrote really bad poetry, something I had done for years actually. I did it as a child, but it became a way to talk about emotions that were terrifying, dangerous. And then, as is the way of such things, I became an editor. I helped start a magazine called Amazing Grace in which I published my first poem. (The first since my mother had submitted a poem to the JFK Library when I was eleven.) Then I started working at it, but it was something I did on my own time. I started working for the Social Security Administration; that's how I got to Tallahassee. I did the same thing Kafka did: Social Security during the day—writing stories at night. But writing was, it seemed to me, kind of private and in someway indulgent. I think because it really was a way of my maintaining my own sanity, I kept it really private. So I did my serious writing, articles about day-care centers … that kind of thing. I waited a long time to start publishing my fiction.

You said that in writing Bone's story you gave her more hope at the end of the novel. What did you learn through the process of writing the novel and through creating Bone?

Well, Bone is a trick for me. I made her up very deliberately because I wanted to learn how to love young girls … how to love children. It's hard to explain to people. My family was really loving and enormous, but there was a conviction about children in my family that's very destructive and dangerous. I don't think any of us believed in children. It's a normal thing to backhand a child, to hit a child. That everyday brutality that was visited on the men and women in my family came out in the children. And I recognized really early on, especially when I left home, that I did not think about kids the way “normal” people thought about kids. They thought children were really powerful, strong adults masquerading in these little bodies. Which is a vicious thing to believe … especially when it's what you think about yourself. I made Bone so that I could see a child and believe her and inhabit her, live inside her. And the first thing I had to learn was how fragile children are. That's not something I had believed in nor anything I had understood. So for me it was really a long process of changing something that was so intrinsic I didn't recognize how it had even been put into me.

Did the writing help you to do this?

I think so.

And how is it now for you as a parent?

I'm glad I waited until forty-three. It's taken me this long to learn to be gentle. I have two sisters, and we talked a lot about it, especially when I was younger, when they were first raising their kids. They're so happy that I'm finally doing something they've done. They can tell me how. I wrote about that fear of what I would do with children, and they were living it. It's amazing to me … that there's this conviction that survivors are dangerous to kids because we learn brutality; therefore, we will visit brutality on our children. While that can be so, it isn't necessarily so. It is something you can unlearn, but you do have to know you're doing it; you have to become conscious. Writing, for me, is a way of making me conscious—especially the early stories in Trash—I really centered in on that, trying to piece that out. That's why it took me so long to write Bastard. The first chapter, a large part of the first chapter, is a short story that I wrote in 1981. It was in the first issue of the Village Voice literary section. And once I had that, I had an idea of what I wanted to do but had no idea how to go about it. It took me a long time to write out all the stuff. I won't say the stories in Trash were practice, but they were a way of writing out the rage. I couldn't write this story from rage; it had to be from a place of compassion. I had to get to a place of understanding these people.

And you succeeded.

But you see, the hard thing to explain to nonwriters is how much we write that no one ever sees. I've got cabinets, God, yes … feeling things out in my own mind, telling myself stories in order to understand things. I think all writers do it; some of us are wise enough not to publish the stories. A lot of it is bad writing, which descends to melodrama quite often. But it's a process of self-discovery, and the process of discovery is about writing. I had to learn about a kind of spareness that is not natural to me.

There is a kind of evolution in the epigraphs and prologue of your works. In The Women Who Hate Me, you write in the epigraph, “For the women who hate me who made me angry enough to write these poems.” In the prologue of Trash, you write, “I got up and wrote a story all the way through. … I wasn't truly me or my mama or my girlfriends, or really any of the people who'd been there, but it had the feel, the shit-kicking anger and grief of my life.” And finally in Bastard, you quote James Baldwin, “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.” Could you explain the evolution behind these beginnings, how they represent your place in the world and in your writing at that time? And particularly could you address the Baldwin quote?

Well, it's about a different kind of justice. It is actually what I've come to believe. I don't believe in rage anymore, and I used to be in love with the idea of revenge. I used to collect revenge stories, read books, watch movies.

Rage and revenge are powerful.

Yes, but there's one thing more powerful, and it's justice. That's what it is about. … I don't have to buy myself a shotgun and go hunt down my stepfather. He's living the nightmare he made. It's harder with Anne, the mother in Bastard, for she is also going to pay for what she does by the place she puts herself into at the end of the book. It's just, but it's hard.

Anne tries hard not to have her children live the life she has. And she fights it many times in the book. For example, she tells Daddy Glen that she doesn't want her kids to be hungry, that she doesn't want it for her children.

Absolutely. The hardest thing for me to understand was why my mother stayed in this bad, bad marriage with a brutal man. And it took me my whole life to begin to understand. And I didn't really understand it fully until I started going to meet the few of her sisters who were still alive. Looking at the choices they made and seeing how powerfully caught they were in the things they were supposed to do … keep kids safe, find a good man, save him, and hang on for dear life. The concept of giving up and leaving was so alien to them. They believed that they could tame and heal the men in their lives with love. In some cases that works, which is kind of extraordinary.

The women in Bastard don't seem to recognize that it is their love for the other women that carries them through.

But it's a generation that didn't even know how to see that. They didn't know, didn't think it was important. They knew it was important but didn't think it was nearly as important as what a man and woman made together. And there are other things … from the beginning Glen desperately tries to isolate Anne from her sisters. The further away from her sisters, the less powerful she becomes. It's a tragedy. The book is essentially a tragedy. I tried to make it big enough and deep enough so it wasn't as easy, wasn't as simple, wasn't predictable. I don't believe that anyone is born evil. I believe things happen because you choose things. And I had to show every place where they could have done something else but didn't. Glen chooses to become the man he becomes. In the beginning he is not that man. Anne … the choices she makes bend her life in a direction she never wanted to go. The hard thing is what happens to Bone. What choices is she going to make?

It seems to have to do with hunger as well. What kind of hunger they have on a basic level, and the deeper hunger they have for a different life. Is hunger a theme you come back to in your work?

I've become aware of it; at first I didn't think about it. It's a metaphor that lived in me; I know it so well from the inside. But being poor in this country is about being constantly hungry, because the thing that you get, the emotional sustenance you get is never enough, so that hunger becomes a way of life, that longing for something never had. I consciously work with that because it's an emotional state I understand so well. Appetite is a good thing, and hunger and lust for life a marvelous thing. Put it together with a kind of hunger that at its worst can really damage you. Once you're a bit hungry, you're desperately trying never to be hungry. You fear that you'll never get what you need. But you know, real fear, the kind of real endemic fear in the novel that these people feel all the time, is rarely directed where the actual danger is. It is complicated; it's hard to sort out. What you're afraid of … that's of minor importance, and what you're ignoring is what's important. Look at Annie … what she's most afraid of is losing this family she's held together. That's not what she should be afraid of; she loses her family when she loses her daughter. She doesn't know enough to be really afraid of that.

You have said that in writing about the people in your novel, and in understanding your own family's racist beliefs is to understand about fear … how fear is a motivating factor behind the racism. How has it been for you as a lesbian to be the subject of these prejudices in the places where you haven't been allowed to read?

It's dangerous. I try hard not to let myself have that first automatic response, which is outrage. I take a deep breath and try to see the people behind it. Sometimes that is of no use at all. But if you begin to engage in that place where you're coming at them with the anger they're giving you, you do yourself a lot of damage. That's one of the things I was trying to say about the Boatwrights, which not many people pick up on. The Boatwrights are hated. The whole community has a complex knot of fear and hatred and outrage, and they don't have a clue who the Boatwrights really are. There's a whole exchange in the novel between the Boatwrights and the Yarlboros when Bone is at school. It's a network of interlocking hatred. What I tried to do is to get the reader inside Bone—inside this whole community of people who are viciously hated—so the reader can get a different view of it. In this society, people hate the poor, so I thought it would be useful to get inside and let everyone see it. What I wanted to do was to create a work that was an argument against hatred. That's why I find it incredibly ironic when I find myself being hated in the same way that the Boatwrights are hated. People don't know me. People don't have a clue who I am.

You learned that hatred, too, when you were growing up?


How did you move beyond it?

I got mad. Moral outrage is a useful state; you can be mean back. When I was a little kid, I had a lemonade stand in the neighborhood. And I can remember this kid came up to me and said she couldn't buy my lemonade because her mother wouldn't let her because I was a bastard. It was the first time actually that anyone had used the word to my face. I was eight, and I had no notion of the word. I told my mother. On the surface she got angry and indignant, but her face caved in like she had been waiting for it to happen. She thought they were right. I was this bastard, and she was this evil woman who had a child out of wedlock. Therefore, she was evil. She believed that stuff absolutely, and what she did for me was that she really tried to communicate the outrage. She did that stuff that mothers did, at least my mother did, which you know is, “These are small-minded people … and you're better … you're a whole lot better and you're gonna have to be a whole lot better.” And I believed her, even though I knew there was a lie buried in there and that she didn't believe it.

Kids are pretty resilient.

What astonishes me is the resilience and the accompanying fragility of kids. There are incredible myths in this society about kids. In this society we're always talking as if they are more fragile and ignoring where they are strong. They have that capacity for recovery that adults seem to lack in places. Where kids are so deeply wounded, we don't see it.

Is this also where your writing comes in, talking about these issues?

I hope so.

Why is Bastard successful? What speaks to a larger audience?

I can tell you what's happening going around the country doing readings. I'm meeting an enormous range of people who relate emotionally to Bone's experience. I've met a lot of couples, really young people, one of them gave the book to the other, and they want to talk. And not all are survivors—a lot of working-class kids, little middle-class girls from Wyoming and Maine, saying, “This is my life. I was never sexually abused, but this was my emotional life.” The level of emotional brutality that a lot of us have survived is just appalling. It's not uncommon; it's the rule. All this shit about dysfunctional families. I have mixed feelings about the adult survivor classes; you sitting and talking, that's positive. But the reality is that the level of dysfunction in the family is so enormous. There's a lot of hurt people. The book is useful for that; in some ways it's a mirror you can look into. What's complicated for me to figure out is the material in there about sex. I tried really hard to tell the truth of a really damaged child's way of dealing. So all of Bone's storytelling is sexual fantasies. There's an enormous guilt. She converts that experience to masturbatory fantasies. That whole complex feeling. I tried to make them as true, from my experience and other people I talked with; some didn't happen, but I made them up. They felt right. There are a whole lot of people who want to talk to me about that, especially the complex mix of guilt and desire. That's one of the things we don't talk about, which is why we wind up loving someone who is brutalizing. Bone loves her stepfather, hates but loves him at the same time. And she becomes excited by some of the things he does. The guilt sweeps over her, and the world falls apart from the guilt.

In her essay titled, “The Poetics of Grief,” Tess Gallagher says that poetry is a receptacle for grief. Do you agree with this?

In a way I think she may be right, but I would add song. A lot of what I used to write was a kind of lyric. I can't sing, so it was a kind of lyric without music. I always hoped that I would find a good musician.

Were you encouraged to read poetry?

I felt free to read and to write but not to show it to other people. I didn't begin doing that until later.

Who encouraged you?

There are two people who really pushed me. One is Bertha Harris, a novelist from North Carolina, a lesbian writer who had three remarkable novels. The last one was Lover, published by Daughters and just republished this spring by New York University Press. I took a class with her at a feminist retreat in 1975 in Vermont. For two weeks she taught short fiction writing, and she was truly extraordinary. She was just a great teacher, really fine teaching, very critical, and very encouraging in a way that I hadn't run into before … and completely blunt about the reason for writing, the purposes of writing. No one had ever said these things to me. She was always quoting Edgar Allan Poe, “All writers write for the love of beautiful women.” Wow! This woman has a lot of nerve! I could identify with this! She would tease, encourage, ruthlessly push you. By the end of the class we all had completed at least one piece, and we had a class and she organized us, I swear to God, like a militant Girl Scout troop. We trooped in, read this stuff like it was an assault, and trooped out. Afterwards she said, “Well, you're not bad, you're not any good yet. If you work at it a while you might be.” Which was exactly what I needed; I didn't need anybody telling me grandiose lies. I needed someone to be realistic. Lies encourage you in bad directions. I went back to working with a feminist magazine and began to publish short stories.

And the other person?

The other person is Audre Lorde. I wrote a poem, and it eventually became “River of Names.” When it was still a poem, I read it at an open reading in New York, after I had moved to Brooklyn. There were a couple of people there who really responded. But Audre was there, and she walked up to me and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Well, I'm working with computers at Poets & Writers.” “No,” she said, “you have to write; you have to finish this. This is important; you don't have a choice. You have a responsibility.” And then she got my phone number, called me up, and said, “Did you finish that story? Where is it? I haven't seen it.” Or whenever she'd see me, “So, what's happening with those stories.” That was in '82, '83—and she would call me up every year. When I finally published the stories, I sent a copy to her. She did that for a lot of people: she gave you the conviction and force that made you feel like you owed her. Without the two of these people, I don't have a clue of what I would have done. They made writing real for me; they made it something that I had a responsibility to. And they fought that voice that told me that writing was self-indulgence.

Did you feel that way when you were working on the novel?

No. By the time I started working on Bastard, I felt like I had high purpose. I was just trying desperately to survive while doing it. Dutton paid me thirty-seven thousand dollars as an advance, which is an enormous amount of money—one of the highest advances ever paid to a lesbian writer. I lived on it for three years. It took me that long.

What tradition do you see yourself as fitting into?

I'm perverse. It's whatever they're denying me right now. I belong to the tradition of iconoclastic, queer, southern writer. I don't think there really is a lesbian tradition. We haven't worked toward that, but I'd like to steer where it goes.

Where is that?

Like some of the books my students have been writing. Powerful. Dangerous. The writing process is so slow, and people need help to survive it. It's like a marathon. Writing is a marathon.

How would you define the southern tradition of writing?

It's a lyrical tradition. Language. Iconoclastic, outrageous as hell, leveled with humor. Yankees do it, but Southerners do it more. It's the grotesque.

Who are your role models in the southern tradition?

On good days I claim myself in the same tradition as Flannery O'Connor, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams.

What books do you come back to—your favorites?

The books on my poetry shelf. When I'm really depressed, I stay up and read Muriel Rukeyser out loud. Sharon Olds. Toi Derricotte. Gary Snyder, who is a Californian, a narrative poet who sneaks nature into his poems. James Baldwin. Recently I was asked to judge a contest for Barnes and Noble, who sent each judge twenty-one novels from 1993 and asked us to choose the best. I really liked Sandra Benitez's A Place Where the Sea Remembers. She is forty-one, and this is her first novel. She's just the type of person who should win this prize.

What have you been working on since Bastard?

A collection of essays—nearly killed me.


Because it meant going back and reading things that were so dated. It wasn't just the language but the content. I had a hard time restraining myself from fictionalizing daily reality. So frustrating. Updating them was complicated. There are twenty-four essays, and a number of them were short pieces that I wrote in the eighties. A lot of them relate to sex and class, and my perspective has changed quite a bit since then.

How has your perspective changed?

Well, I was a promiscuous flirt then, completely running around. And my girlfriend and I have a child now.

How has having a child affected your writing?

I was under the impression that as a lesbian activist, I wouldn't have to understand the limitations that having a child had on the normal fold. I used to say that a child is at least a book, but boy …

It's more like an encyclopedia?

Yes. A woman called me from a feminist bookstore asking me to write a quick essay on a number of ideas that fascinated me, but she wanted it in two weeks. With a child every minute is used. Used to be I could get a cup of coffee and work three nights and finish it. Having a child changes your energy level, seduces you. I am convinced that it is nature's way of continuation of the species. Drawn into a source of love. I can't begin to explain this in a conversation. My baby makes me so happy.

Has the baby affected your writing in any other way?

Changes my energy level. I used to say there was a necessary boredom—a quiet in the head to write. Doesn't happen anymore. I have to work at making it. Those natural conditions are lost. I have to organize time much more deliberately. Many of these essays are about class … something I thought I rooted out years ago, but a kid throws you back into these things. I have this deep terror of being poor, and the baby triggers it instantly. There's this illusion that if you go to college, then you're no longer working class. That isn't true. Being poor shaped my first ten years, and it's still here. I find myself saying about my child: Who the hell is he going to be? What class? I want him to be able to take piano lessons, for God's sake. We need to start assaulting the monolith of the middle class. It's not about mobility. It's about respecting origins, making more room. What's being denied most is class.

Would you be comfortable in saying anything about the novel you're working on?

Well, it's not about the Boatwrights, not about a child. I can say what it's not. When I was in my twenties, I went caving. Mind you, I'm a non-jock, born clumsy. The novel is about caving.

Carla Tomaso (review date 1 January 1995)

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SOURCE: “Never the Good Girl,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 1, 1995, pp. 3, 9.

[In the following positive review of Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature, Tomaso commends Allison's bravery and skill at personal introspection.]

Dorothy Allison loves sex. She also loves writing, women, justice, Southern landscape, literature, her family and truth. It is this huge capacity for passion that makes her work so challenging. Her raw honesty makes it so intimate it's almost too painful to read. The author of the National Book Award Finalist Bastard Out of Carolina and Trash, a collection of short stories, has written a book of essays [Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature] that are at once political, autobiographical and revolutionary. Underneath it all runs the bittersweet story of Allison's journey to wholeness, as she moves to understand and embrace all the disparate parts of herself.

“I try to live naked in the world,” she writes in the title essay, “unashamed even under attack, unafraid even though I know how much there is to fear.” Reading the early essays, one marvels at the incredible achievement this is for someone born poor and despised in the South, for a smart and bookish girl who was sexually abused for years at the hands of her stepfather.

It was through the lifesaving miracle of her discovery of feminism and the craft of writing that Allison created the transformation, learning how to stop feeling shame and claim her own life. She grew up to be a radical sex activist, a lesbian-feminist and writer, not the most inconspicuous of life choices. Ironically, the nakedness that was imposed on her as a child has now become a vehicle for expressing who she is and what the world should be.

A true radical, Allison found herself fitting in nowhere; she was too sexual for the lesbians, too butch for the feminists, too angry for the Hollywood myth of romantic poverty. But she is never interested in “being a good girl.” On the contrary, each of her positions is part of her “long struggle to understand and love fully” and she is proud of all the risk that has demanded.

Feminists and all women need to hear voices like this.

Allison believes that women telling the truth about their lives and their sexuality is radically important if they're going to break through societal boundaries to reach themselves. She tells of a lover who was finally able to “roar her passion,” about a telephone call from an acquaintance who was paralyzed by shame because of the way she masturbated. In one fascinating essay titled “The Theory and Practice of the Strap-on-Dildo,” Allison humorously describes her experience with “penetration devices.”

“Everything is so sexual to me,” she writes in an essay called “Femme.” “Everything is a miracle.” It is tremendously moving to read about Allison's struggle into her own fully charged and powerful sexuality, a way of being which is taken from many women through memories of abuse, or repressed by cultural norms and sexism. “Sex then, no matter how dangerous. Sex then, no matter what the cost.”

In a straightforward manner, Allison describes the abuse she went through as a child and the painful aftereffects she has had to weather. The incest informs much of Skin as something that must be worked through and never silenced, something that she has had to write about even at the risk of shattering her mother and sisters. Because she writes to understand her life, when Allison forgives her mother, it's a completely, authentic act. Because of her understanding of the imprisoning realities of poverty she is able to feel a great love for the woman who “taught us … to keep our heads up and refuse to act ashamed.”

One of the best things about the book is the way Allison follows her own injunction to “tell the truth so well and so powerfully that it will have to be heard, understood, and acted on.” These are the parts that almost hurt to read. She describes the pain of her first lover's fatal drug addiction, her need as an adult to vomit every time she sees her stepfather, her mother's deathbed guilt over not stopping the incest, her passion for the good books that helped her through her solitary childhood and through her shame. Nothing in her life is to be hidden, not the kind of sex she likes or her terror at having a gun put to her head during a robbery.

Her own community is not exempt from her powerful truth-telling. In “Conceptual Lesbianism” she rages at those who want to define the concept of “lesbian” for everybody else. In “Believing in Literature” she calls to task lesbians who betray us all by writing safe books filled with cardboard characters. “The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides. …”

“I knew that what I wanted to do as a lesbian and a feminist writer was to remake the world into a place where the truth would be hallowed, not held in contempt, where silence would be impossible.” In Allison's world, writing is a revolutionary act. Literature is sacred. Telling the truth is the important moral obligation. For writers, the most stirring part of Skin will probably be the many chapters about reading and writing that push us to take ourselves seriously, take risks and face our fears.

At times it does seem that the collection could have used some tough editing. We read long sections in two separate essays about Allison's mentor, Bertha Harris, invoking her to write with courage. Analyses of class, the links between gay and human rights, and the vagaries of lesbian/feminism are repetitious as are several of the recollections about her family. Some of the essays end abruptly, wander without focus or seem strangely undeveloped while several; which were written over 10 years ago, seem dated.

Yet, maybe they aren't as dated as they seem. While it's become popular in the mainstream media to characterize the '90s as the post-feminist era, a time when sophisticated women have moved beyond discussions about shame, power or sex, Allison's talk at the recent San Francisco Book Festival would appear to belie that completely. To a crowd of nearly 400 people, mostly women, she read a piece about, among other things, the courage needed by non-majority people to perform even the most mundane of public arts. When she finished the audience erupted into loud and long applause worthy of a revolutionary hero. It appears that to a lot of women Allison's invitation to “take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined” is still a vital and necessary call.

Dorothy Allison with Minnie Bruce Pratt (interview date March 1995)

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SOURCE: “The Progressive Interview: Dorothy Allison,” in Progressive, Vol. 59, No. 7, July, 1995, pp. 30–34.

[In the following interview, originally conducted in March 1995, Allison discusses how racism, illiteracy, Southern working-class stereotypes, and her lesbianism affect her life and her writing.]

On a cold rainy Boston afternoon in March, I was curled up on Dorothy Allison's bed, eating chocolate, gossiping, and talking books with this charismatic author, who wrote the award-winning novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, and the short-story collection, Trash. Her most recent book is Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature.

We were in town for the annual Out/Write conference of lesbian and gay writers, and were snatching a few hours to renew a connection that had begun more than ten years ago, when Dorothy was one of the editors of the lesbian-feminist literary journal Conditions.

I first met Dorothy in New York City, on the weekend of a massive anti-nuclear demonstration, but we had recognized each other, even there, from another terrain, that of our native South. Dorothy was born and raised in South Carolina, and I in Alabama.

[Pratt:] When I was growing up—and I think this was true for you, too—there was just this tremendous fear of the intellect, the imagination, people who wrote. Not the spoken word or the story, but books, words written down, the cultural realm. Lillian Smith talks about the voice of the demagogue versus the voice of the poet, and how people in the South have to struggle with the voice of the demagogue that dominates the public space. How did you get from that place to here?

[Allison:] My mother believed in books, as peculiar as that was. She was a secret reader. I can remember both my mother and me trying to sneak away to read when I was a girl, and being really messed with because my stepfather didn't want anybody doing anything except doing what he wanted them to be doing at any one moment—whether that was bringing him a glass of tea, or going outside and playing when you got your head buried in a book. He really was that voice, the demagogue that distrusted the book, distrusted the intellect, distrusted education. The thing I heard over and over again from him—so that I heard it in my dreams—was, “You can't believe that.” He'd listen to the news, and when I was a kid and the civil-rights movement was all over the news, my stepfather would sit there and …

That's what my father would do, too. We would sit and turn on the TV set, and he would just scream about what was happening.

“Liars,” you know. “You can't trust them—those politicians, those radicals, those agitators.”

What would you and your mother sneak off and read?

Well, my mother read mysteries. It was her lifeline. Mysteries, adventure books, some kind of escape. And she read really terrible books like the Executioner Series. Trash fiction. And I would read anything. Anything. I was just hungry, desperately hungry.

You would read together?

No. If we were reading together, we would have been in real trouble. We didn't do anything together. My stepfather would not have tolerated that. So I would sneak off and hide. And because it was a thing that I had to fight to do, and I had to keep kind of secret, it assumed enormous power. It was resistance. God, it was hope!

But how did you get from somebody who read to somebody who wrote it down?

Oh, honey, that's fractured. It comes from different places. One, when you're a really bright kid, you are kind of encouraged in a peculiar way to think of yourself as going to school and becoming something. So I wanted to write.

You thought of yourself as someone who could be a writer.

No, I didn't think of myself as somebody who could be a writer. I was in awe of it. But as I got to be a teenager, it was like masturbation. It was the secret dream. You'd never admit in public that you were going to do this. Because I didn't see any way to get there. There was no connection. When I started reading, I went after biographies and autobiographies because I was looking for how people survived. And I went looking particularly for working-class novels. And Christ, you know what you find—Erskine Caldwell! His basic message was that poor people were dirt and hopeless. But there were a few—one that I remember was Not as a Stranger, which is not a great book. But it was about a poor kid.

Then I discovered black writers. Besides James Baldwin, nothing ever hit me as hard as Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. It didn't matter that they were black—though it should have. But it was about incest, about that terror, and it was about suicide. Which at that point in my life seemed to be where I was going.

You were in your early twenties then?

Yes. And that's when I started writing. I went to college with the secret dream. On the surface what I told the world was that I was to teach history. That was high enough for my family—becoming a teacher was as much as anyone in my family could imagine. It's the reason they gave me support for going to college. To be a teacher.

But in the secret dream, I wanted to write. But when I went to college, and found the people who were writing, that stopped the dream cold. I burned everything I had ever written.

The writing teachers stopped you?

No, no, no. The people who were writing and being published. The model for that was this kid, this middle-class white boy who was into poetry. And was getting published. And being called a genius. And I looked at him and thought, “Anything I would say would be dismissed out of hand.” The few things that I did try to write were so far from where I wanted them to be that I was deeply humiliated. I had really dark, horrible stories in my head. And I didn't know how to own those stories in the world.

If you come from the South, if you're working-class, and especially if you look like me—let's get real, I am not pretty—you get a sense of humor or you die. So you become a clown. But I wasn't writing clown stories. So I burned them. But I came out of that, became a feminist, and found what was essentially a feminist writing voice. Mostly, that was black women—Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. When I found Zora Neale Hurston, it was like getting kicked in the butt. It was a voice—the weird thing was that it was a voice that I heard in my head. That I was familiar with. The speech, the rhythms of my family, the kind of language that I grew up with resounded for me in the books written by those women. It didn't read to me black. It read to me working class.

I've been thinking about the language in Bastard Out of Carolina. Where I grew up, I was taught that the language you put in that book—the speech of poor white folks—was worthless. Just like I grew up being taught that African-American language was worthless. And when I read Bastard, it was the first time in my life that I read a book that accepted the language of poor and working-class white people, that said that speech was beautiful, lyrical, eloquent. That said, “This is the voice of humanity speaking.” The language of Bastard was so important to me. In other ways in my life, my eye had been distorted in its looking. When I read your novel, I realized how my ear had had its hearing distorted. But I was finally hearing this language spoken with its real lyrical imaginative force.

It's about rhythms almost more than anything else.

And I thought, “Oh, a style that can do this is a huge achievement.” Because I knew where you had to liberate the language from.

Oh, own the language. Because, you know, I went to college. I learned that every word out of my mouth damned me. They could tell who I was as soon as I started talking. And I learned how to cover, and I learned a different way of speaking. But when I wrote in that voice, it was a dead voice.

But it was after reading Toni Morrison and other African-American writers that you were able to come back to it?

Well, you know there is a white, Southern literary tradition that uses dialect. But one of the problems I ran into with a lot of that writing was that it always read to me as there was an undercurrent of contempt in how the language was expressed on the page. I kept trying to figure out if it was the education that I had gotten that gave me the perception of contempt, or if it was the way the words were put onto the page.

When I really started working on the writing of the language, I discovered that there is this conventional way to frame dialect on the page. Now, the language rhythms of the people I am writing about come entirely from gospel music, country music, and the church. But the way it is generally written down is as if it is in the back pages of men's magazines with the letters cut off and a whole lot of extra letters thrown on. It's barely intelligible and has an aura of stupid about it. And that I had to absolutely refuse, because the people whose voices I am using are very smart people. They are simply uneducated.

But brilliant.

Well, yeah.

Any parallels for you in how African-American writers had to deal with dialect?

If you read Toni Morrison, you read Alice Walker, it is a dialect that is written with love and respect. This is how you do it.

The copy editing was a struggle. I had to fight for how I spell certain things. Because I didn't want to echo the way they're spelled in traditional dialect fiction. I had to argue for my spelling for two words in particular. One was “mama.” And one was “an't”—as in “I an't having any.” Also I'd noticed that in a lot of Southern speech, one of the big things is alliteration repetition. There are places that I describe, for instance, the uncle as having “black, black hair.” Well, it means something different to say “black, black hair.” than to say “black hair.” But I had to really fight for these speech patterns.

You don't even know, when you start, what you are doing. You just are trying to find a way to make what appears on a page be what you hear in your head. You can lose it real easy. You listen to other people too much, and your voice gets messed up. You have to love the voice.

I could tell from reading the book how much you love that voice. I wasn't taught to love that voice, either. It was absolutely all about class. Those class lines can be so confusing.

They also have changed. We forget about television, we forget about the mall. The concept of how working-class people speak has altered beyond anybody's recognition in the last twenty years. You go talk to my sisters. They have still got a drawl, but it's not a South Carolina drawl. They're living in Florida. They watch television. You know, they talk like Grace under Fire!

And I think the same thing has happened to black speech in this country. But there is a lag time in print. Because I know I write five to ten years behind myself. It takes me that long to understand things that I've seen in order to move them into fiction. But the language, my language, was formed by the time I was eight.

I've never considered myself working class, but now I'm beginning to reevaluate where I came from. My family members hung on to the concept of themselves as middle class, and also to the memory that, 100 years before, they'd been owning class—hanging on to that old status with their fingernails. Meanwhile, my mother was a social worker for the state, and my father was a glorified clerk working at the lumberyard. We could barely pay the bills, and yet everybody was trying to keep the illusion of gentility.

You and I have talked about it. The fact that you grew up in poverty, your mama being a waitress, and so there feels like there's this big gap between us. But when I look at the textile-mill owners where you grew up, and the lumber-mill owners where I grew up, our gap doesn't seem so big.

But there's another community—your community of affinity. There's your family, and then there is the community in which you see yourself as a child. The community I saw myself in—at the edge of the world—hated me. The white Southerner hates with a passion everybody different from them—there's no way around it. But the community of affinity for me was the queer community—that outlaw community. And it was clear to me—crystal clear—by the time I was a teenager that I had more in common with black people who were in the civil-rights movement than I did with my stepfather. Especially when I got the shit kicked out of me.

That was your queer community?

That was a part of it. To me, it was also sexual transgressors because I knew myself queer. It wasn't just that I was a lesbian. It was that all of my sexual fantasies were so perverse in every sense of the definition. I knew myself an outlaw. So all of my imagination was about being an outlaw. And that meant black civil-rights workers, white civil-rights workers, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde in England, every woman ever burned at the stake anywhere. In my imagination there was this real clear link between where I belonged, who I belonged with, and that whole nation of the invisible, the dead, and the damned. I thought myself damned. Literally. I thought myself evil. Not just because I was poor and hopeless and raped and violated, and masturbating to being raped and violated. I felt myself on the edge of the world, and I was clinging to everyone else I saw on the edge with me. And loved all those people on the edge with me.

So I had this in my head, this community of affinity is how I think of it. Now, I know Southerners do this with a passion. I can't tell you how many white, middle-class boys I've met who would tell me about their love for the black female community. And we know—that gets real sick, real fast. But there is a real truth in the fact that some of us—I think particularly those of us who were growing up in the 1950s and 1960s and watching the civil-rights movement—looked at that and saw something that spoke to our desire for justice. To our desire for hope. Something you can build your life on. You go hunting for those people and align yourself with them and take the risk to find out who they really are.

I wonder nowadays where that impetus is going to come from—to find allies, to find new community. We're thirty years after the civil-rights movement, in this terrible backlash. And that's why one of the things I'm re-thinking is class. Because I grew up with the temptation of identifying with being middle class, and being taught not to identify with the working class or the “others”—the outlaw community you identified with. Now, so many years later, I'm thinking that the line between most of us was so arbitrary, so imposed from above, so thin. Yet those divisions can still feel sharp, even within our own families.

You know, I really tried desperately to run from my family. I spent at least a decade of my life distancing myself—not so much from my mother and my mother's generation and poor white trash—but distancing myself from my sisters. I was trying to establish the difference between me and them with every ounce of my being. And that was about refusing the class I was born to.

We all do that distancing. My mother did it by marrying my stepfather. And she was busy distancing herself from her sisters. And some of my aunts were doing it to each other. It gets real treacherous. “I'm not as bad as Grace. God, have you seen her children? She don't even change their diapers! She's letting those babies run naked because she's too lazy to put anything on them.” We talk bad about each other. There's always somebody worse than us. I've found this in the sexual community. I've found it in the gender community.

When I was young and I was studying Marxist and socialist theory, I began to see we have so many false images of what it means to be poor or working class in this country. And the definitions, boy, they're just slippery. It's like mayonnaise on glass. You cannot get a hold of the idea of it sometimes. Or people feel they can't afford to.

The past few years especially my life has changed. Good lord, I'm making a living as a writer. My sisters—one of them is now the assistant manager of a collection agency. And one works in an electronics plant. I have pried my way into the semblance of the middle class. They're still working class. And I find all the time these sources of disdain in me that I have to re-look at.

The myth about class in relation to the writer's life is that, “Oh, you're secure now, because you're published and visible. You're respectable now.” But as Audre used to say, you know, when she was out on the street corner, who was she? She was a black woman standing on the street corner, subject to all the racism in the world. She was not “Audre Lorde.”

Oh, lord. I go to these gigs, and they fly me in and send me to a hotel—and I get to the hotel and they do not want to check me in. “Who's that fat dyke standing at the counter? We're going to give her a room?”

I have a lot more resources than I used to have, so I feel a little different. But still—my sisters are two paychecks from the street. That's my sister Barbara's line. And I'm still pretty close. In fact, I go to these colleges and if the check don't clear real fast, we're in real trouble.

But that's not how the world perceives me. And that's a big difference. I may still perceive myself as close to being on the street in some ways—but mostly other people no longer perceive me like that. It's real different. Those dark nights when you went to sleep feeling hopeless about yourself—now I can sometimes pull out all the letters that I have gotten from the people who've read Bastard.

I know that issues of race and class have been a huge part of your life. But I just read the review of Skin that Chrystos wrote for Sojourner. She begins by saying that she was surprised to find so little about race in Skin. She wanted to hear more from you about race. I wondered what you thought about her comments.

I think she's right. You know I feel like every time I ever even try to approach the subject of race in this country, that I am just not big enough. Nothing I say is big enough. If I had been black, as well as all the rest of the stuff my family was, I don't think I'd be here. I think it's a miracle I'm here anyway. But I don't think that miracle would have had as much chance or possibility. And I'm a Southerner. I'm a white Southerner. I've got guilt down to my toenails. And every ounce of it is justified.

There was a piece I didn't put in Skin that I really thought about but it seemed to me that it was so separate from the rest of the book that I didn't want to just tack it in, because they'd say she's just throwing this in to talk about race. It was about going home to visit my family and getting hit again and again with how deeply and inherently racist they were. And matter-of-fact about it.

One real thing about the working class in the South is that they are not ashamed of being racist. Unlike the middle class.

Plenty in the middle class aren't ashamed a bit.

At least the middle class has the notion that they are supposed to be ashamed. Anyway, I was devastated that the people I loved were hateful. I didn't know what to do or how to deal with it. And it still daunts me.

It's one thing to know that in theory about the working class. And it's another thing to run into it in the people you love. It's hell for me dealing with my sisters. But I'm trying to love and accept them. There's this huge big piece of their psyche that I cannot love and accept. I mean, they can barely tolerate me as a queer. They sure as shit will never talk to me about it.

When one of my sisters was at my house, and a black woman friend of mine was also there for a party, my sister could not deal with her. My sister could deal with her as this black woman who's like—there. But not the fact that she and I were really close friends. That we talked personally. That we made jokes about our girlfriends. My sister could not handle it. And the look on her face was this kind of deep disgust. When I registered what was happening, I had no way to handle it 'cause all I wanted to do was punch her. My little sister is as fragile as any ice hard woman can be. At the same time, I just wanted to sit down and cry. Because that kind of hate and contempt comes out of being hated and held in contempt.

But you can't just condemn their bigotry out of hand in the sense of saying, “They're terrible people.” You can see there is an economic, historical context.

I can now. The only thing I knew at fifteen was that I had a suspicion that what I was being told might not be true. Because all the things I was being told about myself, I knew weren't true. All the things I was being told about my family, I knew weren't true. Or weren't true in the way they were being told to me.

So what was being told about black people I suspected that might not be true. But I had the most arrogant stupidity and ignorance. I can really clearly remember when I moved to Tallahassee, Florida, and became a feminist activist. I was ready to go proselytize for feminism in the black community. I had this conviction it would be real simple and real clear and real easy, and I stepped into shit like you ain't never seen. I didn't even have the sense to see what I was being—I'm damn lucky some people did some work to help me get an education.

Well, there is a lot of stuff you can get in theory. You can get on the surface. But until you've taken it inside. … And I think what's really necessary is the crucible. Do real work. Don't just talk about stuff. Work with people. Be involved in something that requires you to work with people on a day-to-day basis. You know, that's the reason that I value community organizing—in the sense of not just organizing a quickie demonstration downtown, but the rape-crisis center or the homeless shelter. Working with people completely different from you, in a way that forces you to deal with real people.

People get an education in that way that goes inside. Not just something that they've read in the book or picked up in the latest newspaper. It's about a person with a name who they talked to and saw as another human being like themselves. And that's not what we got as children in the South.

It's a lifetime of work.

It's trying to consciously step into the head of someone so different from you, just trying to feel their skin. But stepping into other people's skin, you will make mistakes. You will overstep, you will misunderstand.

Do you feel when you are writing a novel, rather than an essay, that something different happens for you in dealing with race?

In essays, the writing is more on the surface. In novels, you have to inhabit the people. And you know, you write five books to write one book. That happened in Bastard. One section came out of the manuscript completely because it didn't work. In it, Bone gets sent to the Juvenile Detention Center for trying to kill Daddy Glen, and spends a month there with another little girl who had attempted to murder her mother. The other little girl was black, and Bone was white. For me, this section became a way to really look at what it was really like to be black in Greenville at that time in history. And one of the things that hit me was that I had to construct a situation in which they would be in the same place in South Carolina in the 1960s.

Which is hard to imagine.

I researched it. It would have happened. Only that year and only because this was when they were integrating. It could have happened.

But by the time I had constructed the situation, and I had seven chapters of these two little girls, I realized how constructed it was, and I began to ask myself, “Why are you doing this?” I was doing it because I was a white working-class writer, writing a novel set just prior to the civil-rights movement in the South. So I'm bringing this in because it's important to me. But I haven't lived in this little girl's skin, and it didn't read right.

Now, it will help me in another book some day. I actually liked some of it a lot. But it didn't work. And the same thing is happening to me with this new book. And then I began to recognize a pattern. There is a young woman in this book and her father was a rock performer, a rock-and-roll musician who died. But one of her father's best friends was a keyboard player, a black man who turns out, in fact, to be a black gay man. And he took over my book. At the point when he comes back to bring something to the girl's mama, he was incidental, but he walked in and he took over. The next thing I know, I got six, seven chapters of this guy talking. And he's fascinating. And he don't have nothing to do with this book.

So I'm realizing this is now twice that I've done this. So what is going on? I'm a white Southern writer. And this stuff is like doggin' the back of my neck and I've got to do something with it. I don't have a sense of a right way to do it. I haven't made that jump yet. But it's clear to me that this is what I have to do. Because it's what I believe is the use of fiction.

For me, dealing with race and racism in my writing has been, partly, overcoming the voice I was trained to hear and speak in. And partly it's been working with the limits of my form. What does your form allow you to do?

You know June Arnold's Sister Gin. You know that part where she brings in a black maid but then she does this throw-away line where she says she can't possibly write what's in the mind of a black woman. I found that offensive. And I understand it as a reality.

I got an insight on arguments about the limits of the imagination from an acquaintance of mine, a woman who is a novelist and was in a women-writers' group. Some of the women in the group had been sexually abused; some had not. One woman who had not been abused was trying to write about that experience. And there were some problems in what she had written. The women who were abuse survivors were critiquing her work in a constructive way, saying, “Wait a minute, this is not accurate.” And she excused herself with that clichéd line: “Well, it didn't happen to me so I can't possibly imagine it.” And my friend said, “But that places another person outside the bounds of humanity.” To say that I can't imagine their experience, that's saying they are completely alien to me and I can never imagine what could have happened to them. It's a way of making someone nonhuman.

We need to say one thing if we're going to talk about white writers writing out of black voices, out of political conviction. My political convictions would persuade me that I should be doing this. But my mind, the top of my head where I write, absolutely believes that I only write anything of use when I write out of passionate need, inhabiting the skin. Now, I'm not going to publish nothing that doesn't come out of that place. As much as I would really like to be doing this, it ain't going to happen until I'm fully inhabiting those characters and they are real to me. But I have a whole section of my filing cabinet full of these voices, and now I've got the question of why I am writing them.

One of the most helpful things that I read about this is Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark, where she talks about how “American” fiction, meaning U.S. fiction, written by white people, has always been shaped by the presence of African-American people.

Or the absence.

Well, by their presence, because she says even when black folks are not in the work, ideas about them have shaped things that are there. And I thought, when I read her, that this could also be true of somebody who is writing as an anti-racist. In other words, the shape of the work will be different if written by a white person with an anti-racist consciousness about African-American people, even if she is not writing directly about them.

I think of that line in the Bible about the beam in your eye. You ain't aware of the beam in your eye until the beam is pulled out. And even then, I suspect there is another beam you ain't seen yet. Though we have an enormous advantage being queer in this culture because of where we see ourselves in relation to the power of this culture.

What are you writing, or not writing, because you are “queer”? Here you are, in the fullness of your work. You've already written a lot about sex.

Very plain-voice stuff about sex.

And now you and Alix are relatively new parents; you have a two-year-old.

Going to be a teenager any day now.

I started writing about my children after I lost custody of my boys because I began to live as a lesbian, and was told by the state that I could either be a sexual person or a mother but not both. I was in such pain and fury that I had to write about it no matter what. At that time, I never considered what my children might think about what I wrote. What about the inner voice that says, “You can't write about this, you can't write about that, you can't do this, you can't do that”? What about those voices that say you can't write about these things because now you're a mother?

That's scary. The place where that touches me is that we started joint adoption a couple of times, and for various reasons ran out of money and couldn't finish the process. So I'm not legally safe as Junior's co-mama. And when I think about that, I get panicked. Because, you know, those forces that make those decisions are inherently conservative. And I could very likely be turned down for adoption of my son because of some of the sex writing that I've done.

Now, that's there. It's in the back of my head, and it wakes me up in the night, and it's awful. But at the same time, I came so close to dying so many times as a child, as a teenager, as an adult, simply because of the fact of my sexual desire in the face of who I was in the world. The only thing I ever found that gave me a lifeline was to cling to this notion that telling the truth is the path that keeps you alive. If I step off that path, I haven't got a cord. So I can't do that.

But, it is true, sometimes I think about stepping off, and it's a tricky dance. Now, the place that the dance is on razors is about my son. I have published only one thing about him. And even in my notebooks where I write out my life, I find myself hesitant to write very much about him. And that's fascinating to me. Because the hesitation is just strong enough that—considering how little time I have these days that I'm free to write—it doesn't happen. The time in which we decided to have him, conceived him, birthed him, and the whole first year of his life, that was my life. That year took being able to write away from me. Clearly. No question. I didn't do anything worth shit that entire year except raise that baby.

And I was talking about him all the time because his birth coincided with my being very public in my work, and it was important to me to be very public about who I am in choosing to have a child. But I didn't write about it. It's the only time, because I write everything. I have notebooks that people should really worry about hitting the light of day!

You must have written something about him.

One of the things that I did write for myself, that I am going to do something with, is my discovering the fragility of the infant body. It's one of the things that I am infinitely grateful to him for. You know, a tributary that I swim in, trying to claim a sense of working-class pride, is this knowledge of being an incredibly tough woman, and coming from a line of tough women. All my notions of myself physically are about my risk-taking, being stubbornly strong and strong to the bones, strong from birth, strong at the beginning. It's a notion which is, in part, a product of the way I was raised, and in part a product of damage. Because of the specific damage I took in, I never knew what a child was like. I didn't know any children. I sure wasn't one.

But when I picked this baby up, I looked at him. Lord, I understood completely every retrograde impulse every mother ever had. I could have wrapped him around, I could have bent my body over him and never let anybody near him the rest of his life. Beautiful, precious, love, and tender. I had never known that. And, all of a sudden, I saw myself do that. Knowing, seeing that, I wrote about it a lot. My journals are full of that. This process of inordinate discovery.

I was learning something I needed desperately in order to get through this life. I believe in life work. The whole California notion of karma I kind of translate that into a Southern Baptist, dirt perspective. I think I have life work to do. And one of the pieces in life work is learning to love what was not loved.

And, you know, the curious thing that has happened in Cavedweller, the novel I'm working on—there's a man in it who is evil, who commits a terrible crime. And who, in the course of the novel, realizes it and changes. His whole purpose in the book is to go through that change, and to show how it happens. It's something that I never knew. I don't think I could have written it if Junior hadn't been born.

You are writing him, but in a different way.

I am imagining me in a different way. If I live enough and can write as much as I want to, I might get some of my life work finished. I'm aiming to get the most done.

Walter Kendrick (essay date July 1996)

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SOURCE: “Fiction in Review,” in Yale Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, July, 1996, pp. 162–67.

[In the following essay, Kendrick explores the balance between the autobiographical and the fictional elements in Allison's works.]

In Dorothy Allison's five books, she has never repeated herself. She has published a volume of poems (The Women Who Hate Me, 1983), a collection of short stories (Trash, 1988), a novel (Bastard Out of Carolina, 1992), a collection of essays (Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature, 1994), and an unclassifiable book “written for performance” (Two or Three Things I Know for Sure,). Although Allison ranges across the genres and has even created one, she has a single subject: herself. She writes repeatedly, even obsessively, about growing up poor and white in the South, about her childhood rape by her stepfather, about being lesbian, and about the kind of lesbian she is, devoted to practices that many of her fellows find politically abhorrent. At first glance, she might be mistaken for just another symptom of our compulsively confessional age, a literary version of the desperate characters who pant to inform Montel Williams or Ricki Lake, along with a few million television watchers, of the shocking things they've endured or done. But Allison has nothing to confess, only an endless supply of stories to tell.

Last December, a New York Times Magazine profile of Allison bore the title “The Roseanne of Literature,” and the comparison is apt. Allison suggested it: “We are both willing to be fools in public, to be despised,” she told interviewer Alexis Jetter. “Being an out-front, almost obnoxious working-class person gives you cachet. You've got that Roseanne pose: Don't mess with me, honey. I'm liable to pour gravy on you.” The writer and the TV star share some obvious traits. Both grew up in the working class and moved out of it, not by denying their origins but by magnifying them, thrusting them into the face of a middle class that prefers to act as if no one ever lived like that. Both ground themselves in the outrageousness of showing what ought to be invisible, of speaking in public what should be said, if ever, only behind closed doors. And both have constructed public versions of themselves that are derived from their private experience but mirror it in complicated, elusive ways. The public Roseanne, however, is by now little more than a cartoon, and the real Roseanne never could distinguish reality from performance. The public Allison, meanwhile, gets steadily more complex as the stories keep coming. And at every moment, the real Allison knows exactly what she's doing.

Before Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison had been slowly building a reputation as a provocative writer and a powerful reader of her own work. But the writing had been published in low-circulation journals like Quest: A Feminist Quarterly and Out/Look, and the readings had been held in hole-in-the-wall venues like Dixon Place in Manhattan's East Village. The Women Who Hate Me, her first book, was the first and last product of Long Haul Press in Brooklyn, which had been founded for that sole purpose. Her second, Trash, came from Firebrand Books in Ithaca, New York. Firebrand isn't exactly on the fringe—its titles get national distribution, mainly to gay and lesbian bookstores—but it isn't in the mainstream either. Allison's definitive crossover came with Bastard, published by Dutton, an imprint of New American Library, which is a division of Penguin Books, which is in turn an arm of the international hydra comically named “The Penguin Group.” Allison's rise looks like a standard fin-de-siècle success story: a talented writer with unpalatable traits swallowed by a conglomerate, groomed for success, and polished smooth to avoid offending middlebrow sensibilities.

That's what happened to Roseanne, and she has capitalized on it mightily. In Allison's case, the extravagantly favorable reviews of Bastard, along with its nomination for a National Book Award, produced the ordinary symptoms of an American writer's success: TV appearances, magazine profiles, a movie deal, and a big advance on her forthcoming novel, Cavedweller. But success also magnified a problem Allison herself had created. In her earlier work—poems, stories, and essays alike—she spoke in a relentlessly naked first-person voice; even when she commented on feminist and lesbian issues, as she did in columns for New York Native (several reprinted in Skin), she avoided generalities and abstractions, preferring to illustrate issues with episodes from her experience. The “I” of Allison's earlier work seemed to coincide with the living voice of the woman, an impression reinforced when, in those hole-in-the-wall venues, she read that work aloud. When she read, Allison's voice took on a Carolina lilt that was hardly perceptible in her off-stage talk. The public voice also had music in it, no doubt inspired by the gospel and country singing she said she'd heard everywhere around her as a child. Allison's voice rose to restrained crescendos and executed masterful dying falls; it was a highly artful instrument. Yet Allison's spoken “I,” like her written one, convinced her hearers and readers that the real Dorothy stood before them, telling naked truth.

That brave first-person voice continued in Bastard, taking on the persona of Ruth Anne Waddell, whom everyone calls Bone. The presumably adult Bone tells the story of her first thirteen years, a harrowing narrative of poverty and abuse that recycles a number of incidents from Allison's earlier fiction and essays. Some are absorbed whole, like the grisly tale of Shannon Pearl the hateful albino: already told as the story “Gospel Song” (in Trash), it reappears, revised and rearranged, in chapters 11 through 13 of Bastard, where it is interwoven with Bone's adventures. Some incidents recur like nightmares: “My sister was seven. She was screaming. My stepfather picked her up by her left arm, swung her forward and back. It gave. The arm went around loosely. She just kept screaming. I didn't know you could break it like that” (“River of Names,” in Trash). “His [Daddy Glen's] arm came down, caught my right wrist, and jerked hard, pulling me up sharply, then dropped me. Something gave, crunching audibly, while a wave of sickening heat followed, and my arm flopped uselessly under my body” (Bastard). “He was standing there. I was holding my arm. The doctor was saying, ‘What in God's name happened to this child?’” (Things). Someday, perhaps, scholars will drive themselves crazy attempting to sort out the various versions of Allison's many stories. So far, however, that madness is reserved for her readers and listeners.

Daddy Glen, Bone's appalling stepfather in Bastard, seems to be a fuller, subtler incarnation of the man called “my stepfather” in Allison's earlier work, just as Bone seems to speak the same “I” that Allison employs in her poems, stories, and essays. The temptation is strong, especially when Allison gives public readings, to identify all her written voices with one another and with the living one from the woman at the podium. Yet the details don't match up. Whose arm was broken, Allison's or her sister's? For that matter, which arm was it, the left or the right? How many sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins does Allison have? Their numbers and names vary from essays to stories to novel. Where did her family live as Allison/Bone was growing up? In the essay “Context” (1993), Allison describes a week-long vacation at Folly Beach, near Charleston, with her mother, stepfather, and apparently two sisters, when Allison was “about eight.” No such interlude occurs in Bastard; indeed, its relative tranquillity (“My stepfather lost his temper only once on that trip”) would be inconceivable in Bone's grim world. Besides, Bone has only one sister, Reese, a name Allison also uses in “Gospel Song,” though elsewhere she mentions sisters called Billie and Anne.

One could go on and on with such quibbles; Allison's ubiquitous “I” seems to solicit them, even as her stories veer and shimmer away. From the start of her career, Allison has fed her public's desire to fuse her stories into a defining one that would have the dead-end authenticity of tales told on daytime television. But she always frustrates that desire: “The fiction I make comes out of my life, but it is not autobiography,” she told a San Francisco audience in 1993 (“Shotgun Strategies,” an essay based on those remarks, is reprinted in Skin). “What I have taught myself to do is to craft truth out of storytelling.” Yet the desire persists and extends to Allison's actual family:

My sisters do not remember all of our childhood, and one of the roles I have played in our family is being the one who gives it back to them. A problem that arises with my fiction is that sometimes I take small pieces of things that happened to us and move very far away from them, and sometimes my sisters don't know the difference between the story I made up and our lives. What I had to do in the year after I finished my novel was to sit down with my little sister and go through some of it. I had to say, “That page is true. It didn't happen to me, though, it happened to you.”


Allison knows that her readers want to know exactly who did what to whom, when, and where. At the same time, though, she recognizes that exactness of this kind yields anecdotes, not truth. Talk-show confessors, who revel in specifics, get to tell one story apiece and only one; such stories, though patently true, are trivial, because they say next to nothing about the world in which they occurred or even about the actors in them. You, the viewer, are meant to laugh at them. Allison aims at a different sort of truth.

In Two or Three Things I Know for Sure, she directly engaged the multiplied public curiosity that accompanied the success of Bastard. Written, as an “Author's Note” says, “in the months following the completion of my novel,” this odd little book was designed to be read aloud, before large groups of strangers, by Allison herself; in autumn 1995 she embarked on a nationwide tour that let her be seen and heard by thousands who knew her only as what they hoped was the original Bone. They saw something else again.

I saw her on 12 September 1995 at the Celeste Bartos Forum of the New York Public Library. In that gorgeously renovated, glass-roofed hall, some five hundred people had gathered to listen to the famous bastard out of Carolina. The crowd was predominantly white, well dressed, middle-aged, and hot with not entirely literary curiosity. Allison entered leaning on a cane; she doffed her fringed black-leather jacket to reveal a cherry-red silk blouse, climbed the steps to the podium, tossed back her long, straight, strawberry-blond hair, and within seconds had that sophisticated audience in the palm of her hand. She read for about forty-five minutes covering perhaps a third of Two or Three Things. What she read very likely differed from the printed text; before publication, the work had “changed with each production,” and it no doubt continues to do so. What she read was also not the truth, at least not the kind Ricki Lake would recognize.

“Let me tell you a story,” Two or Three Things begins, and the audience might suppose that Allison is addressing them. Yes and no:

“Let me tell you a story,” I used to whisper to my sisters, hiding with them behind the red-dirt bean hills and row on row of strawberries. My sisters' faces were thin and sharp, with high cheekbones and restless eyes, like my mama's face, my aunt Dot's, my own. Peasants, that's what we are and always have been. Call us the lower orders, the great unwashed, the working class, the poor, proletariat, trash, lowlife and scum. I can make a story out of it, out of us. Make it pretty or sad, laughable or haunting. Dress it up with legend and aura and romance.

Two or Three Things is indeed a story about Allison and her family (although her face is not “thin and sharp,” and to judge from the book's childhood photos, it never was), but it is also a story told to them. It is about how storytelling sustained Allison by taking her, in imagination, away from her family, how it enabled her to build a life of her own, and how it eventually sent her back with new stories to tell. Instead of pinning Allison down to documentary truth, declaring once and for all, “This is what really happened,” Two or Three Things complicates the game by telling a story that is, first and foremost, about telling stories.

It might seem inappropriate to call Allison's work a game, given the harsh facts of poverty, bigotry, violence, and desperation she deals in. Yet all her work, no matter how grim its apparent subject, sings the playful joy that comes from taking hold of facts and spinning them into stories. In Two or Three Things, Allison calls it theater:

Theater is standing up terrified and convincing people that you know what you're doing—eating oysters with a smile when the only fish you've known has been canned tuna or catfish fried in cornmeal. Theater is going to bars with strangers whose incomes are four times your own; it's wearing denim when everyone around you is in silk, or silk when they're all wearing leather. Theater is talking about sex with enormous enthusiasm when nobody's ever let you in their pants. Theater is pretending you know what you're doing when you don't know anything for certain and what you do know seems to be changing all the time.

Allison's theater is also the art of a voice that speaks her family, her class, her desire, and herself, at once and inseparably. The woman in red silk and black leather is, as she likes to style herself, as she says in the Preface to Trash, a “cross-eyed, working-class lesbian addicted to violence, language, and hope.” Above all, though, she is a storyteller, and the one thing she does know for sure is the gnomic declaration that ends Two or Three Things: “I can tell you anything. All you have to believe is the truth.”

Jillian Sandell (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “Telling Stories of ‘Queer White Trash’: Race Class and Sexuality in the Work of Dorothy Allison,” in White Trash: Race and Class in America, Routledge, 1997, pp. 211–30.

[In the following essay, Sandell explores the class distinctions and prejudices in the works of Dorothy Allison, noting that even specialized communities (e.g., lesbian and gay communities, racial groups) have class-based biases and fears.]

The stories I told about my family, about South Carolina, about being poor itself, were all lies, carefully edited to seem droll or funny.

Dorothy Allison1

It's the dirtiest secret of the lesbian community, the only thing that no one wants to talk about … And it's the one thing that threatens us—individually and collectively—more than any other issue in our community. Class.

Victoria Brownworth2

Storytelling is an important way in which we make sense of the world and our place within it. Because they are always grounded in communities of memory that are socially, culturally, and historically formed, stories are only meaningful within the context of a community of people who can hear and understand them. While the rite of storytelling is not a recent invention, a form of storytelling that is particular to contemporary Western culture is the trend to tell stories about one's personal life—stories that, when told, are presumed to enable and foster the creation of social and political communities. Indeed, as Ken Plummer writes in his recent book, Telling Sexual Stories:

Stories need communities to be heard, but communities themselves are also built through story tellings. Stories gather people around them. … Stories help organize the flow of interaction, binding together or disrupting the relation of self to other and community. Rape stories, coming out stories and recovery stories feed upon and into community—shifting the spheres of what is public and private, secret and known about [emphasis in original].3

For Plummer, stories of coming out or recovery share a basic narrative structure of suffering, surviving, and surpassing. In order for these stories to be successful, moreover, there must be social worlds embodying community support to receive them.4 Even though Plummer is primarily interested in stories about sex, his formulation is useful for other stories, since, as he argues, all stories share the fact that they are “social actions embedded in social worlds.”5

Despite the proliferation of personal storytelling in recent years, and the shift in social conditions that has facilitated these stories being told and heard, there are still certain stories that cannot be told—either because we have no language with which to articulate them or because there is no interpretive community to hear and understand them. These stories become, instead, secrets and lies—stories that signal social isolation and disempowerment rather than connection and strength. One such story within contemporary culture, as the epigraphs from Dorothy Allison and Victoria Brownworth suggest, is the story of class—a story that often only becomes tellable as a lie, joke, or dirty secret. This is especially the case with the category of “white trash.” Indeed, as David Reynolds argues, while the white trash character is deeply engrained in the American literary consciousness, it is a character frequently made accessible either through the trope of “the grotesque” and/or through humor. In Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road (1932), for example, the spectacle of depravity was offset by its comedic tone.6 Films such as Andy Warhol's Trash and John Waters' Pink Flamingos, and television's Roseanne similarly satisfy the twin impulses of desire and denial that lies and jokes typically solicit. Some stories about class are easier to tell, in other words, when couched in terms of humor, irony, or deceit.

Dorothy Allison thus provides an important counterpoint to this problematic because of the ways she consciously engages with the “lies,” “jokes,” and “secrets” circulating about impoverished white in the United States. Writing from the perspective of her (self-named) identity as “queer white trash,” Allison's essays, short stories, poems, and best-selling novel Bastard Out of Carolina depict “white trash” life as being characterized by violence, poverty, hardship, and a pervasive sense of hopelessness.7 Her work refuses the usual distinction between the “good poor”—the romanticized vision of the noble, hardworking, and undeserving as found, for example, in James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941)—and the “bad poor”—the lazy, ungrateful, and grotesque of Caldwell's Tobacco Road. Allison tempers her portrayal of poverty with the strength and courage of her characters and family members, while also showing their flaws and mistakes. Indeed, as Amber Hollibaugh writes of Bastard Out of Carolina, “[it] defies our terrible amnesia and confusion about poverty, gender and race.”8

In a culture that promotes storytelling and the confessional narrative to almost hyperbolic proportions, the fact that stories about impoverished whites have been virtually untellable suggests a profound collective anxiety about what such narratives might reveal. Lies, secrets, and jokes operate, after all, as a form of displacement—either in terms of the content of the story or the teller's feelings about that content. As such, it is interesting that the one forum in which stories about class have been able to be told and heard is as commodities to be consumed within the marketplace. Certainly, commodities satisfy needs and desires, but they do so at the price of masking the human and economic relations that create the commodity. Commodification operates, in other words, as another form of displacement, but one that—unlike jokes and secrets—has a public and legitimate place in the market economy.

That Brownworth's article on class and economics appeared in Deneuve, a glossy lesbian magazine pitched at middle-class women, underscores the fact that the issue of displacement vis-à-vis class stories operates at the level of both production and reception. Thus, while the popular imaginary of the United States has proven largely unable to address or challenge oppression based on economic inequality, the widespread acclaim of Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina demonstrates that people have no such difficulty in consuming and enjoying stories about class in the marketplace. To put it another way, issues of economic marginality can be tolerated and articulated within the logic of liberal pluralism, so long as they can then be circulated as cultural, rather than economic, issues. Indeed, capitalism has proven to be notoriously efficient in its ability to recuperate radical ideas and turn them into commodities to be consumed within the market economy. By turning the experience of class-based oppression into stories that are circulated in the marketplace, the act of articulation (rather than the issue itself) becomes the object of cultural consumption. Certainly, this kind of recuperation is one way ideas are made meaningful and audible within the social economy, but since the visibility and circulation of commodities relies upon the invisibility of the labor that creates them, the buying and selling of class narratives runs the risk of remystifying precisely those social and economic relations they aim to expose. The threatening aspect of class that Brownworth articulates, therefore, suggests that its divisive potential operates at the level of political communities rather than cultural stories.

If the telling of stories as a strategy for social change is successful only so long as there is a community to hear that story, the commodification and recontainment of class issues as a story to be consumed in the marketplace presents a troubling scenario. While the economic reality of class status is not interchangeable with representations of it, the discursive and social formations of class identities are, nevertheless, related. Although Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina engages with the issue of impoverished whites, it does not, for example, alleviate class oppression, or even necessarily challenge the status quo. Such a situation is typical of many marginalized groups in the United States, for whom the marketplace frequently offers a limited, but contained, space within which to articulate some measure of resistance to the dominant social order and to form communities. In the context of their work on minority discourse, for example, Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd argue that while the market economy of liberal pluralism “tolerates the existence of salsa, it even enjoys Mexican restaurants, … it bans Spanish as a medium of instruction in American schools.”9 In a rather more celebratory tone, Michael Warner argues that market relations have been constitutive in the formation of queer communities, writing that “[i]n the lesbian and gay movement, to a much greater degree than in any comparable movement, the institutions of culture-building have been market-mediated: bars, discos, special services, newspapers, magazines, phonelines, resorts, urban commercial districts.”10 Clearly, it is imperative to think critically about whether marginalized groups having access to the marketplace constitutes a form of resistance or whether it simply means substituting consumerism for politics. To the extent that commodity culture can be productive of meaning, however, such a process should not be rejected out of hand. The proliferation of stories about class-based oppression suggests that such stories provide a language with which to articulate these experiences and an interpretive community to hear them, albeit a community organized primarily (although, as I will later suggest, not exclusively) around consumption.

The problem, however, is that discursive representations can sometimes serve to remystify the hegemonic relations of exploitation and oppression in society so that, within the circuit of capitalist exchange, the telling and hearing/reading of stories is seen as a replacement for concrete economic and political change. The displacement between consuming a narrative and participating in a community becomes collapsed by producers and consumers alike into interchangeable acts. This slippage between the discursive and the socio-economic means that the production of cultural stories often treads a fine line between, on the one hand, being complicit with hegemonic ideology and, on the other, being a form of liberating practice.11

With this in mind I want to interrogate the status of Dorothy Allison as a figure of “queer white trash” in America and investigate the extent to which her storytelling operates both hegemonically and as a liberating practice. Although “white trash” had often been used as a term of degradation and shame, Allison resists this position, arguing that shame implies that poverty only happens to people who deserve it. She describes her project in Bastard Out of Carolina, for example, as being:

To tell the truth and to pay homage to the people who helped to make me the person I've become.

I show you my aunts in their drunken rages, my uncles in their meanness. And that's exactly who we are said to be. That's what white trash is all about. We're all supposed to be drunks standing in our yards with our broken-down cars and our dirty babies. Some of that stuff is true. But to write about it I had to find a way to pull the reader in and show you those people as larger than that contemptible myth. And show you why those men drink, why those women hate themselves and get old and can't protect themselves or their children. Show you human beings instead of fold-up, mean, cardboard figures [emphasis added].12

Allison reclaims, therefore, the label “white trash” as a political strategy to expose class-based discrimination in the United States and to emphasize the structural, rather than volitional, nature of economic oppression. She also calls herself “queer” to reclaim those aspects of her identity that have defined her as marginal among lesbians, and to emphasize the social (as well as sexual) aspects of such an identity:

I use the word queer to mean more than a lesbian. Since I first used it in 1980 I have always meant it to imply that I am not only a lesbian but a transgressive lesbian—femme, masochistic, as sexually aggressive as the women I seek out, and as pornographic in my imagination and sexual activities as the heterosexual hegemony has ever believed.13

Allison writes that much of the hatred that has been directed at her sexual preference is really class hatred, and vice versa, which underscores the ways in which both her sexuality and her class status are constructed as falling outside the normative (and overlapping) moral orders of the middle-classes and the queer community. While work such as that by Allison can and does articulate connections between individual experience and the wider social context, they do not always articulate a direct relationship between the “real” and the “represented.” To get at this relationship, literature can be read symptomatically as a place in which the repressed of culture gets acted out, operating, therefore, as another form of displacement within communities of storytellers and audiences. The commercial and critical success of Bastard Out of Carolina suggests, for example, a profound collective desire to engage with the issue of impoverished whites in the United States, while at the same time it suggests a form of disavowal that keeps such issues at arm's length—class issues become safely located in books and popular culture to be consumed as a leisure activity.14 Since Allison is often claimed as “queer” rather than as “white trash,” this acts as another form of displacement since sexuality is even more commodified in contemporary United States than is class. Within a capitalist mode of economic relations, talking about sexuality is often easier than talking about class because the semiotic markers, language, and consumer goods that can signify such identities are more accessible.

Indeed, Allison herself writes about the ways in which the contradictory impulses of desire and denial that accompany any form of displacement shaped her own understanding of class and sexuality. She says there was a period, for example, when the only way she could survive was to compartmentalize the separate aspects of her life and attempt to blend in with whichever community she was currently part of. As she later admits, however, blending in and compartmentalizing her life demanded that certain other aspects of her past be forgotten—some stories, in other words, had to remain untold and unheard. As she writes:

often I felt a need to collapse my sexual history into what I was willing to share of my class background, to pretend that my life both as a lesbian and as a working-class escapee was constructed by the patriarchy. Or conversely, to ignore how much my life was shaped by growing up poor and talk only about what incest did to my identity as a woman and as a lesbian. The difficulty is that I can't ascribe everything that has been problematic about my life simply and easily to the patriarchy, or to incest, or even to the invisible and much-denied class structure of our society.15

Allison's earliest adult encounters with public storytelling were within Atlanta's middle-class feminist community, which she joined after first leaving South Carolina. She has said in interviews that speaking out about her background and about being poor saved her life, making her feel like a “human being instead of a puppet.”16 During the 1970s and 1980s Allison worked for the feminist magazines Quest and Conditions, which were committed to publishing personal stories by and about women. The economic reality of feminist writing meant that she rarely got much of her own creative writing done and instead spent most of her time writing grant proposals and trying to raise money. When she did begin writing, Allison says that many feminists regarded fiction as a “crime.” The goal for women, and especially lesbians, was to instead “tell the truth” and keep it “real.”17 While she agreed that personal narratives and “truth telling” work well at an individual level, Allison decided that stories told “in a crafted intended way” had more potential in their power to transform the world.18 She remains committed to narratives of “self-revelation,” however, and sees them as an important aspect of political activism.19 As both a writer and an activist, Allison has explored the ways in which class, race, gender, and sexuality (re)inscribe each other in identity construction, arguing that “class, gender, sexual preference, and prejudice—racial, ethnic, and religious—form an intricate lattice that restricts and shapes our lives.”20

Allison has said that in Bastard Out of Carolina she was trying to perform what Minnie Bruce Pratt calls “practicing memory.” She uses the narrative form as a safe space to hold culturally specific memories and family stories. For Allison, then, writing Bastard Out of Carolina was both a political act to engage readers with society's “biggest secret”—its deep-rooted classism—and a personal act, motivated by a desire to recollect her family stories and pay tribute.21 Taking memories as a starting point, Allison then expands upon them through the novel's protagonist—and bastard of the title—Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright. Indeed, Bastard Out of Carolina tells the story of how Bone, who is beaten and raped by her stepfather Daddy Glen and later deserted by her mother Anney Boatwright, nevertheless finds strength in her extended family of aunts and uncles and is able to survive and surpass the physical, sexual, and psychological abuse she experiences. Allison has also said that is was a book she “had to write,” saying that “it's not a lesbian coming-of-age story, not a charming portrait of growing up poor in the South of the fifties and sixties. Rather it is a frankly harrowing account of family violence and incest.”22

Allison uses the trope of storytelling in the novel to deconstruct the notion of coherent and stable identities and communities, and to explore identities that fall outside of the normative, white, heterosexual matrix. Bastard Out of Carolina addresses the ideologies of social identities and the ways in which individuals become interpellated by them. Since interpellation works when an individual hears and recognizes a cultural story and understands his or her place within it, this becomes a way in which Allison is able to emphasize a relational sense of identity. Her work articulates, in other words, the fact that subject-positions are always constructed within the context of human, social, and economic relations and stories. In this way, storytelling becomes for Bone a way to understand her place within the Boatwright family community. Staying with her Aunt Ruth in the weeks before she died, Bone is told stories “about things that had happened long before I was born and [that Ruth] imagined no one had told me yet.” Determined that Bone should know all the stories, her Aunt Ruth “talked continuously,” anxious that Bone should understand who her people were and what they had done.23

Allison's emphasis on storytelling also demonstrates how meanings and histories are always both relational and contestable. There is no single truth, only versions of the truth. As Bone says of her grandmother, “she would lean back in her chair and start reeling out story and memory, making no distinction between what she knew to be true and what she had only heard told.”24 For Bone the telling of stories—whether true or false—is also a way for her to feel like she is part of the family. When she tries to find out more about her father, for example, she says, “It wasn't even that I was so insistent on knowing anything about my missing father. I wouldn't have minded a lie. I just wanted the story Mama would have told.”25 Indeed, as Ann Ross argues, when Bone moves to a new school and tells her teacher that she is Roseanne Carter from Atlanta, even though she is lying about who she is and where she is from, “to speak her name would render an equally fictitious story from the community; a story of white trash, violent and stupid and ill-bred folk.”26 The Boatwrights all engage in a particular form of storytelling that disabuses the easy distinction between truth and lies: “I could never be sure which of the things [Granny] told me were true and which she just wished were true … All the Boatwrights told stories, it was one of the things we were known for, and what one cousin swore was gospel, another swore just as fiercely was an unqualified lie.”27

By engaging with cultural narratives about family and identity in this way Allison affirms the possibility of recreating alternative identities through discursive practices. Family identities that are constructed to appear as natural only maintain the illusion of coherence because of what they exclude. Most of Bastard Out of Carolina, for example, concerns the Boatwright family, yet we learn that their sense of identity as white trash has less to do with some innate quality they share than it does with the comparison drawn between, on the one hand, the Boatwrights and, on the other hand, the Waddells and Pearls. Daddy Glen's family, the Waddells, are middle-class and reject Glen because he married Bone's mother. Yet, as Bone articulates, their difference from the Boatwrights has to do with both their economic position and their attitudes and beliefs. “It was not only Daddy Glen's brothers being lawyers and dentists instead of mechanics and roofers that made them so different from the Boatwrights. In Daddy Glen's family the women stayed at home.”28 The Waddells also smoke cigarettes in the bathroom or kitchen, “pretending the rest of the time they didn't have any such dirty habits.”29 As such, Bone articulates the shifting and multiple understandings of “class” that circulate within the United States. Class can mean, in other words, the relationship to the means of production (either working for wage labor or for a salary); it can refer to crude income levels (the rich and the poor); or it can mean a set of values either held by a class of people or assigned to them. Bone's insights about the Waddells' economic identity underscores the complicated nature of “white trash” as an economic identity—that it refers not only to poverty and non-ownership of the means of production, but also to a set of behaviors that, in turn, become a signifier of economic status.

The shame Glen feels in relation to his family of birth has, however, as much to do with his inability to provide for his family as it has to do with the fact that Anney, his wife, works. Since Glen desperately wants a son but Anney is unable to bear his child, his sense of failure is related both to his inability to be middle-class and his inability to be (what he considers) appropriately masculine. His solution is to take his family further and further away from the Boatwright clan (thereby destroying Anney's support network), as if being away from that which defines him as a failure will allow him to recreate his sense of identity.

Daddy Glen's violence toward Bone is both sexual and physical in nature, and is intimately tied up with his feelings of inadequacy about his class status. Allison underscores the complicated relation between sexuality and violence in the masturbatory fantasies Bone has about being beaten by Daddy Glen:

My fantasies got more violent and more complicated as Daddy Glen continued to beat me with the same two or three belts he'd set aside for me. …

I was ashamed of myself for the things I thought about when I put my hands between my legs, more ashamed for masturbating to the fantasy of being beaten than for being beaten in the first place. I lived in a world of shame. I hid my bruises as if they were evidence of crimes I had committed. I knew I was a sick disgusting person. I couldn't stop my stepfather from beating me, but I was the one who masturbated. I did that, and how could I explain to anyone that I hated being beaten but still masturbated to the story I told myself about it?

Yet, it was only in my fantasies with people watching me that I was able to defy Daddy Glen. Only there that I had any pride. I loved those fantasies, even though I was sure they were a terrible thing. They had to be; they were self-centered and they made me have shuddering orgasms. In them, I was very special. I was triumphant, important. I was not ashamed. There was no heroism possible in the real beatings. There was just being beaten until I was covered in snot and misery.30

Sex and power remain linked in Bone's fantasies, and the fantasies become a safe space within which she can confront and overcome Daddy Glen. Indeed, this is one of the places in Bastard Out of Carolina where Allison uses not just the trope of storytelling to empower Bone but specifically the trope of therapeutic recovery. The language of therapy is, after all, one of the ways in which we learn to tell stories about shame and trauma. Bone's fantasy about her abuse is more than a symptom, therefore, since it contains an articulatable narrative. Indeed, as Judith Herman and others have suggested, remembering and telling stories about traumatic events is essential both for the restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.31 Bone's therapeutic narrative remains, however, an individual coping strategy since she has no interpretive community to hear and understand her story. The link between sexual abuse and sexual pleasure acts, moreover, as another form of displacement for her anxiety about her relationship with Daddy Glen. Since the Boatwright history is buried in this kind of secrecy and shame, Bone's attempts to collect stories about her family and make them heard demonstrates her desire to restore and heal both her own life and the social order.

As is common in situations of child abuse, Glen forces Bone to remain silent about the abuse but

He never said “Don't tell your mama.” He never had to say it. I did not know how to tell anyone what I felt. … I could not tell Mama. I would not have known how to explain why I stood there and let him touch me. … Worse, when Daddy Glen held me that way, it was the only time his hands were gentle.32

Even though Bone wants to have access to the stories of other members of her family, she is, herself, unable to speak to anyone of Glen's abuse. She becomes trapped in the shame and secrecy that has constituted so much of the Boatwright history. The complicated relation between sex and power is here portrayed in graphic relief so that Bone's silence, and the eroticization of Glen's violence, are seen to be an understandable, if ultimately unhealthy, coping strategy.

Secrets only work, however, as long as people keep them, and once Bone's Aunt Raylene discovers the bruises and scars on her legs and realizes that Glen has been beating and raping her, the stories Bone has been telling herself about her abuse can no longer be sustained. As she says; “Things come apart so easily that have been held together with lies.”33 The stories Bone's mother has been telling herself about Glen's violence also fall apart. Even when she says to Bone, “I never thought it would go the way it did. I never thought Glen would hurt you like that,” Bone still wants to protect her. “I wanted to tell her lies, tell her that I have never doubted her, that nothing could make any difference to my love for her, but I couldn't. I had lost my mama.”34 Ultimately, Anney has to choose between Glen—who she still loves in spite of herself—and Bone, and she chooses Glen. Such a decision, however, must be understood, at least in part, as a need for economic survival. Notions of “choice,” in other words, must be understood within the context of larger social and economic relations. Indeed, the fact that Anney's need for Glen is both psychological and economic is articulated by Alma, Anney's sister, when she says, “[she] needs him like a starving woman needs meat between her teeth.”35 In choosing Glen over Bone it is Anney who most vividly embodies James Baldwin's quote (used as the epigraph for Bastard Out of Carolina) “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.” Ending Bastard Out of Carolina with Anney betraying Bone was, however, a conscious strategy of Allison's to expose the lies women often tell themselves about loyalty among women: “Pretending that our mothers do not fail us, pretending that our mothers do not literally betray us, just puts a gloss over this gaping wound which allows it to lie there and fester the rest of your life. You'll never get out of it, you'll never get over it.”36 Indeed, the original ending had Anney and Bone together kill Glen. But, Allison says, her lover and her agent both told her that the heroic ending was not as powerful.37

Bastard Out of Carolina has received almost exclusively favorable reviews in both the mainstream and alternative presses and was mentioned in “best of” lists for 1992 and 1993 in publications as diverse as Library Journal,New York Magazine,The New York Times Book Review,The Progressive,Publishers Weekly,The Times Literary Supplement, and The Voice Literary Supplement. This diverse and positive reception suggests that Allison's appeal is not limited to those communities she represents in her book, and that people from “non-white trash” backgrounds enjoyed, and valued, her stories. As bell hooks has written, however, “it is not the work of cultural critics to merely affirm passively cultural practices already defined as radical or transgressive [but to] cross boundaries to take another look, to contest, to interrogate, and in some cases to recover and redeem.”38 It is imperative, therefore, to carefully examine Allison's work in relation to the social contexts from which her stories are produced and within which they are consumed. Indeed, Allison herself acknowledges the potential problems in achieving mainstream success, commenting after her nomination in 1992 for the National Book Award, “I worry sometimes that if the big boys notice me that maybe it isn't because I'm doing something right, but because I'm doing something wrong.”39 To that end, it is essential to interrogate what is at stake in the success of Bastard Out of Carolina, and, correlatively in the relative marginalization of Allison's other work—her short stories, essays, and poems. Does the success of Bastard Out of Carolina signify, in other words, the recuperation of its radical content, or, does literature have, as Allison suggests, “the power to transform”?40

Certain aspects of Allison's work have become occluded in different contexts, so exploring how her works have been received by mainstream and marginal audiences provides an opportunity to examine the limited vocabulary currently available to talk about class in the United States. Reviewers of Bastard Out of Carolina who focus on Allison's identity as white trash, for example, frequently obscure questions of gender and sexuality. Similarly, reviews of Allison's essays and short stories frequently emphasize her gender and sexuality at the expense of race and class. Indeed, one reviewer of Skin explicitly criticized Allison for not talking about race, thereby reiterating the problematic notion that whiteness is some sort of unmarked, unracialized category.41 Allison's work articulates, however, the extent to which no one element of an identity—whether class, sexuality, gender, or race—can be understood except in relation to the others. To try to separate them is to always experience a sense of alienation. Bastard Out of Carolina, for example, was received primarily as a novel about southern working-class families, although many of the reviewers also emphasized the issue of sexual abuse. Allison's other work, on the other hand, despite covering similar territory to that addressed in Bastard, has been almost universally claimed as books about and for women. While this is, no doubt, in part because all her other books are published by feminist presses, the reception of these other works in the mainstream press suggests it would be true even if she had published elsewhere. Publishing magazines such as Choice,Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, for example, recommended Bastard Out of Carolina for general fiction collections but her other works for women's studies and lesbian studies collections. When Bastard Out of Carolina is categorized as a queer text, it is typically because Allison herself is lesbian (and, therefore, the book is presumed to be of interest to other queer people) rather than a perception that the book is “about” lesbians per se.42 For Allison, however, “[Bastard Out of Carolina] is not a lesbian novel, it's a working-class novel. But it's about a lesbian, there is certainly the aspect of that hidden reality there.”43

Allison's short stories in Trash have similarly had a mixed reception. While most reviewers agree that the stories are concerned with the overlap between sexuality and violence, one reviewer claimed it as lesbian erotica while others understood it more accurately to be about sexual abuse.44 Indeed, the stories in Trash are explicitly about Allison's experiences of violence—the violence of poverty, and the violence of physical and sexual abuse—and how these experiences shape her understanding of her own, and other women's, lesbian identity. These stories also employ the theme of lies and storytelling that is used to such powerful effect in Bastard Out of Carolina. In “River of Names,” for example, she writes:

Jesse and I have been lovers for a year now. She tells me stories about her childhood, about her father going off each day to the university, her mother who made all the dresses, her grandmother who always smelled of dill bread and vanilla …

“What did your grandmother smell like?”

I lied to her the way I always do, a lie stolen from a book. “Like lavender,” stomach churning over the memory of sour sweat and snuff.

I realize I do not really know what lavender smells like, and I am for a moment afraid she will ask something else, some question that will betray me.45

This lie about Allison's grandmother also underscores the ways in which gender, sexuality, and class intersect in their relationship to the body and to memory. Allison's anecdote articulates, in other words, a specifically gendered, as well as classed, fantasy. Later, in “Monkeybites,” the lies are explicitly related to the different stories lesbians tell each other about sex and love. Describing an affair she had in college with a woman who considers her a “Southern dirt-country type,” Allison writes,”

Sometimes when I wanted to make her feel good, I would make my own eyes widen, intensify my gaze, and give her the look of love she was giving me at that moment. For me it was lust; only in her eyes did it become love … “Love,” Toni whispered. “Sex,” I told myself.46

While Toni wants commitment, connection, and love, Allison's sexual desires are passionate but also violent. The class-based assumptions of appropriate lesbian sexuality are made even more explicit in “Her Thighs,” when Allison's lover, Bobby, seeks to tame her desire for passionate sex.

Bobby believed lust was a trashy lower-class impulse, and she so wanted to be nothing like that. Bobby loved to fuck me. Bobby loved to beat my ass, but it bothered her that we both enjoyed it so much. …

Bobby loved the aura of acceptability, the possibility of finally being bourgeois, civilized, and respectable.

I was the uncivilized thing in Bobby's life.47

Allison articulates here how the discourses of class are linked to the discourses of proper sexuality and reminds the reader of the stories lesbians tell themselves about how they are, and how they should be.

For Allison, her queer identity is not only related to her white trash identity, but it is what enabled her to see her life differently and tell stories about it:

If I wasn't queer, I wouldn't be a writer. I'd live in a trailer park. Probably in Greenville, South Carolina. I would probably have six kids. I would probably beat them. I would probably drink. I would probably be dead. I'm forty-three. In my family that's a long time to live. I think that being a lesbian gave me the possibility to see my life in different terms.48

By the same token, however, being a lesbian writer at this point in time is, as Allison suggests, almost by definition to be poor.49 For her, then, it is impossible to separate her identities as a writer, as queer, and as white trash. She says of her time in New York, “The real work of my life was writing and trying to piece out what it meant to be the expatriate Southern lesbian in a place that barely tolerated queers.”50 Indeed, Allison embraces the term “queer” as an inclusive term that can accommodate marginality from realms other than that of the sexual. “They knew I was queer,” she says in an interview, “I was weird. That's what my family thought of it—Dorothy's weird.”51 And in another article she suggests that it was her interest in books, as much as her sexuality, that made her feel “really queer” among her family. Her outsider status was confirmed, moreover, by being the first in her large family to finish high school.52 Even though Allison received for Bastard Out of Carolina the largest publisher's advance ever given to a lesbian writer, “largest” is a relative term, and the $37,000 she received was her entire income for three years.53 Few writers, and especially lesbian writers, can make a living from writing, and Allison is not unusual in having taken many other jobs to support herself.

Allison's writing and activism as a working-class lesbian is part of a tradition that has, until recently, been largely ignored. Recent works such as Joan Nestle's Restricted Country (1987), Lillian Faderman's Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (1991), Madeline Davis and Elizabeth Kennedy's Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold (1993), and Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues (1993), as well as Audre Lorde's earlier Zami (1982), argue, like Allison's work, that working-class women have always existed within lesbian culture; they have just not always been acknowledged as being there.54 Indeed, working-class women were among the first who came out and established the “bar-dyke” scene that constituted much of the early urban queer culture in the United States, thereby reiterating Warner's contention that market relations and public consumer culture has been instrumental in the formation of the queer community.

Certainly, the proliferation of stories about class and economic oppression within consumer culture do run the risk of operating hegemonically by being made available and circulated as commodities within the marketplace. Since commodities are one of the ways in which desire is organized in contemporary culture, even when non-normative identities are recuperated within the market economy their circulation can suggest the kinds of collective social fantasies such commodities might satisfy. But by claiming identities like “white trash” and “queer,” which have become, at least in part, commodities rather than signifiers of economic and sexual oppression, is Allison complicit in the displacement of classism and homophobia onto the realm of consumer culture?

Consumer culture promises a sense of fulfillment through personal strategies but cannot change society—it merely displaces feelings of alienation and unhappiness into the realm of individual acts of transformation. Indeed, participating in the marketplace is often perceived to be a stand-in for collective social change. Certainly white trash has become, in many ways, a commodity associated with a particular kind of clothing and style. But while Allison's stories circulate as books and essays—as commodities, in other words—the community of readers she creates is one based, at least in part, on the telling and sharing of stories. Indeed, a community based on shared stories (even when sharing those stories requires participation in consumer culture by buying the books) does not require forging an identity on those acts of consumption. As Plummer suggests, moreover, the sharing of stories can break down or challenge—rather than reinforce—the public/private distinction upon which both capitalism and class relations rest. While many stories about white trash have, until now, participated in a scapegoating function—displacing the ills of society onto white trash—by writing from the perspective of queer white trash Allison challenges this stereotype. She has said, moreover, that writing her stories affirmed her ongoing desire to live and was her way of resisting the “ocean of ignorance and obliteration.”55

Ultimately, while Allison's work certainly contains the possibility of recuperation, it can operate as a political strategy. Popular consumer culture satisfies very real social and political desires and, as Warner and others have suggested, enables the formation of alternative communities for marginalized groups. Stories can and do exist outside of the realm of the commodity, and a community based on the production and consumption of stories can facilitate discursive and social change. Allison's use of the trope of storytelling, for example, is not simply a postmodern strategy to destabilize and deconstruct notions of truth and fiction since she is clearly describing a reality of poverty, child abuse, and rape. There is, in other words, a “real world” that Allison addresses and that exists as the realm within which her work is consumed. Indeed, the interactive nature of storytelling as cultural intervention and political praxis is evident in the extent to which reviewers of Allison's work will confess their own white trash or queer identity when writing about her work. Reviewers clearly felt affirmed in reading about people similar to themselves.56 While it may not be catalogued in the same way, presumably readers often have the same experience. In the end, acknowledging that class-based oppression exists, creating a language with which to speak of it, and fostering a supportive community to hear such stories are, as Allison suggests, all important in the battle to overcome economic injustice.57 To that end, the work of Dorothy Allison constitutes a major contribution to the urgent political project of critiquing and dismantling the oppressive system of class relations in the United States.


  1. I would like to thank Sharon Marcus, Annalee Newitz, and Matt Wray for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this article.

  2. Dorothy Allison, “A Question of Class,” in Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature (Ithaca: Firebrand, 1994), 22.

  3. Victoria Brownworth, “Class Conscience,” in Deneuve, July/August 1994, 19.

  4. Ken Plummer, Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds (London: Routledge, 1995), 174.

  5. Ibid., 16.

  6. Ibid., 17.

  7. David Reynolds, “White Trash in Your Face: The Literary Descent of Dorothy Allison,” Appalachian Journal 29:4 (Summer 1993), 360–61.

  8. Dorothy Allison, The Women Who Hate Me (New York: Long Haul Press, 1983); Trash (Ithaca: Firebrand, 1988); The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry, 1980–1990 (Ithaca: Firebrand, 1991); Bastard Out of Carolina (New York: Plume, [1992] 1993); Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature (Ithaca: Firebrand, 1994).

  9. Amber Hollibaugh, “In the House of Childhood,” The Women's Review of Books 9:10–11 (July 1992), 15.

  10. Abdul JanMohamed and David Lloyd, Introduction, “Toward a Theory of Minority Discourse: What is to be Done?” in JanMohamed and Lloyd, eds., The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 8.

  11. Michael Warner, Introduction, in Michael Warner, ed., Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), xvi–xvii.

  12. cf. Arif Dirlik, “Culturalism as Hegemonic Ideology and Liberating Practice,” in JanMohamed and Lloyd, eds., The Nature and Context of Minority Discourse (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 394–431.

  13. Amber Hollibaugh, “Telling a Mean Story: Amber Hollibaugh Interviews Dorothy Allison,” The Women's Review of Books 9:10–11 (July 1992), 16.

  14. Allison, “A Question of Class,” 23.

  15. Indeed, since the desire for leisure is the story we tell ourselves to make work within capitalism seem fair, even the notion of leisure time operates as a form of denial about the material reality of class relations.

  16. Allison, “A Question of Class,” 15–16.

  17. E. J. Graff, “Novelist Out of Carolina,” Poets and Writers Magazine 23:1 (Jan./Feb. 1995), 43.

  18. Brownworth, “Writer Out of Carolina,” 46.

  19. Graff, “Novelist Out of Carolina,” 43.

  20. Allison, “A Question of Class,” 35.

  21. Ibid., 23.

  22. K. K. Roeder, “Carolina on Her Mind,” The San Francisco Review of Books, April 1991, 21.

  23. Vince Aletti, “Review: Bastard Out of Carolina,The Voice Literary Supplement, June 1992, 2.

  24. Allison, Bastard, 121–26.

  25. Ibid., 26.

  26. Ibid., 31.

  27. Ann M. Ross, White Trash: Dorothy Allison and the Construction of the Working Class Subject (San Francisco State: M.A. Thesis, 1993), 67.

  28. Allison, Bastard, 53.

  29. Ibid., 98.

  30. Ibid., 102.

  31. Ibid., 112–13.

  32. Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1992).

  33. Allison, Bastard, 108–109.

  34. Ibid., 248.

  35. Ibid., 306.

  36. Ibid., 41.

  37. Hollibaugh, “Telling a Mean Story,” 16.

  38. Graff, “Novelist Out of Carolina,” 47.

  39. bell hooks, Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations (New York: Routledge, 1994), 5.

  40. Victoria A. Brownworth, “Writer Out of Carolina: An Interview with Dorothy Allison,” The San Francisco Bay Times, December 3, 1992, 46.

  41. Graff, “Novelist Out of Carolina,” 43.

  42. Chrystos, “Moving toward Truth,” in Sojourner: The Women's Forum, November 1994, 8.

  43. cf. Roy Olsen, “Out of the Closet and Into the Forum,” in American Libraries 23 (June 1992), 536; Roy Olsen, “By Gays and Lesbians, For Every Library,” in Booklist 88 (June 15, 1992), 1814; and Tamis Parr, “A Cornucopia of Lesbian Novels,” New Directions For Women 22:3 (May/June 1993), 28.

  44. Brownworth, “Writer Out of Carolina,” 46.

  45. Victoria A. Brownworth, “Review: Trash,” in The Lambda Book Report 2 (May 1991), 13; Liz Galst, “Review: Trash,The Women's Review of Books 6 (July 1989), 15; Anonymous, “Review: Trash,” in Kirkus Reviews 56 (Oct. 15, 1988), 1484; Roland Green, “Review: Trash,” in Booklist 85 (Nov. 15, 1988), 537.

  46. Allison, “River of Names,” 13.

  47. Allison, “Monkeybites,” 89–90.

  48. Allison, “Her Thighs,” 119–21.

  49. Hollibaugh, “Telling a Mean Story,” 17.

  50. Ibid., 16.

  51. Dorothy Allison, “Looking for Home,” The San Francisco Bay Guardian Literary Supplement, September 1994, 5.

  52. Trish Thomas, “Under Dorothy Allison's Skin,” The San Francisco Bay Guardian, July 13, 1994, 38.

  53. Graff, “Novelist Out of Carolina,” 42.

  54. Brownworth, “Writer Out of Carolina,” 46.

  55. Madeline D. Davis and Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (New York: Routledge, 1993); Lillian Faderman, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991); Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues (Ithaca: New York, 1993); Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (Freedom: The Crossing Press, 1982); Joan Nestle, A Restricted Country: Essays and Short Stories (Ithica: Firebrand Books, 1987).

  56. Mary Hawthorne, “Born Out of Ignorance,” The Times Literary Supplement, no. 4663 (Aug. 14, 1992), 18.

  57. Hollibaugh, “In the House of Childhood,” 15; Pamela Annas, “Down Home Truths,” in The Women's Review of Books, 1 (September 1984), 5–6; Jackie Cooper, “Review: Bastard Out of Carolina,” in The Lambda Book Report 3 (May 1992), 42; Charles Wilmoth, “Hickory Switch Tough,” American Book Review 14 (October 1992), 17; Leslie Feinberg, “Review: Bastard Out of Carolina,” in New Directions For Women 21 (Nov./Dec. 1992), 29; Liz Galst, “Review: Trash,” 15.

  58. Brownworth, “Class Conscience,” 21.

Susan Salter Reynolds (essay date 2 March 1998)

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SOURCE: “Dorothy Allison: A Family Redeemed,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 9, March 2, 1998, pp. 44–45.

[In the following essay, Reynolds discusses Allison's childhood and literary career, including excerpts from an interview with Allison.]

Back in 1992, when Dorothy Allison burst into the literary limelight with her bestselling novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, she dubbed herself the “Roseanne of Literature.” That shocking, autobiographical story of a young girl in the South who is raped and beaten by her stepfather helped open the floodgates to the rush of memoirs that has since poured into American bookstores. Allison's audience flocked to her in droves, bearing their own stories of prejudice and abuse and poverty. Their heroine, it turned out, was a fast-talking, brash motorcycle mama whose previous books included everything from lesbian porn to feminist theory and had titles like Trash and Skin. Photographs from the early 1990s show a woman whose fists are usually clenched, squinting straight into the camera and looking a little the worse for wear, a woman whose very expression might be translated as: “No Confession Necessary.” One expects, meeting Allison for the first time, to be cussed out.

People change. Or do they? These days, Allison lives in what looks like a freshly painted blue house in a quiet neighborhood high above San Francisco's once gay and rowdy, now somewhat bourgeois, Castro district. She is solicitous and gracious and puts a guest at ease. She is plainly dressed and maternal, curling her hands around a warm cup of tea. Her home is neat and pleasant, with family photographs on tabletops and homemade tablecloths. As a matter of fact, if a person were fleeing any number of evils—from literary pretension to an abusive stepfather or a bad marriage—she could do worse than end up sipping tea in Dorothy Allison's dining room.

Allison has responsibilities that she seems proud of: two pugs, Attila and Chloe; a goldfish; a five-year-old son, Wolf; and a 10-year relationship with Alix Layman, a musician finishing her Ph.D. in music theory. The writer recently built a new leaf for the dining room table so that her dinner guests can sit down. This summer, she will take on an au pair.

This domestic placidity might surprise readers of Bastard Out of Carolina, which took readers by the throat with its depiction of the smoldering rage of a child named Bone. And that fury has fueled each of Allison's books thus far: Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature; Bastard Out of Carolina, which was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Award; Trash; The Women Who Hate Me; and Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. But Allison's new novel, Cavedweller, just out from Dutton (Forecasts, Jan. 19) is something different. It is about a Janis Joplin-style rock singer, Delia Byrd, who takes her daughter, Cissy, and runs away from a dead-end life of drugs and ex-musicians in Venice, Calif. She drives a car loaded with all her possessions back to her home town, Cayro, Georgia, to reclaim her two other daughters, Amanda and Dede, from Clint, her abusive ex-husband. By sheer force of will, Delia creates a sane life for her children. When Allison finished Cavedweller, her partner said, “Oh my God, you've written a book with a semi-happy ending.”

Where did all that rage go? “I wanted to write about people who could change,” Allison explains. This does not mean that she has reached a sublime state of forgiveness. Clint, who recalls Bone's stepfather and Allison's own, can't quite seem to change, but Delia and her daughters are given the possibility of happiness. “It's about redemption and going home and doing things my mother couldn't do. I saw my sisters grow up and take care of their children in ways I didn't believe any of us could do. I saw them work small miracles again and again at enormous cost,” Allison says. “You can create redemption for yourself.”

But redemption takes many forms. Allison's house may be freshly painted, but it sits on one of the most perilous hills in San Francisco. Layman has been sober for 14 years, but, says Allison, “if she ever drank, I'd leave her and she knows it.” Wolf, as Allison tells it, is the result of “three plates of chicken and a plate of beans,” referring to the ritual of dinner followed by impregnation that made it possible for Layman to give birth (Allison can't have children). Wolf's father, who now lives with Allison, was the lover of one of her best friends. “We picked him,” says Allison. “He's intelligent, he's gentle, he's HIV-negative and he'll do whatever you tell him.” Every third sentence or so, Allison lets loose either a gap-toothed guffaw or a judgment on welfare reform, evangelicals or corporate publishing that can singe the eyebrows of an admirer who sits too close.

In other words, it's only hard work and ingenuity that has pulled Allison out of the hole her life might have buried her in, and dirt is constantly threatening to bury her as she climbs out. She was born in 1949. Her mother, Ruth, was a 15-year-old waitress in Greenville, S.C. Her father was a deadbeat who sold faulty insurance policies to poor blacks, and who disappeared even before Allison was born. When Allison was four, her mother married the stepfather who began his pattern of sexual abuse and violence almost immediately. When she was 11, Allison told a cousin about her stepfather's repeated atrocities. Her mother picked up her three daughters and left briefly but returned to her husband.

Amazingly, Allison maintained the confidence and drive to pull herself out of such miserable circumstances. In 1968, she won a National Merit scholarship and attended Florida Presbyterian College in St. Petersburg. In flight from her family, she studied anthropology, became a feminist and, after college, went to live in a lesbian collective in Washington, D.C., which broke up when somebody fired a gunshot through their front door. “That made an impression on me,” says Allison, in her sly, storyteller's voice. “I guess he took offense.”

In Washington, Allison worked on a feminist magazine called Quest and co-taught, with the writer Charlotte Bunch, a class on feminist political theory. “I was teaching upper-class people who would one day run women's studies programs and never invite me to come teach. It dawned on me that if there was going to be a revolution, I was in the wrong place. When trash don't know what to do,” she says stepping into character, “it goes back to college.” In 1979, Allison packed up and moved to New York City to get a Master's degree in anthropology at the New School. She loved New York, “the fantasy world of every poor child in the South.” There she wrote urban ethnographies about the lower east side, worked as an arts organizer at Poets and Writers and wrote book and music reviews for the Village Voice.

She also relished her proximity to famous authors. When Stanley Diamond, the director of her program at the New School, had a manuscript to send up to Toni Morrison, who was then working as a special projects editor at Random House, Allison volunteered herself as a messenger. “Hauled my butt up on the subway,” she recalls, “and refused to give it to the secretary. I got to see her. She was so powerful.” Provoked by a review of a friend's book in the Women's Review of Books in which the reviewer used the words “white trash,” Allison signed on with Nancy Bereano, editor and publisher of Firebrand Books, a feminist press in Ithaca, N.Y., to write the collection of short stories that would become Trash.

In the meantime, she slept little and drank “a bit too much,” an understatement Allison reveals with a raw grin. Sure enough, she fell apart, body and soul. “You can kill yourself,” she says, in the voice of a woman who knows all the available weapons. In 1987, Allison fell down a flight of stairs in a Greenwich Village restaurant, and her broken bones refused to mend. “Each time I scratched my finger it would take weeks to heal,” she says. “My immune system had broken down.” Allison was late delivering the manuscript for Trash. She quit her job, left her girlfriend and collapsed at a friend's house in Santa Cruz, Calif.


Trash was finally published by Firebrand in 1989, winning two Lambda Literary Awards for gay and lesbian fiction. Following her convalescence, Allison began working on Bastard and shopping for editors with the help of Jeffrey Escoffier, a friend in New York who founded the magazine Outlook.

“When you start in the small presses,” Allison says, “you become very clear about what you will and will not stand for. I took the most sexually explicit parts of the book to editors, figuring that if they wanted me to change anything—to make them more or less explicit—then I was going to have trouble with them.” Although, according to Allison, “none of the male editors we saw were interested in it,” Carole DeSanti at Dutton and Joyce Johnson at Grove bid against each other for the book. Allison emerged from the auction clutching a check for $37,000 from Dutton. On Halloween in 1989, not long after acquiring Bastard, DeSanti was laid off by Dutton, along with several other editors, leaving the novel in the care of Rachel Klayman. DeSanti returned to Dutton as editor at large in 1991 and has since edited Two or Three Things and Cavedweller.

Commercial acceptance incurred the resentment among members of the alternative press, who were angry that Allison had moved to a mainstream house. But she has healed that rift by going back to publish Skin at Firebrand in 1994, and by working hard to raise money for independent bookstores and presses. She recently established the Independent Spirit award for independent publishing with the Astrea Foundation, a lesbian nonprofit public service foundation.

Nor has Allison traded a career on the fringes for lavish riches. Cavedweller earned her a modest $100,000 advance. She received $25,000 for the film rights to Bastard, which was made into a movie directed by Anjelica Huston in 1996. She is working now on several projects but seems most excited about a novel based on Janis Joplin's life.

The writer who speaks openly about being raped as a child learned early in life what she will and will not do for her publishers. Maintaining that “the tour is the only thing can control in this process,” Allison insists on going on extensive reading tours to meet her audience, even if it means going against the stern advice of her agent, Frances Golden, who wants her to stay home and write. “Frances is a gift from God,” says Allison. “My momma died in 1993 and I got Frances.”

Allison says she writes for the 15-year-old girl, like her own mother, like herself, who's got every reason in the world to hate herself. “I'm just trying to provide her with ammunition,” Allison says. And she has thousands of readers who write to her with their life stories. Some of them seek her out; a few have called on the brink of suicide. “Alix and I spent a night after Bastard was published trying to keep a 16-year-old from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. But it's not the ones who come up and talk to you that you really worry about. It's the ones at readings who stand in the corners with their white faces and their large eyes.

“Take Monica Lewinsky, for example,” continues Allison. “She sounds frightened, like a lot of young girls I've known who were not the pretty girls. All the women in my family grew up not valuing themselves, not loving themselves and giving themselves away to the first person who smiled at them. They're callin' this girl a bimbo and all she is hungry for is love and tryin' to win at something.

“What do I know,” says the author. “I'm just America.” A classic American story in her own right, Allison has been able to pull herself up by her bootstraps, to reinvent herself. The effort shows in the determined line of her mouth and in her edgy vernacular. Perched in her house high above the Castro, she still sees her life as precarious, and each positive step has the power to amaze. “I've just barely learned how to be dirt normal; how to fall in love with reasonable human beings,” she says. “Do you know,” she asks, “what a miracle it is to make a living as a writer?”

Phyllis Richardson (review date 15 March 1998)

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SOURCE: “Spelunking,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 15, 1998, p. 8.

[In the following negative review, Richardson expresses her disappointment with Cavedweller, describing the novel as unconvincing, overly dramatic, and lacking focus.]

Dorothy Allison put the dirt into dirty realism: real dirt and poverty and violence. In her first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, she re-created the controlled hysteria of a household that frequently erupts with beatings and sexual abuse. Unlike people who have capitalized on the shock value of such stories, Allison succeeded in directing generations of brutality, anger and disgust into a cogent, skillfully formed and developed narrative.

Her biographical essays and stories describe unflinchingly the grim conditions of life in the impoverished hinterland of the American South. In the preface to Trash, she explains what compels her: “I put on the page a third experience of a cross-eyed working-class lesbian, addicted to violence, language, and hope, who has made the decision to live, is determined to live, on the page and on the street, for me and mine.” It is Allison's ability to use strong, direct language to explore the fragile and tangled emotions between love and hate that first brought her work to attention. It is what makes her characters live on the page and beyond.

Allison's long-awaited second novel, Cavedweller, presents the story of Delia Byrd, a hard-boiled recovering alcoholic who landed in Los Angeles after she fled her abusive husband, Clint Windsor, and left behind two small daughters in her hometown of Cayro, Ga. It has been 10 years since Delia took up with charismatic rock musician Randall Pritchard. They began a booze- and drug-filled odyssey, during which she became the well-known singer of Randall's band, Mud Dog, and gave birth to their daughter, Cissy. Tired of the hedonistic lifestyle, Delia left Randall and vowed to stay sober.

When the novel opens, Randall lies bleeding on the 101 Freeway after crashing his motorcycle. He and Delia have been apart for two years, and Delia, four months on the wagon, is still fighting the urge to drink. A witness to Randall's accident later recounts that he “just whispered ‘Delia’ and died.”

The circumstances of this story may be dirty, but the first page suggests that Allison has lost her firm grip on what is real. In the remaining pages that follow, she fails to regain it. “Death changes everything” is the first, sentence-long paragraph of the book, a pithy declaration that foreshadows Delia's sudden urge to drive cross-country and lay claim to her now teenage daughters.

In Cayro, without money or a place to live and confronted by people who see her as the mother who abandoned her babies, Delia goes immediately to her gruff but good-natured grandfather for help. But he refuses to become involved in her affairs, so she turns to her fiercely loyal girlhood friend, M. T.

The maternal sympathy of M. T. is boundless—“Real friends take care of each other,” she tells Cissy—and with her help, Delia's misfortune turns into a string of unlikely successes. She gets a job, then starts her own beauty salon and wins over the skeptical townspeople. She reaches a bittersweet reconciliation with her ex-husband, who is dying of cancer, and gets custody of their daughters. Amanda, 16 and severely religious, and Dede, 14 and wild, in turn regard their mother with contempt and circumspection.

The narrative loses momentum with the conclusion of Delia's frantic pursuit of her daughters but still winds on in a desultory chronicle of the women's lives. Through various traumas (Amanda and Cissy each have life-threatening experiences and Dede has several), Delia exhibits hard-won strength, and the young women come to accept the unalterable condition of being “Delia's girls.”

About halfway through the book, Cissy becomes interested in caving, and there are long paragraphs about the amorphous beauty and danger of spelunking. Reading Cavedweller is like being lost in a network of caves, pausing to explore an interesting pocket, winding through seemingly endless tunnels of thought, emerging sometimes in a place you've been before. As for the cave dweller of the title, it is Cissy who likes the isolation of the caves, the dark that will make her “fearless and whole.”

But this book is about Delia, and by the end she has become fearless and whole, though the same cannot be said of the daughters she fought so hard to make her own. “I've done something wrong,” she tells Dede. “None of you seem to know who you are or how much I love you.” But, but Delia is much too knowable. She is a one-dimensional symbol, a rock'n’ roll Mary Magdalene who, once redeemed, never wanders from her virtuous path. She stays off the booze, gives up cigarettes, takes up jogging, avoids men and devotes all of her energy to working and doling out large spoonfuls of “Mama love.” Unlike the conflicted, genuinely struggling Anne of Bastard, Delia is consumed by her need to suffer and exhibits little complexity or real conflict. In the past, Allison has commented poignantly on the sometimes tragic destiny of those tied to desperate families; here she maintains a surprisingly febrile argument for the importance of mothers and for the inextricable bonds between mothers and children.

Yet even this simplistic theme fails to be supported by the narrative. The moment of reunion, the culmination of many years of pining and despairing by Delia, is barely mentioned as the story rushes on to describe Delia's enormous self-sacrifice in caring for her moribund ex-husband and the awesome devotion of her female friends. Many threads are left hanging: the remarkable plight of the abused wife ministering to the now-fragile abuser is not really explored. The story of how Delia came to be orphaned also suffers from neglect. This horrifying truth should have more impact, but the tension of its impending revelation is not maintained, and the explanation in the last pages seems more like an afterthought than a pervading influence. Other background details are also disappointingly thin.

The story does achieve some depth in the self-righteous Amanda, who is brutally humbled twice: once by her God-fearing grandmother, who denounces Amanda's sacred visions as the result of “thinking too much,” and once when Amanda finds that the illness she believes will make a holy martyr of her turns out to be only gallstones. The humor and dimension of Amanda's awakenings provide glimpses of what Allison is capable of. Unfortunately, further development or resolution is eclipsed by yet another crisis involving Dede. Clint also grows in complexity, as he cultivates an intimate relationship with Cissy; Delia, on the other hand, appears essentially unchanged by either his new self-awareness or his death.

Cavedweller tries hard to evoke the same gut-wrenching emotion as Allison's previous works, but it relies on insistent and repetitive prose rather than clarity of voice to achieve it. This is a drawn-out tale in which domestic abuse and personal tragedy become a pale framework for a fervent apotheosis of motherhood and female friendship. Even in that vein, the writing leans precariously toward melodrama and, sadly, falls short of creating something that lives.

Joann Wypijewski (review date 30 March 1998)

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SOURCE: “Joplin Sings Georgia,” in Nation, Vol. 266, No. 11, March 30, 1998, pp. 25–27.

[In the following positive review of Cavedweller, Wypijewski praises Allison's ability to create fully fleshed, multifaceted characters that have both unlikable and redeeming qualities.]

Up a dirt road in a graveyard in Guilford, Vermont, a marker worn from the rains of 200 years commemorates a life just this way: “A tired woman in a weary land.” Alongside are the headstones of the four children she buried—the opening and closing lines of her untold story, one that will never be old enough. There's no antiquity to the silence that wraps around grief. It is boundless and constant and the reason a review of Dorothy Allison might begin as easily with an evocation of eighteenth-century rural Vermont as with the South of the fifties, or the sexual liberation struggles of the sixties, seventies and eighties, or the neediness of a period whose parenthesis is not yet closed, or the mystery source of Janis Joplin's deep, enduring blues.

Allison is the grand excavator of grief. Her first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, rarely invoked the word but every sentence flowed from it. The story there—a girl's growing up in Greenville South Carolina, amid desperate hard work, continual loss, Saltine-and-ketchup dinners, the shame-brand of “trash” and the horrid grasp of Daddy Glen—was so much a version of Allison's biography that it burned with the tears her 12-year-old protagonist thought she's cried out already. Cavedweller is different. “Grief” peppers the pages of a story that's harder than Bastard, harder because the air of high Southern Gothic (the home terror, the family tragedy worthy of Flannery O'Connor) is trapped in the past, harder because the poverty is far more familiar and far better managed, harder because its central figures aren't at all the “characters” Northerners find so comforting in “Southern writing,” harder because it has a happy ending.

But, oh, the cost. By the time she has finished, Allison has counted out every nickel and dime of strength that her people have spent to survive, and like the bottom line of the tightest of family budgets, the happiness they're left with could vanish from the slightest inattention.

Allison takes a huge chance here, because for all her storytelling power, humor and insight, she is tracking the most common stuff of life, and, as in life, most of her characters are not particularly fascinating upon first meeting. Delia Byrd, an achy recovering alcoholic and former lead singer of a second-rate white blues band called Mud Dog, decides to pack up her 10-year-old daughter, Cissy, and abandon their life in Southern California right after the girl's sweet but dissipated father (and former leader of the band) dies in a motorcycle crash. They charge across the country in a rattling Datsun toward Cayro, Georgia, Delia's hometown and the place she fled more than a decade earlier, leaving her two other daughters to fall to the care of her brutal husband's pinched and rock-hard parents. It is 1981, Reagan time. Delia keeps telling Cissy, weeping and cursing in the back seat, that they're “going home,” that “people are different” in Cayro, that she will be united in family with the “sisters” Cissy has heard about practically from birth and whose names, Amanda and Dede, she loathes.

Of course, Cayro is awful, but not perfectly awful, just everyday go-to-work-and-pass-the-whiskey awful. Clint Windsor, the man whose violence Delia barely escaped when she climbed on Mud Dog's tour bus never imagining it would mean losing her children, is now a cancer-ridden wraith. The old people—Delia's Granddaddy Byrd, who raised her on silence after something unspeakable happened to her family, and Clint's mother, Louise, who raised Delia's daughters on hellfire and resentment—are throwbacks to the world of Bastard, the fifties South that Delia came up in. But without the edgy grace of the first novel's supporting players, they grind their teeth on the fringes of action; and once Delia wins her daughters back—in a bargain with Clint to see him through sickness to death—the old-timers appear mostly in memory. At 15 and 12, Amanda and Dede are not the golden children of Delia's what-if dreams, just pouty adolescents who hate everything. Amanda, a Christian zealot after her grandmother, has occasional flashes of twisted light, but uncertainty is as much the currency of her life as it is of Dede's, and Dede just spends her time plugged into headphones when she's not flirting with boys.

Welcome to Cayro. Delia breaks down almost as soon as she gets there, and it is the first rational thing she does. This is before she gets her girls back and spends her days cooking, cleaning, working as a hairdresser, refinishing furniture into the night, sustaining barbs from the town prigs and all three daughters, and bathing, feeding, nursing the man she hated more than anyone in this world. Talk about a tired woman.

But there's nothing of the martyr in Delia Byrd, and nothing of the hippie princess who once appeared on a cover of Rolling Stone that Dede secretly harbors as an amulet against the fear that she herself is nobody. Nothing here, either, of “the indomitable spirit” reviewers like to throw around when it comes to stories of people up against the odds. As the years pass and she goes about reclaiming part of her lost world, humming nonsense songs to keep herself steady, it is easy to forget that at one time “people said that hearing Delia Byrd sing in concert was like hearing heartbreak in a whole new key. Her voice could make you sweat, make you move, make you want to lift your hands and pull justice out of the air.” Allison has stripped her down. Delia is a woman trying to live and that's enough, and Allison makes you love her—makes you love most of these characters, in fact, and respect those that can't be loved.

And she does it almost without your noticing—as if all along Janis had been playing on the radio, “A woman left lonely …,” but you were in the Bonnet beauty parlor watching Delia cut hair, hearing her partners coax and cajole a young woman preparing for a date, smelling the acrid perfume of permanent tonics and hair spray and knowing that that moment was alive even if “next Saturday, when the woman came in again, eyes swollen and skin blotchy with disappointment, Delia would [have to] dredge up another piece of hope.” As if there'd always been that echo of Patti Smith coming from Dede's headphones, “Set me free …,” and you were at the kitchen table watching her, now grown, comb the want ads, seeing her rule out a job at the electronics factory near Marietta because “Once you buy enough grass to keep yourself stoned while you're working that line, you can't be taking no nice vacations or buying a good car,” and knowing that at night she'd steal the Datsun again just to feel how fast she could push it. As if somehow Amanda's little son had forever been prattling in the distance, “Jesus loves me …,” and you had tolerated her jeremiads long enough to be having a drink beside her at Goober's in the afternoon when she started thinking, yes, life is hard but maybe not the “kind of hard” she'd always believed—“like praying and climbing a hill” and never making a false step—maybe “it's a whole different kind of thing: this hard where you don't know what you're doing, what's the right thing to do, when you can't be sure you're not really a fool.” As if the magisterial silence of the caves was something you knew from birth, and all you needed was Cissy to tell you a little bit about flowstone.

Flowstone is the rock that gradually moves beneath the dirt surface in a cave. The flow is what happens when nothing seems to be happening, what changes when nothing seems to be changing, just part of “the slow alteration of what people thought they knew.”

There are two kinds of caves in this story and more than two kinds of flowstone. As Delia tries to live, Clint tries to die, and the only reconciliation Allison offers is through the wordless filling and refilling of water glasses, the daily mashing of potatoes, the soothing ritual of an alcohol rub and the wasted smile of gratitude. Delia is past talking, and Clint goes to his grave without the formal absolution he craves. But both of them dig a way out of their bitterness, and the funny thing is that all the while they're doing this, all the while most of the characters are scratching toward some kind of light, Allison keeps you wondering, Where the hell are the caves?

The physical caves of Georgia don't come into the story until quite late, around the time that Cissy, by then 15 and a compulsive explorer, begins to emerge as something other than the novel's neutral slate. Allison uses an omniscient narrator in this book, unlike the hopeful-angry-hopeful-angry girl voice of Bastard, but the perspective seems to be Delia's until past halfway through, when ever so slowly it shifts to Cissy. In a sense, this child has always monitored the action. It is she who charts Delia's madness at the beginning, and who sits for hours listening to Clint as he's dying, hearing the confession of his murderous imagination and his shame. It is she who keeps Delia's friends apprised of news, and who befriends Nolan, the boy who gives his heart to Dede. (I've heard there are men like this, men who love so completely they risk their emotional capital; it's worth trusting, since no one gets men so right as a bit of country blues or a big-hearted lesbian.) But not until she climbs into the caves does Cissy begin to take the measure of herself, and take better measure of everyone else. At that point—not a point, really, but the beginning of another transition—everything Delia has done makes sense. Her girls still hate her but they won't evaporate, won't lose themselves completely; they will still have to steer round the hazards of life and love but at least they'll know something of what it's all worth. In the end they won't even hate her.

Delia is the mother that time and circumstance prevented Bone's mother from being in Bastard. The horror of that book's, ending is not so much that the mother didn't save her daughter from Daddy Glen but that she did all she could. So did Delia. She just had a few more breaks and a few good women friends and the benefit of history. Her daughters would have each other because of her. And one of them, the youngest one, the one she'd raised practically on her own, might yet have the freedom to turn her own surprising corner, still wondering who on earth she might be but curious to have discovered that her caving companions, the girls she adores for how easy they are in their bodies, are a gay pair in more ways than one. Cavedweller is all a series of such small and consequential discoveries, an allusive song to an old truth that one woman alone hasn't got a chance, but two or three together, maybe … maybe …

This isn't a “perfect book,” the words so many used to describe Bastard six years ago (except for those who were livid that Allison, a very political lesbian, did not write a very-political-lesbian-book). But such talk is always irritating. If a book were perfect why would any writer risk another? With Cavedweller, an editor could have restrained some of the “griefs” and convinced Allison that she needed to say only once that it was in the caves that Cissy really knew herself. But one of the glories of Allison's writing—in essay and novel—is that she refuses to be a good girl, a proper lesbian, a grateful refugee from the stone-poor working class, a polite writer who always obeys her editor. She refuses to go quietly, cautiously, and that, after all, is what it's all about.

Katrina Irving (essay date Spring 1998)

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SOURCE: “‘Writing It Down So That It Would Be Real’: Narrative Strategies in Dorothy Allison's Bastard,” in College Literature, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring, 1998, pp. 94–107.

[In the following essay, Irving analyzes Bastard Out of Carolina in relation to the conventional realist style versus the genre of “accepted” lesbian literature.]

Lesbian representation is not simply a matter of making lesbianism visible. … Women of the baby-boom generation, the founders of women's music and culture, believed that they could construct a collective sense of what it meant to be a lesbian, and also develop representations of that collective identity. Today's emergent generation, much more aware of the limitations of identity politics, seemingly does not. While this indeterminacy is deeply troubling to many women … a “decentered” lesbian identity and culture may present new democratic potential.

—Arlene Stein

One or two things I know for sure, and one of them is what it means to have no loved version of your life but the one you make.

—Dorothy Allison


Contemporary writers and artists, working in the wake of post-essentialist theorizations of identity and the accompanying critique of identity politics, face a particular dilemma when they attempt to represent lesbian subjectivity.1 The lesbian-feminist corpus of fiction and film which emerged during the 1970s and 1980s dedicated itself to forging “positive images” of lesbians and of lesbian sexuality: in our own decade, such representations have proliferated as the mainstream media have rushed to cash in on the marketability of a newly discovered “lesbian chic.”2 However, these depictions, although important in providing points of coalescence for lesbian communities,3 tend to resecure the straight/gay binary which mainstream culture is so thoroughly invested in maintaining.4 More significantly perhaps, they are often premised on and, in turn, help undergird an identity politics which can work to delimit rather than to expand the kinds of political engagements and issues deemed relevant for the gay individual. Consequently, writers wishing to thematize lesbian subjectivity while simultaneously disrupting such essentialism have frequently constructed texts which “reveal not lesbian sexuality per se, but the anxieties it produces” (Roof 1991, 5). Roof argues that lesbian desire, in much avant-garde literature and cinema, does not appear directly within the text. Rather, it is most successfully gestured to as an absence, its evanescence forcing a breakdown in normative representational structures. Paradoxically, however, this anti-essentialist strategy can also work to replicate heterosexist norms and procedures, in this case, the practice of repeatedly relegating the gay subject to the margins of the text, or of rendering her invisible (“Don't ask, Don't tell”).

It's within the context of this representational challenge that I want to perform a reading of Dorothy Allison's “crossover” novel, Bastard Out of Carolina (1993). I'll argue that the novel, issued by a major publishing house to hyperbolic reviews in the mainstream liberal press, directly engages with the effort to devise new strategies for representing a lesbian thematic. At the same time, it does so within the parameters of the realist genre. This is an intriguing choice on Allison's part, since it has been argued that the representational double-bind in which queer artists currently find themselves—the desire not to provide to the dominant culture the marginal subjects it demands (“positive images”), coupled with the desire to avoid collusion in the dominant culture's “ghosting”5 of the deviant—cannot be slipped within the parameters of the realist form.6 Baldly put, Allison's commitment to realist strategies would seem to work at cross purposes with the effort to construct a “‘decentered’ lesbian identity” (Stein 1994, 26). However, as I'll demonstrate, Allison's commitment to realism is an integral part of her complex literary and political agenda. That agenda, centrally, includes depicting a lesbian protagonist whose formation occurs, not through the gradual emergence of a nascent desire or proclivity, but as a result of her political and affective identifications with a series of marginalized subject-positions, including those of the illegitimate, the working-class, the native American and the single mother.

Describing this novel as a “lesbian” text might seem anomalous given the fact that the protagonist, Bone, is seven when the novel opens and thirteen when the novel concludes. Certainly, the novel has not been received as such in the mainstream press. George Garrett hailed it as a “wonderful work of fiction by a major new talent” (1992, 3) but discussed the novel as an example of the renaissance in contemporary Southern fiction. In an interview with Allison in The Nation, novelist and critic Blanche McCrary Boyd recalls a similar elision of the novel's lesbian thematic on the part of none other than the nominating committee for the Lambda literary awards: “Bastard wasn't listed for the Lambda Award for Lesbian Fiction because it wasn't lesbian enough” (1993, 20). In this same interview, Allison asserts that she found the mainstream recognition her novel had garnered “Completely nervewracking” (1993, 20) and observes that, “When I publish this next book, which is going to be much more lesbian, in the traditional definition, all these people will immediately say, ‘Oh we've made a mistake, she really can't write’” (1993, 20, my italics). Allison's rejoinder reveals that she, at least, sees her novel as one which treats the issue of lesbian subjectivity and, in her conversation with Boyd, she continued to underscore this point:

Do you remember that Bertha Harris used to say there was no such thing as a lesbian novel because no little female books ever ran off with other little female books? I got into a furious argument with her in 1975 because I needed there to be a category called lesbian fiction. I realize now that what I really needed was to know that my life was a proper subject for fiction, that my life was as valid as heterosexuals' lives.

(Boyd 1993, 20)

The disjunction between Allison's description of her novel and her critics' understanding of it would seem to suggest that the specificity of the narrative's sexual thematic is, in line with a tradition of homosexual representation, intentionally “ghosted”; this, as Terry Castle has argued, is a well-worn tactic employed by gay writers to covertly infiltrate gay subject matter into a largely homophobic publishing industry and cultural context. However, it remains unclear why Allison, publishing in 1993, should feel compelled to conceal or encode her novel's treatment of gay issues given the exponentially more tolerant market for such subject matter. And, in an interview with Carolyn Megan, the novelist casts considerable light on her narrative strategies by characterizing herself as a “queer” writer. Asked to describe the literary tradition in which she feels she belongs, Allison commented: “I'm perverse. I belong to the tradition of iconoclastic, queer, southern writer. It's whatever they're denying me right now. I don't think there really is a lesbian tradition. We haven't worked toward that, but I'd like to steer where it goes” (1994, 81). Allison's self-nomination as a “queer,” “perverse” and “iconoclastic” writer compels us to consider whether the elusiveness of her lesbian thematic is a product of her textual innovation with respect to that subject-matter rather than the effect of a strategy of concealment.

Arguably, the increasingly central presence of a clearly marked lesbian character (Aunt Raylene) within the closing pages of the novel might, for certain readers, constitute sufficient textual evidence to authorize a reading of this novel as “lesbian.”7 The manifestations of Raylene's lesbianism are comically stereotypical: “gray hair cut short … stocky build, big shoulders … ugly scars behind one ear that she wouldn't talk about” (Allison 1993, 179). Bone's explicit statement, in the latter third of the book, that her erstwhile investment in gospel music has been replaced by a “fascination” with her “reclusive old aunt [Raylene]” (1993, 181) could also be adduced to support this reading, since Bone's preoccupation with gospel music has clearly been shown to be related to a whole complex of emotional and erotic desires: “The music would come up and the choir would start half-humming, half-singing ‘Softly and Tenderly, Jesus Is Calling,’ and a pulse would start. … I wanted, I wanted, I wanted something—Jesus or God or orange-blossom scent or dark chocolate terror in my throat” (1993, 151). The conclusion of the book leaves Bone, who has gradually been ousted from her position within a nuclear family structure, under the care of Raylene and further buttresses this reading.

However, it is those moments when the text moves beyond the essentialism of its representation of Raylene that interest me here, and two theorists have proved particularly helpful in my attempt to think about Allison's innovations with regard to “queer” representation. Judith Butler's argument that “gay and lesbian identities are … structured in part by dominant heterosexual frames … [but] are not for that reason determined by them” (1991, 23) is especially pertinent: Bone's identity develops in accord both with this insight and with Butler's larger argument that a marginalized identity does not precede, but is produced both within and athwart, hegemonic structures and institutions.8 Similarly, Donna Haraway's attempt to envision the conditions of possibility for a contemporary socialist-feminist activism illuminates Allison's strategies of characterization. Haraway embraces Chela Sandoval's “model of political consciousness called ‘oppositional consciousness’” (1991, 155). This entails an activism organized not on “natural identification, but … on conscious coalition, of affinity, of political kinship” (1991, 156). It is a form of coalition which eschews the idea that activists must or do share some innate commonality as the premise for their political organization. Rather this version of political activism is predicated on the “conscious appropriation of negation,” (1991, 156) or, in Butler's terms, on the appropriation of the marginal position by which the subject has come to be constituted. As I'll argue, Bastard posits an equivalence9 between a whole series of marginalized subject-positions and, in a very real sense, when Allison's novel thematizes the social construction and maintenance of illegitimacy, for example, it also thematizes the conditions of emergence of the lesbian subject.

Let me briefly sketch the lines of my argument. First, and most obviously, rather than presenting the protagonist's sexual identity as the efflorescence of an innate tendency, Allison shows that Bone's sexuality is produced by a patriarchal system that needs marginal subjects in order to demarcate and suture its own boundaries. Bone's identity is created through her positioning by a system of civil and political institutions, including the legal apparatus, the welfare state, the church, and the nuclear family with its oedipal mandate. At the same time, Bone's simultaneous rejection of this positioning is equally crucial to her identity formation. This mode of representing the construction of her protagonist's subjectivity enables Allison to eschew essentialist versions of identity and to narrativize the preconditions for an affinity politics. Since the “lesbian” is only one of the negative positions created by the institutions of patriarchy, embracing that position is the precursor toward recognizing one's kinship with a whole series of other marginalized groups. Judith Butler argues that “oppression works … through the constitution of viable subjects and through the corollary constitution of a domain of unviable (un)subjects—abjects, we might call them” (1993, 20), and we could argue that Allison's text thematizes both the production of such abjects, and the conditions of possibility for political activism of such (un)subjects.


The novel opens with an account of Bone's birth, her legal establishment as illegitimate—hence the novel's title—and her mother's futile attempts to have her daughter legitimated:

As for the name of the father, Granny refused to speak it after she had run him out of town for messing with her daughter, and Aunt Ruth had never been sure of his last name anyway. They tried to get away with just scribbling something down, but if the hospital didn't mind how a baby's middle name was spelled, they were definite about having a father's last name. So Granny gave one and Ruth gave another, the clerk got mad, and there I was—certified a bastard by the state of South Carolina.

(Allison 1993, 3)

Anney's subsequent altercations with legal and government representatives constitute the bulk of the remaining chapter: the town hall clerk and the lawyer she attempts to enlist in the cause refuse to alter the “facts [which] have been established” (1993, 4). Those facts are “the stamp on that birth certificate [that] burned her like the stamp she knew they'd tried to put on her. No good, lazy, shiftless” (1993, 3). Anney's conflicts with these institutions alternate with her effort to find a husband which would, under South Carolina law, retroactively confer legitimacy on Bone after seven years. Her attempts to have the certificate changed become gradually displaced by the latter, as she fixes on Glen to confer legitimacy on herself and her two children.

Prior to Glen's arrival and his marriage to Anney, the narrator asserts that “Greenville, South Carolina, in 1955 was the most beautiful place in the world” (Allison 1993, 17). These early chapters, before Anney's marriage, present Greenville as an Edenic, maternal space, populated by strong women and infantile men: “My aunts treated my uncles like over-grown boys—rambunctious teenagers whose antics were more to be joked about than worried over” (1993, 23). The second chapter establishes the same-sex desire of Bone as a function of an imaginary, or preoedipal fusion with the body of the mother:

Mama … always seemed to smell of buttery flour, salt, and fingernail polish—a delicate insinuating aroma of the familiar and the astringent. I would breathe deep and bite my lips to keep from moaning while my scalp ached and burned. I would have cut off my head before I let them cut off my hair and lost the unspeakable pleasure of being drawn up onto Mama's lap every evening.

(Allison 1993, 30–31)

When, toward the end of the novel, Bone discovers her sister masturbating, the latter's sexuality, too, is shown to be constituted within a preoedipal structure: “I walked in on Reese one afternoon while she was lying on the bed with a pair of mama's panties over her face” (1993, 175). The narrative is a lyrical, yearning paean to the body of the mother, initially present and then irretrievably ripped from Bone through the intercession of Glen.

It is Glen's arrival which precipitates the narrative action, as he and Bone compete for Anney's attention. The narrative depicts an ever heightened tension between the two: the escalating violence of the stepfather provides much of the book's dramatic tension, culminating in his violent rape of Bone. Bone, however, refuses to renege on her desire for the mother and she rejects her designated position within the oedipal triangle. Elizabeth Grosz summarizes the Freudian/Lacanian account of the normative resolution of the oedipal complex for the girl thus:

[She] abandons the mother as a love object, and focuses her libidinal drives on the father, now recognized as “properly” phallic. The girl has quickly learned that she does not have the phallus, nor the power it signifies. She comes to accept, not without resistance, her socially designated role as subordinate to the possessor of the phallus, and through her acceptance, she comes to occupy the passive, dependent position expected of women in patriarchy.

(Grosz 1990, 69)

Bone refuses to acquiesce to this mandate, perversely cleaving to her preoedipal desire, despite the mortal danger this places her in: “I dreamed I was a baby again … leaning against Mama's hip. … Everything was warm and quiet. … When I put my hand down between my legs, it was not a sin. It was like her murmur, like music, like a prayer in the dark” (Allison 1993, 253). The centrality of the mother to the formation of Bone's sexuality contrasts markedly with a number of other contemporary lesbian novels in which, as Judith Roof has indicated, “Lesbian protagonists … have no mother, nor are they likely to be mother” (1991, 108). Roof argues that such fiction, in order to avoid reinforcing the popular understanding of the lesbian as immobilized at “an immature stage in the trajectory toward … heterosexual development” tend to: “Erase the preoedipal and focus instead on an already differentiated and very independent protagonist daughter where the lack represented by the absent mother is displaced into the lack constituting desire itself” (1991, 116–17). However, Bone's negotiation of the oedipal imperative does not function to reinscribe essentialist accounts of the lesbian as an immature subject. Rather, the narrative insists that Bone's sexuality is formed within and against a socially constructed and violently enforced system, and it graphically depicts the thorough-going dysfunctionality of the heterosexual order within which Glen (and Anney) would induce Bone to position herself. Allison constructs a paternal figure whose bemused rage at the duplicities of the symbolic, specifically the failure of the penis and the phallus to converge, is wrought on the body of his twelve year-old step-daughter. Thus, despite the fact that “‘[the] man's got a horse dick’” (Allison 1993, 62), Glen proves unable to possess the phallus: “Daddy Glen didn't do too well at RC Cola. He kept getting transferred to different routes or having to pay for breakage. … Every time his daddy spoke harshly to him, every time he couldn't pay the bills. … Daddy Glen's eyes would turn to me, and my blood would turn to ice” (1993, 63, 233). Thoroughly ineffectual in the larger socio-economic sphere, Glen attempts to force Bone to recognize that he embodies the “name of the father”: “His eyes were hard blue rocks, his mouth an angry line. ‘You're not even thirteen years old, girl. You don't say what you do. I'm your daddy. I say what you do’” (1993, 281–82). She refuses to acquiesce in that fiction: “‘No.’ I said it quietly. … ‘I'd rather die than go back to living with you’” (1993, 282).

If Bone's sexuality is formed through resistance to the normative psychoanalytic template, Allison still indicates that this structure is constitutive in her interpellation as lesbian. This is graphically indicated in the scene where she masturbates to the fantasy of being beaten by her stepfather: “I didn't daydream about fire anymore. Now I imagined people watching while Daddy Glen beat me, though only when it was not happening. … Someone had to watch—some girl I admired who barely knew I existed, some girl from church or down the street, or one of my cousins” (Allison 1993, 112). Bone's desire is cast by the normative system of heterosexuality in which female desire is constructed as narcissistic, rather than anaclitic, and in which the female reproduces herself as object of the gaze. Key to this scene, too, is Bone's attempt to forge some control over her overwhelmingly disempowered context through the act of story-telling, a connection to which I'll return below.10 Bone's identity also coalesces through her interactions—largely antagonistic—with those legal and bureaucratic institutions whose strictures she faces from the moment of her birth. These interactions, particularly, facilitate Allison's creation of equivalences between various marginalized positions, a key part of her strategy for representing “queer” subjectivity. Hence Bone possesses a racially mixed ancestry: “Raylene was always telling people that we had a little of the tarbrush on us … the only thing different about me was my anger. … Cherokee maybe, wild Indian anger maybe” (1993, 53, 207). Similarly, Bone's automatic kinship (despite her personal dislike for her) with Shannon Pearl, an albino child ostracized by the community, underscores the narrative's creation of equivalences between marginalized subject positions: “‘Cootie train! Cootie train!’ somebody yelled as the bus lurched into motion and Shannon still hadn't found a seat. I watched her face … she reminded me of myself, or at least the way I had come to think of myself. … There was fire in those pink eyes, a deep fire I recognized, banked and raging” (1993, 154).

Chiefly, though, the novel uses illegitimacy as its major example of socially constructed alterity. This is entirely apposite for, of course, the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy is one of the key ways in which the hom(m)osexual society guarantees its reproduction, its control over the circulation of women and the containment of their sexuality.11 As Martha Zingo and Kevin Early argue:

The identity of the biological father is crucial to the concept of legitimacy since in a patriarchal society women and children are recognized only in relation to men. To say that a child is fatherless is to place her/him outside the power of a specific male and notes the presence of a mother/woman who is not directly controlled by a man. … A non-marital child and an unwed mother are “unlawful” since they transgress moral and civil convention by their very existence.

(Zingo and Early 1994, 15)

If the lesbian subject is a threat precisely because she eludes patriarchal control, then the illegitimate child and the unwed mother occupy a similar position. As the constitutive outside to the patriarchal system, all three positions both reinforce and destabilize that structure.

At its conclusion the novel returns to the issue of the birth certificate. Despite Glen's brutal rape of Bone, Anney has decided to decamp with her husband and to leave her daughter under the protection of Raylene, the one overtly marked lesbian in the text (“Butch told me that Raylene had worked for the carnival like a man, cutting off her hair and dressing in overalls. She'd called herself Ray” (Allison 1993, 179)). As Raylene watches, the mother bestows a final, supremely ambivalent “gift” on Bone: a birth certificate which reads “father unknown” but which is NOT stamped “illegitimate.” As witnessed and instantiated by this document, Bone now occupies a paradoxical position. In fact, she occupies an impossible space: she has become “authorized” despite her absence of a patriarchal name. Such a category contravenes the binary logic of a system which is entirely predicated on maintaining the division between illegitimate (absence of the father's name) and legitimate (possessing the father's name). As Zingo and Early put it:

In the United States of America … the concept of “illegitimacy” reinforces the patriarchal structuring of society, since historically only males were deemed essential for legitimation. The fact that biologically nothing differentiates “legitimate” from “illegitimate” children is irrelevant for “illegitimacy” is a social and political construct. Of prime importance in most male-dominated societies is the state's recognition that the unions are sanctioned and the male “owners” acknowledgment that the progeny belongs to him.

(Zingo and Early 1994, 3)

If Bone's consummate triumph in this novel is her resistance to a symbolic order seen to be deeply damaging, the absence following “name of the father” on her birth certificate witnesses Bone's success in refusing to submit to the phallus and to take up the position of lack foreordained for women within that order. At the same time, though, the fact that it is a legal document which has the ability to confer such a status bears witness to its ongoing hegemony.

To Bone, Anney's decision to remain with Glen, despite his vicious rape of her daughter, constitutes her ultimate betrayal. However, the narrative suggests that that betrayal has its inception much earlier, as Anney endeavors to reconstruct the normative heterosexual unit, colludes with Glen's attempt to subordinate Bone to Glen's authority, and attempts to effect an oedipal shift of Bone's affections. Then, too, the mother's continued preoccupation with and eventual acquisition of the birth certificate demonstrates her ongoing acquiescence to patriarchal dictates: indeed, one could view her delivery of this certificate to her daughter as the last of her attempts to re-subject Bone to that structure's mandates. In this reading, the violence wrought on Bone is only tangentially a function of the larger legal/patriarchal institutions whose presence shadows Bone's childhood: crucially, this violence is conduited through the maternal figure. And if the thirteen-year-old Bone is unable to appreciate the constraints and elusive freedoms symbolized by this document, one could argue that the retrospective narrator definitively rejects the mother's normalizing solicitations. Choosing Bastard Out of Carolina as her title, the narrator defiantly claims the negative epithet from which her mother had attempted to deliver her.

However, it is clear that Anney also bequeaths a legacy of resistance to her daughter since the mother's subversion of patriarchal authority is shown to be as central to Bone's development as her spasmodic attempts to conform. Within the context of South Carolina in the fifties, Anney's insistence on remaining with Glen despite his clear failure at fatherhood—whether emotionally or economically defined—functions as a rejection of the normalizing intrusions of the state welfare system. South Carolina was, in that decade, the state which was most punitive in its attitude toward the unwed mother: “In 1950, it enacted a substitute parent law, denying aid to children whose mothers had even a casual, short term relationship with a man” (Abramovitz 1988, 325). As Winifred Bell, Mimi Abramovitz and others have shown, state governments aggressively intervened via the ADC (Aid to Dependent Children) program: into the family unit. “To make this ‘deviant’ family approximate the ‘normal’ one, ADC substituted itself for the male breadwinner, judged female-headed households harshly, and subjected them to strict control” (Abramovitz 1988, 313). The fact that Anney bears a child outside of the institution of marriage and subsequently acquires a lover indicates her decisive rejection of state control over her family and her sexuality. Her continued abjurance of sexual relationships would have allowed her to claim state assistance, but she refuses to do so, preferring to sell her own body to feed her children when Glen fails most miserably. Crucially, this rejection heralds Bone's repudiation of the larger patriarchal authority of which the state welfare system is a part. Allison's novel draws an equivalence, not only between the lesbian and the illegitimate child, but also between these subject-positions and that of the poor, working class mother.

This equivalence between mother and daughter is further driven home in the penultimate scene of the novel. After Bone has been raped and beaten by Glen, Raylene describes how, many years earlier, she had lost her female lover: “Bone, no woman can stand to choose between her baby and her lover, between her child and her husband. I made the woman I loved choose. She stayed with her baby and I came back here alone. It never should have come to that” (Allison 1993, 300). Here, Raylene equates the position of her lover with that of Anney, although each ultimately makes a different choice. This is one of the many points in the text where the division between straight and lesbian women is momentarily collapsed. The anecdote seems a strange form of comfort for Bone since, in fact, Anney chose her lover whereas Raylene's lover chose her baby. Equally, though, Raylene equates her own position with that of Bone, both of whom have been abandoned by their lovers (in Bone's case, Anney) for their “children” (in Anney's case, Glen). As lovers, Bone and Raylene both forced the choice, and both end up losing.

This scene augers the final dissolution of the straight/gay binary at the end of the novel, as the retrospective narrator records Bone's reaction to the birth certificate: “RUTH ANNE BOATWRIGHT. Mother: ANNEY BOATWRIGHT. Father: UNKNOWN. … I unfolded the bottom third. It was blank, unmarked, unstamped” (Allison 1993, 309). Bone interprets this as a reclamation into the community of the “Boatwright women” amongst whom, given her physical appearance, she has hitherto seemed anomalous: “I was already who I was going to be. … When Raylene came to me, I let her touch my shoulder, let my head tilt to lean against her, trusting her arm and her love. I was who I was going to be, someone like her, like Mama, a Boatwright woman. I wrapped my fingers in Raylene's and watched the night close in around us” (1993, 309). This collapse of Raylene/Mama under the sign of “Boatwright woman” reenacts the ambiguity at the heart of this text. On the one hand this scene functions as Bone's attempt to construct a female lineage for herself, to authorize herself as a Boatwright woman unmarked by the name of the father. On the other, by collapsing Raylene/Mama in this way, the text illustrates the instability of the heterosexual/homosexual binary. Judith Butler has argued that, “It is important to recognize the ways in which heterosexual norms reappear within gay identities” (1993, 23). Allison, seemingly, would concur, as her narrator muses thus, “Her [Mama's] life had folded into mine. … Would I be as strong as she had been, as hungry for love?” (1993, 309). Bone's sexuality is formed as much by her mother's heterosexual desires as by her own refusal of those desires.


Thus far I've argued that Allison's novel, through its creation of a series of equivalences between various socially constructed liminal positions, attempts to rework the conditions of representation of “queer subjectivity.” And yet Allison's choice of genre—realism—appears anomalous given this effort. Jill Dolan has argued that “bourgeois realism” has “pernicious effects … on the lesbian subject” (1993, 163): further, she has argued that “It [realism] is not recuperable for lesbian theorists, because its ideology is so determined to validate dominant culture that the lesbian position can only be moralized against or marginalized” (1993, 162–3). Catherine Belsey's critique of the latter illuminates Dolan's argument. She argues that:

Classic realism … performs … the work of ideology, not only in its representation of a world of consistent subjects who are the origin of meaning, knowledge and action, but also in offering the reader, as the position from which the text is most readily intelligible, the position of subject as the origin both of understanding and of action in accordance with that understanding.

(Belsey 1980, 67)

The genre's “hierarchy of discourses,”12 its “illusionism,”13 its commitment to closure, its intelligible framework, with its contrived coherence and promiscuous transparency, tends to reconfirm, rather than provoke a crisis in, the sex/gender position of the reader (Belsey 1980, 70 and passim). Thus, queer writers have tended to eschew realism, given its tendency to buttress the concept of unitary, coherent subjectivity: such writers as Kathy Acker, Michelle Cliff and Camille Roy use post-modern techniques of composition to expose the violence wrought, not only by the content of normative sex/gender representations, but also by realist narrative form.

Within the context of such formal innovation Allison's self-designation as an “iconoclastic” writer appears questionable, and the text appears rather more conventional than my analysis has suggested. As a traditional bildungsroman, Bastard asks us to invest in character development, is committed to illusionism and moves inexorably toward narrative climax and closure. The text solicits our investment in and identification with the pluck and grit of the youthful narrator. Her continued determination to transcend, or at least survive with spirit intact, her abusive domestic circumstances fuels the narrative momentum, as scenes of ever-escalating violence and abuse call forth fresh reserves of dogged will power on Bone's part. This kind of triumphalism, coupled with the text's solicitation of the reader's identification with Bone's innate indomitability, operates to confirm the autonomy and integrity of both the protagonist and the reader's subjectivity. To the extent that Bone's ability to resist her abusive domestic context is shown to be the product of a clan-based quality which is none the less powerful for being elusive of definition, the novel reconfirms conventional conceptions concerning the organic, integral nature of identity. Indeed the narrator's musings, coupled with the repeated comments on the part of her extended family about the nature and origins of this familial feature, are repeated often enough to form a sub-theme of the text: “Our stubborn Bone is just like her mama. … Just like her aunts, just like a Boatwright. …” “You got the look, all right” (Allison 1993, 30).

Allison's commitment to realist strategies seems at cross purposes, then, with her political project of narrating the conditions of emergence of a “‘decentered’ lesbian identity” (Stein 1994, 26). Yet, even here, the text remains ambiguous. For at other junctures, the novel could be seen to suggest, pace Foucault, that it is precisely an unrestrained exercise of power, both domestic and socio-economic, that calls forth these characters' gritty resistance. In this reading, the family's stubborn survivalism seems, not innate, but a product of their marginal socio-economic position and their construction as, and consignment to, the category of “poor white trash.” Here, again, Allison is illustrating that it is the resistance to the coercions of the dominant structure which forms these characters' identities. Crucially, this resistance is shown to be intimately bound up with control over forms of representation. Looking at her photograph in the Greenville News, after she has been beaten by her step-father, Bone compares that photograph with those other official portraits of her family which her Aunt has collected in her scrapbook:

It seemed to me nobody looked quite like my family … we looked moon-eyed, rigid, openmouthed, and stupid. Even our wedding announcement pictures were bad. Aunt Alma insisted it had nothing to do with us, that Boatwrights weren't bad-looking seen head on. “We just make bad pictures,” she said. “The difference is money. It takes a lot of money to make someone look alive on newsprint, she told me, “to keep some piece of the soul behind the eyes.”

(Allison 1993, 293)

This insight into the de-humanizing effects of dominant representations on economically deprived people is astute. Speaking with Carolyn Megan, Allison explains: “Bone is moving toward a kind of truth and that's real important. She's caught in a network of lies and misrepresentation. … The only thing that saves her are the stories, the ones that she needs to make for herself” (1994, 73). For Allison's characters, “writing back to the center” is central in the effort to refuse an officially enforced liminality.

In this context, we can perceive a further facet of Annie's wish to have her daughter's designation as “illegitimate” rewritten. Indeed, the narrative action only picks up urgency and direction after the end of chapter one, in which the courthouse, which houses this documentation, burns down: “It was almost as if everyone could hear each other, all over Greenville, laughing as the courthouse burned to the ground” (Allison 1993, 16). Once this repository of official narratives of identity has been destroyed, the narrator's voice emerges clear, strong and authoritative, in the second chapter: “Greenville, South Carolina, in 1955 was the most beautiful place in the world” 1993, 17). The narrator's counter-memory succeeds to, and then replaces, the hegemonic version of events. Similarly, Aunt Alma's collection of personal photographs of significant family moments is contrasted with the soulless and dehumanizing photographs of officialdom. Bone pours over the former, describing one of her newly-wed mother and Glen thus: “Everything in that picture was clear, sharp, in focus. … Mama was beautiful in it, no question. … You could see right into her, see how gentle she was in the way her neck angled” (1993, 42–43).

Bone here chooses not to deconstruct the personal photograph, investing in it as an accurate representation of her mother's momentary happiness and as a reflection of an innate generosity and good-will. Similarly, Allison, given her commitment to creating an account of poor white southerners which would replace the “soul” evacuated in official representations must, perforce, invest in realist narrative form. Official discourse is highly effective precisely because it refuses to acknowledge its provisionality, preferring to present itself as merely “acknowledging the facts [which] have been established” (Allison 1993, 4), and Allison's unwillingness to foreground the constructed nature of her own fiction arises from her desire to counter these official discourses with her own account. Speaking with Megan, Allison comments: “When I couldn't find my story, I wrote it … I made my own story, writing it down so that it would be real” (1994, 73). Allison's strategy of disavowal—“writing it down so that it would be real”—simultaneously acknowledges, while repressing, the provisionality of her account (my italics). As with Allison's protagonist, then, Bastard Out of Carolina occupies a paradoxical position: it takes shape from its simultaneous occupation and contravention of the limits of the conventional realist genre.


  1. This dilemma has been explored by a number of critics whose analyses I draw upon in this paragraph. See, particularly, the work of Fuss, De Lauretis, Roof and Stein.

  2. Analyses of the current popularity of lesbian images in mainstream culture can be found in O'Sullivan (1994) and Clark (1993).

  3. Witness, for example, the many public parties held in conjunction with Ellen's exit from the closet on ABC's hit show Ellen.

  4. See the work of Fuss, De Lauretis, and Roof, on whose accounts I draw, here.

  5. This term is Castle's. For her development and explication of the concept, see 1993, 4 and passim.

  6. See my summary of Jill Dolan's critique of the realist form, below.

  7. I am grateful to one of the anonymous readers of my manuscript for making this point.

  8. Butler elaborates on this argument in her Bodies That Matter. I am indebted to her analysis of the construction and maintenance of marginal subjectivities by, and in relation to, a set of regulatory norms. See, especially, her reworking of Althusser's notion of interpellation in the context of her analysis of Jenny Livingston's Paris Is Burning.

  9. Laclau and Mouffe (1985) develop the concept of equivalence and equivalential chains.

  10. I am grateful to Desiree Beck for pointing this out.

  11. The term, of course, is Irigaray's (1985).

  12. By “hierarchy of discourses” Belsey means the tendency of a novel to set up, and clearly enable the reader to distinguish between, the “truth” value of various utterances within the text: “A high degree of intelligibility is sustained throughout the narrative as a result of the hierarchy of discourses in the text. The hierarchy works above all by means of a privileged discourse which places as subordinate all the discourses that are literally or figuratively between inverted commas” (1980, 70).

  13. By “illusionism” Belsey refers to the tendency of the realist novel to efface its status as text. Rather than directing the reader's attention to the materiality of the language, the realist text encourages us to treat language as a transparent medium through which we can gain access to the fiction's “represented world.” We are not encouraged to pause at the level of the signifier.

Works Cited

Abramovitz, Mimi. 1988. Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present. Boston: South End Press.

Allison, Dorothy. 1993. Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Penguin.

———. 1995. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. New York: Dutton.

Bell, Winifred. 1965. Aid to Dependent Children. New York: Columbia University Press.

Belsey, Catherine. 1980. Critical Practice. New York: Methuen.

Butler, Judith. 1991. “Imitation and Gender Insubordination.” In Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories, ed. Diana Fuss. New York: Routledge.

———. 1993. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge.

Boyd, Blanche McCrary. 1993. “Dorothy Allison: Crossover Blues.” The Nation, 57.1, 5 July, 20–21.

Castle, Terry. 1993. The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.

Clark, Danae. 1993. “Commodity Lesbianism.” In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993.

De Lauretis, Teresa. 1994. The Practice of Love: Lesbian Sexuality and Perverse Desire. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Dolan, Jill. 1993. Presence and Desire: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Fuss, Diana. 1991. “Inside/Out.” In Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. New York: Routledge.

Garrett, George. 1992. “Truth is Meaner than Fiction.” New York Times Book Review, 5 August.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 1990. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Hamer, Diane and Belinda Budge. 1994. The Good, The Bad and The Gorgeous: Popular Culture's Romance with Lesbianism. San Francisco: Pandora.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Irigaray, Luce. 1985. This Sex Which is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter and Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. 1985. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso.

Megan, Carolyn E. 1994. “Moving toward truth: An interview with Dorothy Allison.” Kenyon Review, 16.4: 71–8.

O'Sullivan, Sue. 1994. “Girls Who Kiss Girls and Who Cares?” In The Good, The Bad, and The Gorgeous. San Francisco: Pandora.

Roof, Judith. 1991. A Lure of Knowledge: Lesbian Sexuality and Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stein, Arlene. 1994. “Crossover Dreams: Lesbianism and Popular Music since the 1970s.” In The Good, The Bad, and The Gorgeous. San Francisco: Pandora.

Zingo, Martha T. and Kevin E. Early. 1994. Nameless Persons: Legal Discrimination Against Non-marital Children in the U.S. Westport: Praeger.

Kathlene McDonald (essay date Spring–Summer 1998)

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SOURCE: “Talking Trash, Talking Back: Resistance to Stereotypes in Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina,” in Women's Studies Quarterly, Vol. 26, Nos. 1–2, Spring–Summer, 1998, pp. 15–25.

[In the following essay, McDonald explores the literary techniques that Allison employs in Bastard Out of Carolina to give the reader a deeper and more sympathetic understanding of her characters.]

They were of a kind not safely to be described in an account claiming to be unimaginative or untrustworthy, for they had too much and too outlandish beauty not to be legendary. Since, however, they existed quite irrelevant to myth, it will be necessary to tell a little of them.

—James Agee, referring in his Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to poor-white, southern tenant farmers during the Depression

I read Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina for the first time while living in the South, working with young children at a day care center, and volunteering at the local rape crisis center, where I was working with both adult survivors of child sexual abuse and currently abused children. The novel's character of Bone felt very real to me then; her experience seemed painfully, strikingly believable. Allison takes up the issue of believability in “A Question of Class,” an essay in her collection Skin, in which she discusses the politics of the “we” (those in power) and the “they” (all others, the disempowered, the working class), and the necessity of exploring those categories from the inside.

By presenting an insider's view of white-trash experiences in Bastard, Allison helps those on the outside understand the reality and diversity of those experiences. She says, “The need to make my world believable to people who have never experienced it is part of why I write fiction” (Skin 14). In this essay, I look at some of the ways in which Allison constructs her subjects in order to make the white-trash world more believable. I begin by looking at depictions of white trash in literature and culture as a means of establishing the stereotypes. Then I explore the ways in which Allison constructs a white-trash subject that defies these stereotypes. I conclude by discussing some of the ways in which Bastard can be used in a working-class studies course.

The characters that Allison constructs represent part of a long and paradoxical literary history. Whether as lubber, cracker, po buckra, redneck, hillbilly, or white trash, the southern poor-white character has been a popular literary figure at least as far back as the eighteenth century. In 1728, William Byrd II headed an expedition of commissioners from Virginia and North Carolina to survey the disputed boundary line between the two colonies. Byrd, a wealthy Virginian, wrote about his encounters with the inhabitants of the North Carolina backwoods, or “Lubbers,” as he referred to them, in The History of the Dividing Line. He characterized these “Wretches” as lazy, dirty, vulgar, ignorant, promiscuous, and deceitful, thereby setting a precedent for future fictional stereotypes.

Byrd's lubbers also helped establish precedents for two conflicting and enduring ethical positions that have attempted to explain the so-called immorality and depravity of the southern poor white. One theory blames environmental conditions such as diet, climate, and disease. The other theory, what David Reynolds refers to as the “bloodline theory,” argues that poor whites are “biologically inferior” and thus “genetically predisposed to be white trash” (359–60). This second theory continues to be used today as a means of perpetuating the myth of America as a classless society. In this way, Reynolds argues, America cannot be blamed if white trash are biologically depraved, and belief in “the land of opportunity, where prosperity is possible for all” can thus be maintained (360).

While journalists and sociologists have continued to use these positions to theorize the supposed inferiority of poor whites, fiction writers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had more interest in using the white-trash character to generate responses of “laughter, pity, discomfort, indignation, revulsion” (Cook 4–5). The moral, emotional, and intellectual behavior of the poor white became a focus of Southern literature, with little attention paid to social, economic, or historic conditions. The southern poor white became an established literary figure during the nineteenth century, appealing to audiences as either comic or contemptible, while the material concerns of poor whites remained invisible.

Ignorance of and indifference to the shame and suffering caused by economic violence prevailed for many years, emerging as a subject for national concern during the Great Depression. Southern poverty gained a “fashionable prominence” (Cook 144) in the 1930s through magazine articles and newspaper reports, artistic experiments, and government investigations. But in spite of this raised national consciousness, American audiences remained fascinated with humorous portrayals of white-trash culture in the novels and plays of the 1930s. For example, the theatrical adaptation of Erskine Caldwell's Tobacco Road became one of Broadway's longest-running productions, attracting huge audiences with the comedy of its stereotypical white-trash characters. Reynolds writes that the play's “animalistic sex was surely at least partially responsible for the record attendance” (361). Although Caldwell intended to use Tobacco Road to express his outrage against an economic system that kept its victims impoverished, the sexual titillation and the absurd caricatures merely reinforced the prevailing stereotypes.

Today, the American culture industry perpetuates the fascination with white trash. As in the past, the harsh realities of poverty do not interest most consumers of culture, but white-trash experiences continue to appeal to a wide audience. The popular television situation comedy Roseanne spent years on top of the Nielsen ratings, entertaining millions of viewers with its humorous portrayals of a working-class family. Although Roseanne addressed material conditions and dealt with real concerns, often in a serious and thoughtful manner, much of the humor derived from mocking white-trash culture. In one episode, Roseanne and her husband, Dan, discuss the upcoming marriage of their pregnant teenage daughter to a boy they consider a son. After remarking that their grandchild will be the same age as their youngest child, Roseanne comments that these circumstances make them “just about the white-trashiest family in America.” The two exchange high fives and then clap their hands to activate “the Clapper,” turning off the lights. By continually making fun of Roseanne's and Dan's white-trash status, the show's writers call attention to the characteristics on which many of the stereotypes are based. Although in many ways the show does accurately portray the realities of working-class life, it ultimately reinforces white trash as humorous, allowing viewers to witness, without guilt, the social and economic conditions that create that reality.

Another popular show, Grace under Fire, also draws much of its comedic value from white-trash experiences. The main character, Grace, repeatedly refers to her dysfunctional family, her alcoholic father, her slutty adolescence, and her southern roots. She makes no connections between her family's economic situation and their lived realities; rather, her family becomes merely a source of humor for her anecdotes, perpetuating standard characterizations of white trash. In both shows, the effort to portray working-class experiences is reduced to their entertainment value. The sitcom format allows viewers to consume passively only one dimension of white-trash culture, without needing to question the material conditions out of which these comic “situations” arise.

Allison's characters in Bastard reflect stereotypical white-trash images in many ways. Bone is the illegitimate child of fifteen-year-old Anney. Most of the adults drink heavily, chain-smoke, drive jacked-up cars, talk dirty, display frightening tempers, work in mills and diners, and frequently spend time in jail. In an interview with Amber Hollibaugh, Allison discussed writing about her family, the basis for many of the characters in Bastard:

I show you my aunts in their drunken rages, my uncles in their meanness. And that's exactly who we're supposed to be. That's what white trash is all about. … Some of that stuff is true. But to write about it I had to find a way to … show you those people as larger than that contemptible myth.


Allison incorporates many of the “true” elements of dominant stereotypes into her characters so that they simultaneously reinforce and resist standard images of white trash. By refusing the one dimensionality of traditional cultural stereotypes, Allison allows her characters to move beyond them.

Like most judgments made from the outside, generally accepted stereotypes ignore the material conditions that make them true, focusing instead on the humorous or pitiable aspects of white-trash culture. Exploring the role of poverty in shaping identity provides a means of examining these conditions from the inside. The one-dimensional nature of most cultural representations of white trash allows consumers to overlook the painful aspects of poverty. But Allison makes this pain difficult to avoid by refusing to keep the reality invisible. In showing the hunger, the despair, the limited choices, and the shame of contempt and class hatred, Allison forces her readers to confront the everyday realities of her characters, to see them as larger than their stereotypes.

In writing Bastard, Allison purposefully chose to use the language of poor and working-class white southerners, a voice traditionally mocked in literature, television shows, and movies. In an interview with Minnie Bruce Pratt, Allison described the stereotypical ways of writing this voice “as if it is in the back pages of men's magazines with the letters cut off and a whole lot of extra letters thrown on. It's barely intelligible and has an aura of stupid about it” (31). Rather than covering up this voice or accepting conventional ways of writing this speech that make it sound stupid, Allison tries instead to capture the rhythms of country music, gospel music, and the church that influence this dialect. In refusing to correct the grammar in the statement “The law never done us no good. Might as well get on without it” (5) and to rewrite “An't nobody says nothing to my little sister, an't nobody can touch that girl or what's hers” (14) to conform to the conventional spelling of ain't, Allison allows for an acceptance of her characters' dialect and thus its respect.

The male figures in Bastard provide a useful point of entry for discussing Allison's construction of white-trash identities. Fully understanding the women in the book necessitates an equal understanding of the men in the story. Lyle Parsons, Anney Boatwright's first husband, frequently reeks of beer, spends much of his time at stock-car races, and defines his masculinity by “providing well for his family.” He proves himself a man by getting Anney pregnant “almost immediately” and doesn't “want her to go out to work at all” (6). Economic necessity forces Anney to go back to work, but she has already become accustomed to relying on a man. She continues to work throughout the novel but holds to the belief that she needs a man to take care of her.

The Boatwright brothers, Earle, Beau, and Nevil, have no respect for any situation that “could not be handled with a shotgun or a two-by-four” (10). The county both respects and fears their legendary tempers, and they are known for their drunken binges and rumored affairs. They love their wives, but they cannot (or will not) “stay away from other women” (24). Even though the uncles embody stereotypical white-trash characteristics in many ways, they are “invariably gentle and affectionate” toward their sisters, nieces, and nephews (22). They maintain a fierce loyalty to the Boatwright clan, often assuming the role of the protector. At the same time, they allow themselves to be taken care of by their sisters, who treat them “like overgrown boys” (23).

The Boatwright men represent everything that Glen Waddell, Anney's second husband, “had ever wanted to be” (12). Scorned and laughed at by the men in his own family for “his hot temper, bad memory, and general uselessness” (12), Glen aspires to be like Earle Boatwright, embracing a white-trash identity in order to anger his respectable, middle-class family. After his marriage to Anney, his family's respect again becomes important to him. But his family continues to look down on him, for both marrying “trash” and having a wife who works. “In Daddy Glen's family the women stayed at home” (98). He alternates between “complaining of how badly they treated him” and desperately trying to win their respect (99). Unable to feel like a man in his family's eyes, Glen resorts to either childlike behavior or violent rage.

Femininity in the novel is defined largely through these constructions of masculinity. In many ways the women depend on their men for protection, economic survival, and love. “Being pregnant” proves that their men love them, and a man's love proves that they are “worth something” (230–31). They do not value love from other women, such as their sisters, in the same way. In an interview with Carolyn E. Megan, Allison described the women's role as caught up “in the things they were supposed to do … keep the kids safe, find a good man, save him, and hang on for dear life” (76–77). Thus Anney falls in love with Glen's need for attention and mothering yet maintains that she needs him to take care of her.

Anney provides the main financial support for Glen and her children. Glen's inability to hold down a job and frequent periods of unemployment make him more a liability than a source of support. But even though Anney does not depend on Glen financially, she believes she needs a man to survive. She cannot leave him, despite his intensifying violence toward Bone and his failure to put food on the table more often than not. Her final decision to remain with Glen thus has less to do with her love for him than her fear of being without a man. Anney clearly loves Bone very deeply, but she chooses Glen, even though doing so means losing Bone.

The Boatwright women seem unable to recognize the support they derive from the strong community of women in the novel. In her interview with Megan, Allison pointed out, “They knew it was important but didn't think it was nearly as important as what a man and woman made together” (77). The aunts' “nasty and strong” support network provides an alternative world to that of the “spitting, growling, overbearing males” (91). Together, the Boatwright sisters can draw support from one another rather than devoting all their energy to caring for their men. The aunts nurture and sustain one another, give one another power and strength, and help one another survive, but ultimately they believe they need to rely on their men.

Bone, her sister Reese, and their cousins attempt to imitate the Boatwright aunts and uncles while simultaneously finding ways to resist their predetermined roles. Bone idolizes her uncles. She begs to wear their cast-off clothes and follows them around, mimicking their actions. At the same time, she values the strength of her aunts; she likes “being one of the women” (91). This embracing of contradictions allows Bone to draw on the positive characteristics of both her aunts and her uncles. After Daddy Glen's terrifying rape and assault, Bone learns that she needs both her uncles' violent rage and quest for vengeance and her aunts' support and strength in order to survive the ordeal.

The Boatwrights maintain fierce pride and loyalty toward their family, but they also suffer deep feelings of shame and hopelessness. Taught by experience that nothing ever changes, they refuse to believe that they will ever escape from poverty. After Lyle Parsons's death, Aunt Ruth tells Anney that she looks “like a Boatwright” now and that she will look that way until she dies. Both Ruth and Anney resign themselves to their lot in life. For Anney, “it didn't matter to her anymore what she looked like” (8).

Much of this shame and self-hatred of poverty derives from the contempt of those in the middle and upper classes. The cruel judgments rendered by other people deeply wound the Boatwrights. Bone repeatedly hears the labels of “No-good, lazy, shiftless” (3) and can see the disdain in the eyes of others when they look at her family. “How am I supposed to know anything at all?” she wonders, when “I'm just another ignorant Boatwright. … Another piece of trash barely knows enough to wipe her ass or spit away from the wind” (258). Yet she and Reese are better behaved than the middle-class Waddell children. Well aware of the low expectations that others have of her family, Anney strives to raise her children respectably. And although Bone longs for the middle-class acceptance that Anney tries to cultivate, she sometimes wishes she “could complain for no reason but the pleasure of bitching and act like the trash we were supposed to be” (66). She knows she will forever be judged by those on the outside, no matter how she behaves.

Raylene is perhaps the strongest, most fulfilled character in the book—the only one “completely satisfied with her own company” and the only one able to disregard the scorn of the upper classes. She smokes and talks rough, wears her hair short, and dresses in “trousers as often as skirts” (179). While the other Boatwrights move from house to house, never staying in one place for too long, Raylene stays put, creating a secure environment for herself that serves as a refuge for various family members in need. Living alone, away from anyone else, she can be her own person. “Out here where no one can mess with it,” she jokes, “trash rises” (180). By isolating herself from a world in which the Boatwrights are judged as trash and from her family, whose roles for men and women are strictly defined, Raylene is able to transcend other people's ideas of her. Her sexuality remains ambiguous until the end of the novel, when she confesses to Bone that she once loved, and failed, another woman. She thus represents an alternative to both the gender roles of her family and the expectations of the upper and middle classes.

Although Allison does not deal with race as explicitly as she does gender or class, the silences and absences in Bastard concerning race require examination. The chances of surviving and escaping the conditions of poverty are greater for the Boatwrights than for the African American members of the community. This relative privilege of whiteness remains unspoken, but its presence cannot be ignored if we are to understand white-trash identity. The few African Americans that appear in the text are “niggers” or “peckerwoods,” and the Boatwrights scorn them, feeling no shame about being racist. Understanding this racial hatred requires understanding its economic and historical context. Howard Zinn claims that racism became “practical” during the colonial era as a means of preventing black slaves and white indentured servants from joining forces against the wealthy white landowners. Racism was not something “‘natural’ to the black-white difference, but something coming out of class scorn, a realistic device for control” (56).

In her interview with Pratt, Allison explained that much of the hatred and contempt that poor whites in the South feel toward African Americans derives from “being hated and held in contempt” themselves (33), and they can pass on that hatred to African Americans. The Boatwrights believe the lies about African Americans, just as the upper and middle classes believe the lies about them. At moments, Bone recognizes the connections between racial and class oppression. For example, when her friend Shannon tells her, “My daddy don't handle niggers,” the word nigger tears at her, for Shannon's tone sounds “exactly like the echoing sound of Aunt Madeline sneering ‘trash’ when she thought I wasn't close enough to hear” (170). But because Bastard takes place in Greenville, South Carolina, in the 1950s, Bone has little contact with other African Americans and remains unable to find out the truth (or lack of truth) about racial stereotypes.

The deeply ingrained gender, race, and class roles of the Boatwright family help support and shape their identities while at the same time limiting and containing them. The characters find ways of resisting their appointed roles even as they submit to them, demonstrating “audacity within confinement,” a phrase of Thomas Mann's that Constance Coiner was particularly fond of quoting in both her graduate seminar discussions and her own writing. Rather than presenting a falsely unified definition of white-trash experiences, Allison acknowledges conflicting meanings. Her refusal to synthesize the contradictions of her characters permits a dialectical understanding of the reality and diversity of their lives. Her characters contradict preconceived stereotypes and commodified images, thereby creating space for a historical understanding of white-trash identities.

In interviews and her own writing, Allison frequently expresses her frustrations with feminist theories that either ignore class altogether or do not consider it to be as significant as gender or sexual identity. She writes, “My sexual identity is intimately constructed by my class and regional background … however much people, feminists in particular, like to pretend this is not a factor” (Skin 23). In an essay in Out of the Class Closet: Lesbians Speak, Elliott, a self-identified redneck, discusses similar feelings of anger toward middle- and upper-class lesbian feminists who don't “get the tie between privilege, ignorance, and stereotypes” (281). Understanding constructions of gender or sexual identity, she argues, necessitates understanding class and racial backgrounds. Likewise, the power of Allison's book lies not only in its resistance to the myths, lies, and stereotypes about white trash. In offering a more complex portrayal of white-trash experiences, Bastard also provides a better understanding of the effects of class on identity that is not limited to or by gender and sexual identity.

In the introduction to Calling Home: Working-Class Women's Writings: An Anthology, Janet Zandy explains the ways in which working-class writing can “show the connections between individual identity and collective sensibility” (10). White-trash identity is only one facet of this larger working-class sensibility. So by portraying the reality of white-trash lives, Allison demonstrates the diversity of working-class identities, thereby subverting a unified definition of identity. Rather than theorizing differences as a means to critique the power structure that exploits and oppresses differences, identity politics has become an end in itself. This approach to multiculturalism commodifies individual identities, obscuring the larger relations of structures of oppression that create these identities. Without a systematic ideological critique of these relations, any sort of collective vision for social change remains impossible. For those teaching working-class studies, Bastard Out of Carolina provides a useful approach to understanding working-class experiences that illustrates an alternative to the commodification of identities. Rather than celebrating individual groups or identities, Bastard looks at the reality and diversity of working-class experiences as part of a larger system of exploitation. Teachers can discuss with their students the “intersections and potential alliances” of race, gender, class, and sexual identification (Coiner 262), thereby allowing for multiple perspectives while promoting collective social change.

When they understand the constructions of identity in Bastard, students can then consider the choices the book's characters make in regard to these constructions. Rather than debating about whether Anney should have left Glen, students can look at the reasons that she stays with him. Rather than viewing the uncles' drunkenness and violence as characteristic white-trash traits, students can explore these traits as responses to their lived experiences. Rather than reducing Bastard to being a book primarily about incest, students can look at the physical violence and emotional abuse in the context of the material conditions and talk about the difficulties that Bone's family has in protecting her from the abuse.

Examining Bastard Out of Carolina in terms of resistance to white-trash stereotypes can also give students a greater understanding of working-class culture. In presenting the painful aspects of oppression, what is mean and ugly about her characters as well as what is good and beautiful about them, Allison portrays her characters in ways that resist categorization. She says, “I did not want anyone to ever be able to use the words ‘white trash’ again without thinking about all my characters” (Hollibaugh 16). Allison's constructions of white-trash identity force readers to confront their own preconceptions and to question the material conditions from which these notions arise.


Agee, James, and Walker Evans. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. 1941. Reprint, New York: Ballantine, 1966.

Allison, Dorothy. Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Plume-Penguin, 1992.

———. Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand, 1994.

Coiner, Constance. “U.S. Working-Class Women's Fiction: Notes Toward an Overview.” Women's Studies Quarterly 23, nos. 1 & 2 (1995): 248–67.

Cook, Sylvia Jenkins. From Tobacco Road to Route 66: The Southern Poor White in Fiction. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.

Elliott. “Whenever I Tell You the Language We Use Is a Class Issue, You Nod Your Head in Agreement—And Then You Open Your Mouth.” In Out of the Class Closet: Lesbians Speak, edited by Julia Penelope. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1994.

Hollibaugh, Amber. “Telling a Mean Story: Amber Hollibaugh Interviews Dorothy Allison.” Women's Review of Books 9, nos. 10 & 11 (1992): 16.

Megan, Carolyn E. “Moving toward Truth: An Interview with Dorothy Allison.” Kenyon Review 16 (1994): 71–83.

Pratt, Minnie Bruce. “Dorothy Allison.” Progressive 59, no. 7 (1995): 30–34.

Reynolds, David. “White Trash in Your Face: The Literary Descent of Dorothy Allison.” Appalachian Journal 20, no. 4 (1993): 356–66.

Zandy, Janet. Calling Home: Working-Class Women's Writing: An Anthology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Zinn, Howard. A People's History of the United States. New York: Harper, 1980.

Mark Greif (review date 28 August 1998)

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SOURCE: “Legends of Rock,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4978, August 28, 1998, p. 21.

[In the following mixed review, Greif argues that although the opening of Cavedweller holds promise, the various characters and their life experiences eventually become tangential and repetitive.]

The path of the West Coast rock star from rural obscurity to premature death makes one of the most alluring and persistent of American stories. A miserable, small-town childhood sets the myth in motion. There is a frigid, authoritarian father; torment at the hands of schoolyard bullies; escape through music. At the other end of the arc, the rock star's demise retains an air of magical incompleteness. His corpse is stolen by friends to be burned in the desert; or else there are rumours of conspiracy, faked death, murder.

The musical successes of such stars as Jim Morrison, Gram Parsons, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain depended on each singer's ability to meld adult rebellion with the songs and styles of childhood. We hear it in Morrison's Dionysiac lounge-crooning, Parsons's drug-addled country and western, Joplin's hippie blues, or Cobain's post-punk Lennon and McCartney. But the enduring fascination of each star's early death comes from an apparent failure to reconcile mature success with childhood misery—as if it were the small-town injuries, at last, that caught up with the star and killed him. One still hears it said, for example, that Joplin really died, because of a failed high-school reunion in Port Arthur, Texas, and that her overdose some weeks later was merely the self-administered coup de grâce.

Dorothy Allison's new novel, Cavedweller, takes up the old rock myth in order to ask what would have happened if a figure like Janis had survived and gone home again to stay. Delia Byrd is a former singer for the hippie band Mud Dog. She has managed to slip the noose of rock'n’ roll self-destruction only because her super-star husband, Randall, killed himself first. From Hollywood, the end of the line for an ageing rock'n’ roller, Delia packs up her daughter, Cissy, and moves home to picayune Cayro, Georgia. Abandoning two daughters had been the price she'd paid to escape from a brutal husband and a narrow-minded town. Now Delia wants her daughters back. But Dede and Amanda have grown up in the meantime; one daughter is a holy roller, the other a hell-cat with a reputation for trouble.

Cavedweller's evocation of rock stardom is a hoot, and Allison clearly knows small-town life first-hand. She has a fine ear for the way Americans talk, and delivers some wicked dialogue. There is great pleasure, too, in the simplicity of the situation, the hope that good will win out over bad. Will Delia get her daughters to say, “I love you”? Can she make the Bee's Bonnet the most successful beauty parlour in Cayro? Allison's goals are limited, and the opening 200 pages drive the book forward non-stop like a Greyhound bus.

Once she enlarges her scope, however, tackling the extended Byrd family and the religious and social dynamics of the town, the novel runs out of gas. Like a radio station's signal, the characterization of Delia starts to break up. Her outline grows fuzzy. So, gradually, do the motivations of Cissy, Amanda and Dede. Instead, Allison writes in general, aphoristic terms about the noble sisterhood of suffering women. “What [Dede] felt was the cool balm of mama love”; “Sometimes a woman just needs to get mad as sin.”

It begins to seem that everyone in Cavedweller has lost a baby or been beaten up by a man; everyone bears a scar on the outside of her body that marks the hurt and heart-sickness she carries on the inside. Breast milk, blood, piss, cigarettes and laundry detergent lend their pungency to the atmosphere of these pages. The eternal, primal power of woman emerges in a metaphor of dark underground caves, where the youngest daughter, Cissy, goes to find her own special mama-place. “Female, Cissy thought … the dark was female and God was dark.” This yoni symbolism intensifies until the cave plot climaxes in a “confrontation with God in the imagined body of a woman, the mama-core, the bludgeoned heart of the earth,” and a silly and predictable rebirth.

This is, in short, a lightweight novel by a strong author, savoury but unsatisfying. Readers should consider taking Cavedweller along on a holiday at the beach, but not to a desert island.

Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon (essay date Fall 1998)

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SOURCE: “‘Born on the Wrong Side of the Porch’: Violating Traditions in Bastard Out of Carolina,” in Southern Folklore, Vol. 55, No. 2, Fall, 1998, pp. 133–44.

[In the following essay, Donlon examines the significance of the front porch as a symbol of privacy and escape in Bastard Out of Carolina.]

Ever since the first American gallery appeared in 1702, and until its decline with the coming of air-conditioning, the front porch has been for Southerners “a shady transition between indoors and out where one [can] relax and sip iced tea, talk with a friend on the swing, or eat summer suppers” (Oszuscik 1992:1; Moore, et al. 1983:24). Indeed, even as the front porch has succumbed to central air conditioning, backyard decks, and to what Sue Beckham has called “mean little houses” (87), memories of the porch as a vibrant, animated social place continue to occupy the minds of many Southerners. The porch is not only a place to escape the stifling heat of the indoors, it is a liminal space where individuals can forge an identity.

Because the porch is a liminal space, somewhere between public and private, it is subject to the pressures of community norms, as well as to the authority of the private household. Few porch activities demonstrate the pressures of this liminality, this in-betweenness, better than the activity of courtship. Folk tradition tells us that the porch is a safe, semi-public site for heterosexual romance rituals: It is a space private enough for the whispering of sweet nothings between a young man and woman, but it is also public enough for parents to imagine that the family name will not be threatened by inappropriate displays of sexual activity.

Such established traditions of porch romance undoubtedly celebrate the American nuclear family. But any celebration of conventional notions of porch romance should acknowledge that these traditions typically give voice to heterosexual, middle-class romance rituals. My work here indeed celebrates the porch as an established folk institution by including traditional, middle-class, heterosexual porch-courtship stories. I have collected family stories of porch romance from south Louisiana informants to establish this “traditional” context, enabling us to conceptualize how the porch is used as a metaphor for coupling in both Southern culture and in Southern literature.

But from within the traditional context provided by this ethnographic method, I step onto the “Other” side of the porch to give voice to porch practices which are not ratified by the larger culture. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (1993), a semi-autobiographical novel, takes us into the private, terrifying world of Ruth Anne Boatwright, nicknamed “Bone,” a poverty-stricken little girl who suffers physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her stepfather, Daddy Glen Waddell. To tell Bone's devastating story of abuse, Allison uses the front porch to reveal how Bone operates outside of established traditions and norms. Bone, as she says, was “born on the wrong side of the porch” (54); she is not a product of middle-class courtship traditions that are sanctioned by our culture, traditions which eventually lead to a stable marriage and family; rather, according to others, she is “illegitimate white trash.” And while Bone does exploit the liminality of the porch, using its public side to limit heterosexual encounters, her motives stem from perversions of sexuality: the semi-public safety of her grandmother's front porch enables Bone to escape her step-father's abuse. But while the porch provides a safe arena for Bone, she cannot use it openly to celebrate her emerging sexual identity as what Allison called a “transgressive lesbian,” an identity which she is only beginning to define in her early adolescence. In this liminal arena she must define herself in the shadows of the porch.1 By doing so, Bone is able to create what Michel de Certeau has called a “space” for her emerging sexual identity.

In The Practice of Everyday Life de Certeau defines “place” (lieu) as an established, stabilized “configuration of positions” which has been structured by the dominant order; “space” (espace), on the other hand, is produced when individuals are able to make creative use of an already controlled “place.” “Space” is thus “practiced place” (1984:117). On her Aunt Raylene's porch, Bone makes creative use of the front porch, establishing a “space” in which to celebrate an emerging transgressive sexual identity.2 Allison's novel thus shows how the porch can be, in de Certeau's term, a “space” of empowerment for children whose parents never married; for victims of domestic abuse, whose crossing the threshold to go inside means crossing into danger; and for gay and lesbian individuals, whose semi-public porch courtship is, for all intents and purposes, forbidden.

To establish traditional notions of Southern porch romance, notions which Bone must resist in her uses of the front porch, I'll start with my own middle-class, nuclear family, which owes its origin to a front-porch romance that began in 1945, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, at the home of my maternal grandparents, Richard and Florence Foreman. Indeed, thirty-two years later when my grandmother passed away, my father, Calvin Hazelwood, took my grandparents' porch swing home with him to guard his memories of having courted my mother on it, under the watchful eye of my grandmother. She had been so strict in controlling the courtship of my parents that she refused to let my mother go to Opelousas, my father's hometown, in order to pick out her own engagement ring. My dad's sister chose it for her.

My favorite family story about this swing, told to me by my mother, Marie Hazelwood, was about the evening in 1946 when my parents decided to marry. The young couple saw a falling star while sitting on my grandparents' porch swing. My father, a twenty-six-year-old Southern Baptist minister, wondered aloud to my mother if the end of the world was coming to take the romantic couple into paradise (and he wasn't joking).3 The porch was not only a transitional space between public and private spheres for this pair; it was a possible passage from earth to the New Jerusalem. This porch story obviously reveals the religious, spiritual world my parents lived in. And, once married, they raised their five children within these same conventional norms. The porch here launches the cherished American nuclear family. This story also communicates my parents' romantic belief in their destiny to be together on earth and in paradise—a belief that comforted my mother for the sixteen years she lived as a widow, and a belief that somehow comforts me now that they have both passed away.

Other family stories which I have collected also bear out meaningful porch-courtship traditions in the South. For example, Mr. Leon Deshotels from Mansura, Louisiana, spoke to me of courting his first girlfriend on her parents' front porch during the Great Depression:

My first girlfriend, her name was Adele de Glandon. Beautiful girl. And I'd walk that six miles to go to her house. … I was seeing Adele, and her sister also had a boyfriend. And I was at this end, and he was at the other end. And the old lady [Adele's mother] was sitting in the middle of the house—just inside the house. You wouldn't see her. … Oh yeah, you wouldn't see her. But she was there—within shotgun reach!4

Mr. Deshotels' story clearly communicates Southern rural norms. First, he walks six miles in order to visit his girlfriend and court her on the front porch. But even more revealing of Southern culture is that the shotgun in this story is a defensive weapon. Using guns for subsistence hunting and for the protection of the home has traditionally characterized Southern rural areas. And from her private watch, Adele de Glandon's mother fully intended to protect the public reputation of her daughters from such rascals as Leon Deshotels. She sat between the courting couples, right inside the house, right within shotgun reach, buttressed by her authority that extended from within the home, to ensure that her family's reputation that lay beyond the threshold would be protected—even if it meant resorting to violence.

In another interview, Michael Cavanaugh offered an amusing example of how young lovers can make creative use of the “space” of the porch. When I asked if he remembered any courtship stories from his family home in DeRidder, Louisiana, he responded:

The only one I remember was told to me by my Aunt Azalee (Azalea is actually her name. The family corrupted it to Azalee, but she still prefers Azalea.) She told me that she and my uncle A. J.—there used to be a side porch around on the side that doesn't now have a porch; there used to be a little free-standing lean-to porch—she and Uncle A. J. would climb on top of that porch and sit on the roof to do their courting because it was the only place they could have any privacy. Now when this house was originally built, there was a room right at the end of the porch that had no doors anywhere except on the porch; it was an entertainment room. Subsequently, in my grandmother's old age, they made a door connected to the rest of the house, but when that house was designed and built, that room was off the porch, and it was supposedly the one place for privacy. But Aunt Azalee said they didn't get it, so they climbed on top the porch.5

Tensions between public and private worlds are revealed here. Clearly, the Cavanaugh porch was more public than private for these teenagers, and they were compelled to circumvent the porch's public nature. Also noteworthy is how the “privacy room,” which one could enter only from the porch, was off limits for the young Azalee, perhaps because it was too private and therefore inappropriate. Azalee and her suitor were thus forced to seek more desperate measures. They strategically converted a relatively public “place” into a private “space”—they climbed on the roof of the porch.

The above stories are obviously indicative of earlier, stricter courtship traditions, more telling of World War II values than of post-Vietnam mores. Beth Bailey's study of twentieth-century American courtship in From Front Porch to Back Seat confirms the porch's association with earlier American values. Bailey traces the movement of courtship from the private world of “calling” to the public world of “dating.” With the advent of the automobile, young couples began to expect to leave the home to do their courting. As Bailey says:

Dating moved courtship into the public world, relocating it from family parlors and community events to restaurants, theaters, and dance halls. At the same time, it removed couples from the implied supervision of the private sphere—from the watchful eyes of family and local community—to the anonymity of the public sphere.


Lest we imagine, however, that porch-courting has altogether disappeared, I can share a contemporary story from Kenyada Corley, a twenty-three-year-old African American from New Orleans. Kenyada's interview verified for me that the porch is alive and well in the black community of New Orleans. She said, “Every house I lived in had a porch. They even had a balcony.” Kenyada spent much of her time on her grandmother's gallery on Garrard Street in New Orleans. But her parents' home also had a porch, the porch where she got her “first kiss.” Her story goes like this:

Okay, well I got my first kiss on the front porch, and I didn't know that my mother was looking outside of the door. I was real embarrassed because she told everybody and they still tease me about that. I was practicing kissing before I kissed him, because I didn't want to do it wrong. So my sister told my mother that I had been practicing kissing, so they were waiting, looking to see if he was gonna kiss me. And he kissed me. Mama said, “If I had had a camera, it would've been a Kodak moment!”6

Kenyada's story evidences the embarrassment typical of most adolescents when their parents intrude on their courting rituals. But Kenyada's parents, informed by the gossiping of the sister, were simply exercising the right to influence the goings-on occurring on their front porch.

Twenty-one-year-old Elizabeth Brocato from Alexandria, Louisiana, tells a different story of teenage courtship. In our interview, Elizabeth said:

It would be safe to say that my front porch played a major role in raising me. I played endless games of truth or dare there. It was somewhere during these games on the porch that I fell in love with my first real boyfriend. … My parents were always real relaxed with a curfew as long as I stayed in the neighborhood, so I can't count the number of times my friends and I stayed out all night and watched the sun rise from my porch.7

The rules for Elizabeth's teenage courting and socializing were relaxed by her parents, in part because of changing social mores, and in part because these activities were bounded by the porch. The pressures of the neighborhood coming from without and of the parental authority coming from within were enough to keep rowdy teenagers from overstepping their boundaries, even during all-night games of truth-or-dare, games which led to adolescent romance.

But, again, even as we celebrate these traditional stories of porch romance, we must remember that they originate from within functional nuclear families and that they give voice to heterosexual, middle-class romance rituals. Allison's novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, invites us onto an “Other” side of the porch, framing Ruth Anne Boatwright's porch not only in poverty, illegitimacy, and domestic violence, but also in Bone's emerging transgressive lesbianism.

When we first meet Bone, we discover that she has been “certified a bastard by the state of South Carolina” (3). The courthouse stamp seals her identity as “illegitimate white trash.” Because Bone's parents never married, she has grown up without the legacy of mythologizing courtship stories. Elizabeth Stone has observed in her book, Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins:

The courtship story tends to be a staple in any family which tells stories at all. This is because the courtship story bears the same relation to the new family as a creation myth does to any larger culture or civilization. The courtship story is the story of How the Family Began, or this branch at any rate. It is the first collective memory of the new family, paradoxically shared even by children who were unborn at the time.


The origins of Bone's family, however, are not mythologized. Her father is a villain; no one talks about him except to “curse his name” (26). So Bone has no authenticating courtship-creation myth, one for which she truly longs. She says, “It wasn't even that I was so insistent on knowing anything about my missing father. I wouldn't have minded a lie. I just wanted the story Mama would have told” (31). Bone simply wants the creation myth.

Anney Boatwright, Bone's mother, does try to create a “mythical” nuclear family with her second husband, Glen Waddell. Glen is the son of a local white patriarch who seems hellbent on alienating his wealthy family by marrying “white trash.” And in his attempts to court Anney, Glen uses her mother's porch to cross over into a different class. He would “come over, meet her girls, sit on her porch and talk a little” (15). Daddy Glen even tries to seal his bond with Anney by taking family pictures on the porch.

However, Glen and Anney's pictures reveal the dysfunction in this emerging relationship. Bone describes the photo-shoot in these terms:

From the other side of Earle's truck, I stood and looked back at them, Granny up on the porch with her hesitant uncertain smile, and Mama down on the steps in her new blouse with Glen in that short brush haircut, while Alma posed on the walkway focusing up at them. Everybody looked nervous but determined, Mama stiff in Glen's awkward embrace and Glen almost stumbling off the steps as he tried to turn his face away from the camera. It made my neck go tight just to look at them.


Porch pictures are traditionally celebratory occasions during which crowds of folks gather in a semi-public setting to record their shared identity. For Bone, however, these family pictures with Daddy Glen are malevolent. Because the posing family members are on public exhibition, they attempt to fall into traditional behaviors—smiling and arranging themselves strategically on the porch, walkways, and steps. But because Glen cannot look fully into the camera, these photographs warn of the private domestic terrors yet to come, making Bone's “neck go tight just to look at them.”

These sinister porch photographs threaten what is a relatively secure world for Bone. When living at their grandmother's house, Bone, her little sister Reese, and their mother, Anney, have a safe life, particularly on the porch of the Boatwright home. However, their porch life is not romanticized in traditional terms. Indeed, in describing one summer evening, Bone portrays the life of her grandmother's “white trash” porch in terms of anti-romance:

I edged forward until I could put my hand on Granny's chair. … The laughter echoed around me. … Granny put her arm down and squeezed my wrist. She leaned over and spat a stream of brown snuff off the side of the porch. I heard the dull plopping sound it made as it landed in the dusty yard. I slipped under her shoulder, leaned across the side of the rocker, and put my face close to her breast. I could smell wet snap beans, tobacco, lemon juice on her neck, and a little sharp piss scent, and a little salt. … I laughed up into her neck. … I rocked myself against her, as happy and safe as Little Earle had felt with her teeth on his belly.


Bone is “happy and safe” on her grandmother's porch, but in her images of spitting tobacco, piss scents, and salt smells, she doesn't let us forget that we are about as far away from the mythologized nuclear family as we can get. This is the porch of a poor Carolina family. There are no attempts by this grandmother to sit “within shotgun reach” to protect her children from sexual advances. Most of her daughters are pregnant by the age of fifteen. And there are no class pretensions. Bone's grandmother even says, when comforting Bone about her courthouse stamp of “bastard”: “Did [people] ask to see your birth certificate before they sat themselves on your porch?” (3). The porch for Granny is a place where pretensions are non-existent. While situated in poverty and illegitimacy, the Boatwright family porch is nevertheless a celebrated place for telling stories, drinking iced tea, potting flowers, and playing children's games. It is a place to which Bone returns for comfort once Anney and Daddy Glen get married. Indeed, it is a place to which Bone returns for safety, where she can temporarily escape the terrors that lay beyond the threshold of her own home.

Such permanence and safety on her grandmother's porch stand in stark contrast to the emptiness of Daddy Glen's houses. In fact, Bone's grandmother “always complained about [Anney] not living in houses with porches and rocking chairs” (143). Bone lives in a series of “rented houses; houses leased with an option to buy; shared houses on the city limits; brick and stucco and a promise to buy” (64). In the words of Temple, Bone's cousin, Daddy Glen always rented “unloved” houses for his family—houses which looked “naked and abandoned,” houses where “it look[ed] like nobody every really wanted to live” (79). Daddy Glen imagines that these porchless, barren tract houses proclaim a higher status, separating his family from the Boatwright's working-class fare of “big old rickety houses with wide porches and dogs lying out flat in the sun” (79).

When Bone enters Daddy Glen's unloved homes, she crosses the threshold into terror, where she is victim of physical abuse so violent that it repeatedly lands her in emergency rooms with broken bones, and where she must endure the terrifying sexual violations of Daddy Glen, who holds his body “tight to [Bone's], his hands shaking as they moved restlessly, endlessly, over [her] belly, ass, and thighs” (108). The parent, in Bone's case, is not the sentry who stands watch “just within shotgun reach,” ready to use violence to protect her from defilement; rather he is the transgressor who violently defiles, who sends her running to her grandmother's and to her aunts' porches for safety.

Nevertheless, in spite of all the violations that Bone must endure, and despite her mother's unwillingness to love Bone enough to “kill [Daddy Glen] if need be” (107) in order to protect her daughter, Bone is able to seize a degree of power for herself. And she does so, in part, by using her Aunt Raylene's front porch. Raylene's porch is where Bone finds permanent safety and where she can begin to define a “white trash lesbian” identity—a transgressive identity which violates conventional, middle-class, heterosexual porch rituals of romance.

In order to escape Daddy Glen's violence, Bone spends a great deal of time with her Aunt Raylene while she's growing up, particularly on the porch “that went around three sides” of Raylene's shotgun house (178–79). Raylene has gotten up “many a morning to find a porch full of young'uns somebody's dropped off in the night” (189). She is the best kind of aunt to her nieces and nephews, taking them in without notice, building their character, and praising their accomplishments.

It is significant to Bone's emerging sexuality, though, that Raylene's porch is framed in lesbianism. Raylene herself is a lesbian, and Bone manipulates Raylene's porch territory to express her own emerging sexuality: she hides the metal chain with which she masturbates under Raylene's porch—on the wrong side of the porch—in order to conceal her transgressive sexual practices. Bone reflects Allison's own transgressive preferences in the masturbation scenes with her chain. Manipulating the porch's liminality, Bone takes the chain out from under Aunt Raylene's porch and retreats to the privacy of her room for sexual experimentation. The porch, here, is certainly not used for public displays of conventional sexuality; rather, it is more private than public, providing a hiding place for Bone's “transgressions.” Bone tells us:

I got in bed and put [the chain] between my legs, pulling it back and forth. It made me shiver and go hot at the same time. … I used the lock I had found on the river bank to fasten the chain around my hips. It felt sun-warmed and tingly against my skin. … It was mine. It was safe. Every link on that chain was magic in my hand.


While Bone, even if she were fully aware of her own lesbianism in this episode, could not participate in traditional, middle-class, heterosexual courtship rituals, she nevertheless makes use of Raylene's porch to shield her tools of sexual pleasure. She is not fully aware of her lesbianism. She says, “What I really wanted was not yet imagined” (193). But she is quite aware of her taste for transgression, and the porch, framed in Raylene's lesbianism, helps her realize her unconventional preferences.

It is no wonder, then, that it is Raylene's porch which becomes Bone's “healing porch” at the end of the novel. Indeed, the front porch is traditionally a site for emotional healing—a place to sit in peace, collect one-self, and to escape tensions from within the home. After Bone has been violently raped by Daddy Glen, and after her own mother has chosen to leave with Daddy Glen rather than to stay and protect her own daughter, Bone reflects, in a rocker on Aunt Raylene's porch, about her destiny. She says, “I was already who I was going to be. … When Raylene came to me, I let her touch my shoulder, let my head tilt to lean against her, trust her arm and her love. I was who I was going to be, someone like her, like Mama, a Boatwright woman. I wrapped my fingers in Raylene's and watched the night close in around us” (309). Bone might have been “born on the wrong side of the porch,” but, with her fingers wrapped in Raylene's, she is ready to articulate an identity as a survivor. In order to survive, though, Bone must violate middle-class and heterosexual traditions that our culture authorizes but which have failed her so miserably. On Raylene's porch, Bone has crossed over into the safety and security of a non-traditional family and created a “space”—a “practiced place”—for herself. Raylene's porch safely situates Bone on the threshold of her emerging identity, positioning her to embrace and to affirm her own transgressiveness and ready to face the world on her own terms. Repositioned for survival, Bone's future seems not only bearable but hopeful.

I like to imagine for Bone's own future front porch the kind of loving relationship that I saw in my interview with a lesbian couple in New Orleans. Laurie Reed and Deyette Danford use the front porch of Deyette's raised-basement house in uptown New Orleans to solidify their dynamic, openly gay relationship. Laurie and Deyette spend their weekends together, sitting on their porch swing, making comments to passing neighbors about living “the life,” volunteering to take pictures of home-loving tourists, who frequently want to pose on the steps of their porch. They occasionally host political fundraisers, where the porch becomes a charged, deliberate public expression of the couple's sexuality. Deyette said:

[The porch] feels private but I know that it's public as well. You know what I mean? A lot of times, and we haven't done this yet, but when we have our women's fundraiser in November for a group I'm involved in here, we'll probably put a rainbow flag outside on the flagpole. So it really makes a statement and makes everybody feel welcome. I think that's a public display.8

If porch liminality is about negotiating tensions between public and private spheres, Laurie and Deyette, because of their commitment to being out, situate their porch toward the public world. Their porch is about making their gay and lesbian friends feel welcome, and about openly expressing their sexuality, moving, so to speak, from the closet to the porch.

Bone's story, as well as Laurie and Deyette's, tell us that discussions of the porch as a celebrated folk institution need to go beyond reporting heterosexual traditions of courtship. When we look to the “Other” side of the porch, our notions of “celebration” can be expanded in terms of resistance, power, and diversity. Certainly, my parents' story speaks to valuable porch traditions in Southern culture. But so do the stories of Bone, and of Laurie and Deyette. The porch, redefined, can be an open “space,” in de Certeau's sense, to resist compulsory, even abusive, heterosexuality. In the final analysis, when we look to the “Other” side of the porch, we see that it is much more than a mere shady transition for sipping iced tea; it is, in fact, a powerfully constructed transitional “space,” singularly situated between indoors—and out—where individuals can negotiate a sexual identity within a community of shared traditions.


  1. Every student of folklore and anthropology knows Victor Turner's discussion of liminality often refers to a sense of place in that it is a “gap between ordered worlds,” where individuals are “liberated from normative demands” (Turner 1974:13). Liminality can also refer to a psychological position of “in-betweenness.” Liminality enables a person to disrupt traditional norms and expectations and to enter—sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently—a location, whether psychological or physical, that is “neither here nor there” (Turner 1974:232).

  2. In her collection of essays, Skin, Dorothy Allison says that she is not only a lesbian; she is a “transgressive lesbian.” She says:

    [I am] femme, masochistic, as sexually aggressive as the women I seek out, and as pornographic in my imagination and sexual activities as the heterosexual hegemony has ever believed. … My sexual identity is intimately constructed by my class and regional background, and much of the hatred directed at my sexual preferences is class hatred—however much people, feminists in particular, like to pretend this is not a factor. The kind of woman I am attracted to is invariably the kind of woman who embarrasses respectably middle-class, politically aware lesbian feminists. My sexual ideal is butch, exhibitionistic, physically aggressive, smarter than she wants you to know, and proud of being called a pervert. Most often she is working class, with an aura of danger and an ironic sense of humor. There is a lot of contemporary lip service paid to sexual tolerance, but the fact that my sexuality is constructed within, and by, a butch/femme and leather fetishism is widely viewed with distaste or outright hated. … [But] one of the strengths I derive from my class background is that I am accustomed to contempt.


    Answering to her felt contempt of “middle class” lesbians, Allison reveals her preference for rough sex, which she claims is deeply grounded in her “white trash” background.

  3. Marie Hazelwood. Houma, Louisiana. 12 July 1996.

  4. Leon Deshotels. Mansura, Louisiana. 23 July 1996.

  5. Michael Cavanaugh. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 10 July 1996.

  6. Kenyada Corley. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 13 July 1997.

  7. Elizabeth Brocato. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 23 November 1996.

  8. Laurie Reed and Deyette Danford. New Orleans, Louisiana. 18 October 1997.


Allison, Dorothy, 1993. Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Plume.

———. 1994. Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, & Literature. Ithaca: Firebrand Books.

Bailey, Beth L. 1988. From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Beckham, Sue Bridwell. 1988. “The American Front Porch: Women's Liminal Space.” In Making the American Home: Middle-Class Women and Domestic Material Culture: 1840–1940, ed. Marilyn Ferris Motz and Pat Browne, 68–89. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Moore, Charles W., Kathryn Smith, and Peter Becker, eds. 1983. American Domestic Vernacular Architecture: Home Sweet Home. New York: Rizzoli International Publications.

Oszuscik, Phillippe. 1992. “Passage of the Gallery and Other Caribbean Elements from the French and Spanish to the British and United States.” P.A.S.T., 15: 1–14.

Stone, Elizabeth. 1989. Black Sheep and Kissing Cousins: How Our Family Stories Shape Us. Penguin: New York.

Turner, Victor. 1974. Dramas, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Vincent King (essay date Fall 2000)

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SOURCE: “Hopeful Grief: The Prospect of a Postmodernist Feminism in Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina,” in Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 33, No. 1, Fall, 2000, pp. 122–40.

[In the following essay, King explores the postmodern and feminist aspects of Bastard Out of Carolina.]

Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina is a lyrical yet fiercely disturbing portrait of a South Carolina family besieged by poverty, violence, and incest. Narrated by young Ruth Anne Boatwright—or Bone as she is called by her family—the novel begins, ordinarily enough, with her birth and early years and quickly focuses on the relationship between Bone and her violent stepfather, Daddy Glen. Glen's abuse of Bone reaches a fever pitch in the eighth chapter. There a young intern, who is treating Bone's second broken clavicle, notices that her coccyx has also been broken. Confronted by the angry doctor, the mother finally admits (if only temporarily) the seriousness of Glen's mistreatment of Bone.

But at the beginning of chapter nine, the novel takes a surprising—and potentially misguided—turn. Glen, who has played such a pivotal role in the novel, becomes little more than a peripheral character. While Bone's world is still haunted and shaped by the threat that he poses, Glen no longer figures prominently in the action. And the story of Bone's abuse, which has heretofore dominated the novel, does not fully resume again until chapter seventeen. Although Bone spends some of this time with relatives—to escape the pawing hands of Daddy Glen—neither this nor Glen's promise to become a better father adequately explains why Allison stops the story of Bone's abuse so quickly and for so long. It is even less clear why chapters nine through sixteen focus so heavily on gospel music, Bone's friend Shannon Pearl, Bone's violent sexual fantasies, her reading and storytelling, and her midnight escapade at a local Woolworth's. Not only is it unclear how these eight chapters fit into the main narrative, but also these chapters appear to have little connection to each other. Allison's kitchen-sink realism seems to have run amuck. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Mary Hawthorne complains that in Bastard “one sometimes hears the clunk of fiction not sufficiently dissembled, and an indulgent meandering of plot into subplots that lead nowhere … diminishes the book's potency” (18). The novel's unusual structure might suggest that Allison isn't fully in control of her narrative—a problem one might expect in a first novel. On the other hand, a more cynical reader could argue that these middle chapters have been included to bolster a slim volume with proven set pieces and folksy asides about gospel music and southern storytelling.1 This view seems to be supported by fact that the story of Shannon Pearl in chapters eleven and thirteen is an adaptation of a short story that appeared in the 1988 collection Trash.2

Worse, by interrupting the story of Bone's abuse, Allison appears to be sensationalizing her already shocking subject matter, simultaneously promising and delaying the inevitable rape scene. Commenting on the prevalence of incest in contemporary fiction, Katie Roiphe complains that the incest story is “our latest literary vogue,” “the stock plot of a culture obsessed with sexual abuse” (65, 71). Roiphe acknowledges the use of incest as a plot device by southern writers such as William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell and, more recently, by African American women such as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison; but she insists that “what may once have been a daring subject, what took our breath away in Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, has now become a paralyzed literary convention” (71). She continues:

It's possible that the incest scene could be made new, but at this late date we can't help suspecting that the scene is the product of cultural opportunism, a sign that the author has lost sight of what separates literature from Melrose Place. Beneath the swelling prose, the panties and the nightgowns, one feels the selling principle at work. Sex sells and perverse sex sells more …


But it would be a mistake to categorize Bastard as an example of this kind of lurid, cultural opportunism, although it may explain why Bastard, despite the fact that it was a National Book Award Finalist, has generated so little critical attention. To her credit, Allison is fully aware how easy it would be to sensationalize a story of incest. Sounding much like Roiphe, Allison explains in an interview that she too “‘hates’ the ‘pseudo-porn’ of most books on incest, which trade on ‘the reader's held breath and sweaty shame’” (Graff 43).

Ironically, it this “indulgent meandering” into the minutiae of Bone's life in chapters nine to sixteen that prevents the novel from exploiting the subject of incest or Bone herself.3 By temporarily halting the story of Bone's abuse at the end of chapter eight, Allison refocuses the novel. Up until chapter nine, Bastard Out of Carolina is primarily a novel about the horror of incest—what Daddy Glen does to Bone. Beginning with chapter nine, though, the novel focuses on Bone's awkward efforts to survive, and even transmute, these horrors.4 But to do so, Bone must rewrite—and in some cases simply reject—the names and stories that make her vulnerable to violence. She instinctively understands that her identity, far from being stable or fixed, is transactional—the result of the ongoing conflict between the names and stories thrust upon her by others and those she creates for herself.5 In short, familial and social pressures force her to acknowledge “the postmodern insight that identity is constructed, flexible, and multiple” (Best and Kellner 174). While this realization initially threatens to overwhelm her already-fragile psyche, it also gives her the freedom to rewrite the relentless linear narratives that threaten to silence her. So, instead of accepting the language of Daddy Glen (and most of the other Boatwrights), which confers upon her a singular, and particularly constricting, identity, she must replace his coercive, linear narrative with ones that are more liberating. Bone's obsession with gospel music, her complex sexual fantasies, bizarre tales of violence, and avid reading are not subplots that lead nowhere; they simply reflect her attempts to create stories (read identities) that will provide her with what Allison describes as “the hope of a remade life” (Skin 219).

Allison, then, has made the incest story new, for in chapters nine to sixteen it becomes clear that her gritty southern realism is part and parcel of a decidedly postmodernist feminism.6Bastard may be described as feminist because it exposes and seeks to counter the physical, emotional, and economic domination that women suffer within a patriarchal system. And it may be described as postmodern because Bone counters this domination by rewriting the stories/identities that demean and violate her. She is, in effect, acknowledging and responding to “the fictionality of meaning” (Maltby 39). Furthermore, Allison manages to put her own distinctive stamp upon postmodernism by imbuing it with a feminist ethic which declares that story alone cannot remake Bone's life.7 In other words, Bone cannot transmute her pain by replacing the stories that have hurt her with the story of her hatred for Daddy Glen (or for others). In Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut suggests that we are who we pretend to be. It is this recognition of the primacy of story in a world devoid of metanarratives that shapes the fictions of male postmodernists such as John Barth, John Hawkes, Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis, Robert Coover, and Don DeLillo. Yet Allison, in accord with her feminist politics, contends that we are defined by our social relations. Consequently, Bone cannot rid herself of the hatred that threatens to consume her at the end of the novel until she learns that we are also shaped by who we pretend others to be. Allison explains in an essay entitled “Believing in Literature” that “telling the truth—your side of it anyway,” must be coupled with the realization that there are “truths other than your own” (177). For Allison, storytelling has a variety of functions, but it only becomes “a moral act, a courageous act, an act of rebellion that would encourage other such acts” when it is based on what Linda Nicholson calls “epistemic humility” (Allison 177; Nicholson 84).8

Allison's postmodernist feminism, as I have sketched it here, is politically charged, highly ethical, socially aware and, ultimately, affirmative. Yet according to theorists such as Frederic Jameson, Terry Eagleton, and Jean Baudrillard, postmodern art is characterized by deathlessness, pastiche, and the extermination of the real. Although he could just as easily be speaking for Eagleton or Baudrillard, David Herman observes that “despite Jameson's explicit claims to the contrary … we are implicitly asked to arrive at the ‘moralizing judgement’ that postmodernism, at least on one level, means a powerlessness to act positively and constructively within the present historical moment” (166). But this conception of an exclusively ludic postmodernism is shaped more by their nostalgia for (or, in Baudrillard's case, a loss of faith in) Marxist utopian politics than by a discriminating survey of contemporary literature.9 Moreover, this monolithic and apocalyptic conceptualization of postmodernism is quickly becoming outdated. Critics such as Susan Strehle, Linda Hutcheon, Alan Wilde, and Paul Maltby identify an “oppositional postmodernism [that] strongly opposes the established society and culture and seeks new forms of critique and opposition” (Best and Kellner 27).10

Those who define literary postmodernism as an essentially ludic enterprise, and this includes both critics (Gerald Graff) and advocates (Ihab Hassan) of postmodernism, would also be uncomfortable with the suggestion that Bone “act[s] positively and constructively within the present historical moment” by fashioning alternate identities. As Jane Flax observes, “postmodernist deconstructors of the self empty subjectivity of any possible meaning or content” (231). But just as proclaiming the death of the author does not mean that all authors have suddenly expired, post-Enlightenment views of identity do not require us to completely jettison this concept either. In both cases, it simply means that the ways in which we think about authorship and identity have changed. In Bastard, for example, Bone's identity is not locked within her waiting to be discovered. Instead, it is created, fluid, and plural. Consequently, Bone must accept the ongoing burden of generating identities/stories for herself. In a postmodern world view, identity is actually more significant because it is generated and accepted by the subject rather than simply given to or imposed on him or her.

I have suggested that for Bone to remake her life she must acknowledge that she is responsible for how she imagines herself and others. But the novel begins by showing how Bone is shaped by the ways others imagine her. Indeed, one important function of the first eight chapters (besides setting in motion the story of Bone's abuse) is to introduce the names from which Bone will try to escape in the novel's crucial middle section.11 Bone's given name is Ruth Anne. Although her mother, Anney, is unable to name her because of difficulties with the labor (which is brought on prematurely when Anney is thrown through the windshield of a car), Bone's Granny and Aunt Ruth select names which firmly link the infant to a loving, matriarchal world. Since Bone's mother is unmarried and the father has “run off,” this gesture of female solidarity is especially important, though short-lived. Granny and Ruth cannot even decide on the spelling of Bone's middle name. Bone explains, “they hadn't bothered to discuss how Anne would be spelled, so it wound up spelled three different ways on the form—Ann, Anne, and Anna” (2–3).

This confusion is heightened by the fact that Granny and Ruth cannot agree on the father's name either. Anney has just turned fifteen when she gives birth to Bone, and Granny is so angry that she refuses to speak the father's name. Aunt Ruth, on the other hand, “had never been sure of his last name anyway” (3). Consequently, the women give the hospital clerk two different names for the father. Catching the discrepancy, “the clerk got mad” and stamped “ILLEGITIMATE” “in oversized red-inked block letters” on her birth certificate (3–4). As Bone tells us, “there I was—certified a bastard by the state of South Carolina” (3). Beneath the humor of this opening scene, we see from the very beginning that Bone's identity is unstable. Her mother and father both fail to give her a name; Granny and Ruth do provide one for her, but their inability to come to an agreement about that name allows a petty clerk (who represents the callous patriarchy of the state) to give her a name that legally marginalizes her—bastard. Deprived of her father's name, the only name that the state will recognize as legal, these scarlet letters not only label her “illegitimate,” but as “no-good, lazy,” and “shiftless” (3).

The name Ruth also calls to mind the Biblical story of Ruth and Naomi. Naomi has two daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. After all three husbands die, Naomi plans to return home to Bethlehem. Despite Naomi's protests, Ruth insists on leaving her native Moab and following her beloved mother-in-law. Once in Bethlehem, a kinsman of Naomi's deceased husband “redeems” these two women by marrying Ruth. The marriage secures the fortunes of the two women who, in a patriarchal society, are vulnerable without a male protector. While the story of Naomi and Ruth is a moving story of the mother/daughter bond, it is this very bond which breaks down in Bastard. Instead of “redeeming” Bone, her mother fails to stop Glen's abuse and even chooses him over Bone at the end of the novel. The name Ruth, then, is an ironic commentary on the relationship between Bone and her mother. It is also another reminder that Bone, like Ruth and Naomi, lives in society where one's “name” is determined by, and dependent upon, men.

Bone's precarious status in her family and in society is represented best, though, by her nickname. “Bone,” while not a “masculine” name, is gender neutral, further separating “Ruth Anne” from her identity as a woman. And just as Bone's designation as a bastard can be blamed on Granny and Ruth, as well as the vindictive male clerk, the name Bone also has both a male and female source. Uncle Earle describes the newborn infant as “no bigger than a knucklebone” (2). (This image comes naturally to Earle, for he, like Bone's other uncles, spends much of his leisure time fighting.) Still, it is Bone's young cousin Deedee who gives the infant her name when she pulls “the blanket back to see ‘the bone’” (2). Again, the sexes join forces to replace the name Ruth Anne with one which (no matter how innocently) demeans her. A bone, of course, is a thing, an object, something to be possessed, broken, or thrown to the dogs. In fact, this is exactly how Daddy Glen regards his stepdaughter. Granny, who disproves of Glen, notices, “He's always looking at me out the sides of his eyes like some old junkyard dog waiting to steal a bone” (37). Granny, however, cannot see that her daughter Anney is not the only “bone he wants” (37).

Bone, like Ruth, is also a name with Biblical significance. In the first account of creation in Genesis, God makes both man and woman in his own image. Not much later, though, we learn that woman is made from the rib of Adam. After God finishes creating Eve, Adam says, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23). Bone's name, then, is a family name in the largest sense, making clear that in the Judeo-Christian tradition women are, at best, an afterthought and, at worst, the possession of men.

In Daddy Glen's mind, Ruth Anne is his bone and his flesh, and in his relentless effort to possess his stepdaughter, he uses a barrage of names to “break” her. At different times throughout the novel he calls her “a little bitch,” “a cold-hearted bitch,” a “goddam little bastard,” and “a little cunt” (106, 130, 284). Showing the power of such names, Bone asks, “What was it I had done? Why had he always hated me? Maybe I was a bad girl, evil, nasty, willful, stupid, ugly—everything he said” (252). Much earlier in the novel, Bone adamantly tells Granny that she “an't no fool and an't no bastard” (144); but, as the years progress, Bone has a harder time rejecting the horrible names that are given to her. Early in the novel, Bone recounts an evening when she is five and her cousin Earle is just a little younger. This scene is worth recounting in full because it illustrates how even those who most love Bone give her names that fuel her violent self-hatred. On this particular evening, Little Earle is the center of attention. Bone recalls:

Granny covered her mouth with one hand to hide her teeth. “You ugly little boy,” she teased Little Earle, almost laughing between her words. “You ugly, ugly, ugly little thing.”

Earle paused, crowed like a hoot owl, and rocked back and forth as if his momentum were too strong for him to come to a full stop without falling over. Temple and Patsy Ruth shook their wet fingers at his fat little belly while Grey and Garvey smacked their lips and joined in with Granny.

“Ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly! You so ugly you almost pretty!”

Earle squealed and jumped and laughed full out. “Ug-ly,” he parroted them. “Uggg-lly!” His face was bright and smiling, and his hands flew up and down like bumblebees, fast and wild up near his ears.

“Ugly. Ugly. Ugly.”

“You are just the ugliest thing!”


With no authorial comment, Allison presents a scene of shattering domestic terror. The grandmother, obviously uncomfortable with her own looks (she covers her teeth with her hand), unwittingly passes down to her grandson her feelings of unattractiveness. And when the whole family joins in to chant “ugly, ugly, ugly, ugly,” this scene is even more terrifying. Little Earle, unaware of what this name means, delights in the attention. But the reader, at least by the end of the novel, understands that this mantra helps ensure that Earle, like his father and uncles before him, will resign himself to a dead-end life, highlighted by desperate brawls and prison sentences.

Bone also receives this nickname, this terrible family legacy. In the same scene, Bone, who is speaking of her grandmother, recalls:

I could smell wet snap beans, tobacco, lemon juice on her neck, a little sharp piss scent, and a little salt.

“Ugly,” I repeated, and buried my face in her dress, my smile so wide the warm cotton rubbed my teeth.

“Pretty ugly,” Granny whispered above me, her fingers sliding across the back of my head, untangling my hair and lifting it up off my neck. “Almost pretty. Oh, you're a Boatwright all right, a Boatwright for sure.”


Too young to discern the irony, both Little Earle and Bone smilingly accept the family's intense self-loathing. As they grow older, though, this self-loathing will turn into violence—against themselves and others.

The novel's middle chapters contain chilling examples of how names destroy the psyche. These episodes, which might seem extraneous to the casual reader, suggest what will happen to Bone if she ever fully accepts the names that others have given her. Shannon Pearl, Bone's “monstrous,” albino friend is also the victim of vicious name-calling (155). While Shannon's sentimental parents call her things like “precious angel” and “miracle child” (155), her classmates refer to her as a “Cootie train” and as “Lard Eyes” (154, 156). And one man, surprised by her strange appearance, tells her, “Child, you are the ugliest thing I have ever seen” (165). Bone, who is with her at the time, witnesses firsthand the destructive impact of the word ugly. She reports that “Shannon froze. Her mouth fell open, and her whole face seemed to cave in as I watched. Her eyes shrank to little dots, and her mouth became a cup of sorrow” (165). Shocked by the man's cruelty and by Shannon's reaction, Bone screams, “You bastard! … You goddam gutless son of a bitch! … You think you so pretty? You ugly sack of shit! You shit-faced turd-eating—” (165). Bone is stopped mid-sentence, but she has obviously mastered the nuances of name-calling. Bone proves that she, like Little Earle, can parrot the verbal violence so common in her family. While we appreciate the fact that she defends Shannon, her outburst suggests that she has learned too well the damage that language can inflict. Ironically, she even uses the very word which she tries to escape throughout the novel—bastard.

Still, Bone uses her rough language to defend Shannon more than she uses it to hurt the anonymous stranger. This is why it is so disturbing later on when Bone and Shannon use this type of language against each other. Angry because she has slipped and used the word “nigger” instead of the more “Christian” “colored,” Shannon tells Bone that everyone knows that her family is “a bunch of drunks and thieves and bastards” (170). Stung by this assault, Bone calls Shannon a “white-assed bitch” and chants, “Ugly … ugly … ugly” (170, 172). If this refrain seemed harmless early on, it hardly does now. Following in the footsteps of Daddy Glen, Bone deliberately uses language as a weapon. Bone is no longer just a victim; she has become a victimizer, and, for the first time, she is truly ugly. Eventually the names become too much to bear for Shannon. At a family picnic condescending adults call her “Precious” and a cousin tells her she is a “fat old thing” (199). Unable to live with these and the other horrible names she has been called, Shannon pours so much lighter fluid on the grill that she is consumed by fire. Her story is hardly extraneous; it illustrates that the names we give each other—often without thought—can have terrible consequences.

Another example of the terrible power of names is Bone's Aunt Alma. Alma goes “crazy” after she loses one of her babies. She wrecks her home, frightens the children, and threatens to cut her husband's throat with a razor. Later we find that Alma, like Shannon, is driven to her desperate act by the harsh language of a family member. Despondent over the loss of her child, Alma tells her husband that she wants another baby. Alma recounts her husband's response: “‘What you want an't what I want.’ He said, ‘You old and ugly and fat as a cow, crazy as a cow eaten too much weed, and you smell like a cow been lying in spoiled milk.’ Said, ‘I wouldn't touch you even if you took a bath in whiskey tonic and put a bag over your head’” (272). It is hardly a wonder that Alma goes “crazy.”

Subjected to language as brutal as any physical blow, Shannon and Alma both break under the stress. Bone, who is the victim of equally abusive language, in addition to her step-father's physical abuse, is also in danger of breaking. As a result, throughout the novel, but especially in the middle chapters, Bone spends a considerable amount of time imaginatively renaming herself. This task is a vital one because the names that others have given her (Ruth, Ann, Anne, Anna, Boatwright, Bitch, Cunt, Bone, Bonehead, Bastard, Ugly, Thinboned, Shiftless, Lazy, No-good) lead to desperation and death. Fortunately, Bone intuitively understands that to change one's name is to change one's story. Consequently, she begins to look for stories/names that will better serve her.

For example, after the severe beating she receives at the end of chapter eight, Bone looks to gospel music for comfort. Standing outside a revival meeting, she listens rapturously to a gospel choir: “The sweet gospel music poured through me in a piercing young boy's voice, and made all my nastiness, all my jealousy and hatred, swell in my heart” (135). Ultimately, though, this music fails to purge her of these emotions, and she realizes that gospel music—as well as the story of Christian redemption—is not a cure-all. Indeed, she recognizes that it is designed “to make you hate and love yourself at the same time,” to make you both “glorified” and “ashamed” (136). Of course, what Bone needs is less shame, not more, and while the music does make her feel “glorified,” that feeling does not translate into salvation or even real comfort. She comes “close to being saved about fourteen times” but never can go through with it (151). Bone explains, “The magic I knew was supposed to wash over me with Jesus' blood was absent, the moment cold and empty” (152). Eventually Bone's mother forces her to be baptized, but Bone reports, “Whatever magic Jesus' grace promised, I didn't feel it” (152). The only thing she does feel is the cold she comes down with afterwards. Like the gospel singers she admires (who are portrayed as amorous drunks), Bone loves the music. But, in the end, it amounts to little more than “a song of absolute hopeless grief” (203).

Bone finds more hope in the stories of her aunts and Granny. These stories, in which she is often the center of the narrative, reaffirm Bone's place and value in the family. Daddy Glen, who wants to portray Bone as a “bad girl” in his own lurid sexual fantasies, warns Bone not to listen to these family stories. Luckily, she ignores his warning and even creates her own. Early in the novel, when she moves to a new school, Bone lies about her name to avoid being pigeonholed as white trash. She boldly claims that she is “Roseanne Carter from Atlanta” (67). On another occasion, Bone tells her sister Reese a horror story about hitchhiking to dissuade her from “flagging down strangers” (75). But these stories are told early on, and most of Bone's tales are not this innocent; in fact, they reflect the increasing seriousness of her situation. In chapter eight, Bone has fantasies about being beaten by Daddy Glen. During the course of these daydreams, she tells us that she would “stare back at him with my teeth set, making no sound at all, no shameful scream, no begging. Those who watched admired me and hated him” (112).

These fantasies do allow Bone to mark up imaginary victories against her step-father, but they also lack the “magic” to liberate her. Instead of giving her the hope of a remade life, these fantasies—like gospel music—simply add to her shame. As she says:

I was ashamed of myself for the things I thought about when I put my hands between my legs, more ashamed for masturbating to the fantasy of being beaten than for being beaten in the first place. I lived in a world of shame. … I couldn't stop my step-father from beating me, but I was the one who masturbated. I did that, and how could I explain to anyone that I hated being beaten but still masturbated to the story I told myself about it?


These fantasies become even “more violent and more complicated” at the end of chapter twelve (112). While staying with her Aunt Raylene, Bone finds a trawling chain. She takes a hook from the chain and hides it under the house. One night, Bone tells us:

I snuck out to get the hook. I took it back to my room, pried the chain off, and cleaned and polished it. When it was shiny and smooth, I got in bed and put it between my legs, pulling it back and forth. It made me shiver and go hot at the same time. I had read in one of the paperbacks Daddy Glen hid in the garage about women who pushed stuff up inside them. I held the chain and thought about that, rubbed it against my skin and hummed to myself. I wasn't like the women in those books, but it felt good to hold that metal, to let those links slip back and forth until they were slippery. I used the lock I had found on the river bank to fasten the chain around my hips. It felt sun-warmed and tingly against my skin, as shiny as the sweat on Uncle Earle's freckled shoulders, as exciting as the burning light behind my eyes. It was mine. It was safe. Every link on that chain was magic in my hand.

I put my head back and smiled. The chain moved under the sheet. I was locked away and safe. What I really was could not be touched. What I really wanted was not yet imagined. Somewhere far away a child was screaming, but right then, it was not me.


To Bone's credit, she understands that she is not like the women in Glen's “dirty books.” More importantly, she sees that she has not yet imagined what she really wants. Nevertheless, these increasingly violent fantasies indicate that Daddy Glen has touched what she “really was.” Not only is Bone not safe, but she is in danger of accepting the role which Daddy Glen has assigned to her—that of porno-vixen.

Beginning in chapter nine, Bone's stories not only reflect her sexual confusion but her hatred as well. As Aunt Alma observes, “Bone's gotten almost mean-hearted. … Something's got to be done” (119). Bone's mean-heartedness is demonstrated by the fact that she begins to tell her cousins stories which “featured bloodsuckers who consumed only the freshly butchered bodies of newborn babies” and “green-faced dwarfs promising untold riches to children who would bring them the hearts of four and forty grown men” (119). Understandably consumed with hate, Bone finds herself less and less able to fashion the horror of her life into something more positive. Thus, her stories are now “full of boys and girls gruesomely raped and murdered, babies cooked in pots of boiling beans, vampires and soldiers and long razor-sharp knives” (119). No longer do her stories provide her with an alternate, positive identity (Roseanne Carter) or convey important instructions (keeping Reese from hitchhiking). Rather, they reflect the agony of life with Daddy Glen and Bone's limited ability to deal with the physical and verbal violence.

Bone's stories bear an uncanny resemblance to the stories that Shannon Pearl creates before her death. Shannon's stories also feature “decapitations, mutilations, murder, and mayhem” (157). Unlike Shannon, though, Bone can still imagine alternate identities; but she is no longer interested in nice Roseanne Carter from Atlanta. Now, Bone more and more frequently imagines herself as an outlaw. Discarding their usual games, Bone convinces her sister Reese that they should play “mean sisters” (212). They not only play Dalton Girls, but they also play the mean sisters of Johnny Yuma, Francis Marion, Bat Masterson, Jim Bowie, and Broderick Crawford (212–213). While we admire the fact that Bone is no longer content to play the role of a boy, Roseanne Carter was no one's sister, and, most importantly, was not an “outlaw.”

This is significant because, for Allison, stories, like names, have consequences. Immediately after playing mean sisters, Bone actually becomes an outlaw. Along with her cousin Grey, she plans and executes a break-in at the local Woolworth to strike back at the manager who has unfairly banned her from the store. Taken out of context, this episode has little import. In actuality, though, it reminds the reader that the stories we tell do have a tangible effect on our lives. Allison is not suggesting that telling or reading stories about outlaws will turn someone into a criminal. But Bone's case does suggest that imagining oneself as an outlaw or as ugly is a self-destructive act. Bone correctly seeks to recreate herself, but she must avoid adopting identities that are as limited and unhealthy as the ones that have been forced upon her.

What Bone is looking for cannot be found in her reading either, although her reading list is extensive. It includes Black Beauty,Robinson Crusoe,Tom Sawyer,The Secret Garden,Little Women,The Bobsey Twins,A Christmas Carol, Zane Grey novels, and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. These novels, with their easily overcome obstacles and Disney endings, offer little more than an unattainable vision of domestic bliss or the hope of escape. And when she reads Gone with the Wind, Bone realizes that these romances marginalize her and her kind. She says:

A sharp flash went through me. Emma Slattery, I thought. That's who I'd be, that's who we were. Not Scarlett with her baking-powder cheeks. I was part of the trash down in the mud-stained cabins, fighting with the darkies and stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame and death.


Bone wants “to be more like the girls in storybooks, princesses with pale skin and tender hearts” (206), but she realizes that she could never be “that worshipful, dreamy-eyed storybook girlchild” (208). As a result, Bone also reads more adult novels, including The Naked and the Dead,Marjorie Morningstar, and The Group. But even these more serious and realistic works fail to address her unique situation.

As we have seen, Bone spends chapters nine through sixteen “looking for something special,” “something magical,” stories which can transform her and her world (207). Yet she does not find that magic in gospel music, in the mean-hearted tales she shares with Shannon Pearl, in her violent sexual fantasies, or even in her reading. It is Bone's Aunt Raylene who finally offers her that elusive magic. There is much to admire about the fiercely independent Raylene. When she was young, she called herself Ray (another example of renaming) and worked at a carnival. There, as the story goes, she “cut” a man who tried to take advantage of her. In addition to be being strong and independent, Raylene is also caring and nurturing, and during her stay with Raylene, Bone decides never to live again in the same house with Daddy Glen (274). While Raylene cannot protect Bone from Glen's final and most brutal assault, Bone has developed enough confidence during her stay with Raylene to defend herself physically and verbally. Not quite thirteen years old, Bone is still no match for her stepfather. Raylene, however, is there to pick up the pieces and becomes Bone's surrogate mother when Anney runs off with Glen.

Raylene's greatest contribution to Bone, though, is that she teaches her how to create a different kind of story, one based on something more than hate. In a scene that occurs before Glen rapes Bone, Bone sees a bus from Bushy Creek Baptist Church “with flat-faced children pressed against the windows staring at me hatefully” (262). In response, Bone “glared back at them.” “Anger,” she explains, “was like a steady drip of poison into my soul, teaching me to hate the ones that hated me” (262). Raylene tells her, “You don't know who those children are. Maybe they're nasty and silly and hateful. Maybe not” (262). Raylene continues, “You're making up stories about those people. Make up a story where you have to live in their house, be one of their family, and pass by this road. Look at it from the other side for a while. Maybe you won't be glaring at people so much” (262). The novel ends before Bone can fully integrate this information. She does create one final story, but it fails to see things from the other side. And if it doesn't glare, then neither is it realistic:

I closed my eyes and tried to make up a story for myself. I pretended we were back in that house over in West Greenville that Mama had loved so, pretended that Daddy Glen had joined the Pentecostal Church and gotten a cross-country trucking job that would pay him lots of money but keep him away from home. I imagined Mama getting a job where she could sit down all she wanted, where the money was good and she never got any burns or had to pull back her hair back so tight off her face that she got headaches. Maybe she could be a teacher? Or one of those women behind the makeup counter at the Jordan Marsh? I bit my lips and let it all play out under my eyelids—Reese in a new dress for Easter, me with all the books I wanted to read, Mama sitting in the sun with her feet up, Daddy Glen far way and coming home only often enough to make Mama smile. I fell asleep there dreaming, loving the dream.


This happy ending that Bone imagines is as unlikely as the endings of The Secret Garden and Tom Sawyer, and this dream is quickly erased when Glen rapes Bone and Anney chooses Glen over her battered child.12 As the novel closes, Bone, still suffering from her injuries, is little more than “a whisper in the dark saying no and hoping to die” (303). She believes that “the world was full of Daddy Glens” and, understandably, does not “want to be in the world anymore” (296). Like her friend Shannon Pearl, Bone longs to “disappear from this world” (201).

Before Anney leaves, she gives her daughter a new birth certificate, one that is not marked illegitimate across the bottom. Bone, then, is no longer a bastard; she has finally escaped the state-given name which identified her as “no-good, lazy, shiftless” (3). Considering what has just happened to her, though, this is little consolation. What is interesting about the certificate is that the “bottom third” of it is “blank, unmarked, unstamped” (309). This description indicates that Bone herself will be responsible for filling out the blank spaces of her own identity.

And the evidence suggests that Bone does just that. After the rape, she describes herself as “older, meaner, rawboned, crazy, and hateful.” She says, “I was full of hate. … I was who I was going to be, and she was a terrible person” (301). Although the novel ends on this bleak note, it is clear that at some point Bone recovers. She is “not even thirteen years old” at the end of the novel, but she is at least seventeen when she tells a story called Bastard Out of Carolina (282).13 In the years following the end of the novel, she transforms herself from a Boatwright to a storywright, from the victim of a story into the author of one (282). In effect, then, she renames herself by writing a story that forces the reader to reevaluate names such as “bastard,” “poor white trash,” and “ugly.”

But if Bone has finally succeeded in changing her name, she has also changed her story. The story Bone tells shows that she has rejected idyllic childhood romances as well as stories of senseless violence and sexual exploitation. Most important, Bastard Out of Carolina, unlike the other stories that Bone creates, is a tale that does not “glare” at anyone—not even Daddy Glen or Anney. Roiphe argues that “at its worst, incest fiction has the lifeless feel of a feminist textbook” in which “the characters tend to be separated in crude shorthand: father, evil; daughter, innocent” (69–70, 70). Bastard eschews such simplistic formulations. While Bone is clearly a victim, she is far from innocent—not (as Daddy Glen might imagine) because she deserves or encourages her step-father's assaults but because Allison dares to make Bone responsible for the stories she tells about herself and others. To put it another way, Bone can only reject the legacy of hate which she receives from her family and Daddy Glen through what Thomas Docherty describes as an “encounter with alterity” (206). This encounter, Docherty claims, “is constitutive of a stronger—philosophical—version of love” (207). The evidence of this love is the kind of story Bone tells us, the way she imagines those who betrayed her. And it is only when Ruth Anne looks at her story from the “other side” that she is able to clear the bone of hatred from her throat and sing a gospel, not of hopeless, but of hopeful grief.

In “Feminism and the Politics of Postmodernism,” Linda Nicholson asks, “What is a postmodern approach to language that avoids the essentialist arrogance of much modernist, and some feminist, discourse but that also does not reduce feminism to silences or to a purely negative stance?” (80). “The answer,” she says, “is a discourse that recognizes itself as historically situated, as motivated by values and, thus, political interests, and as a human practice without transcendent justification” (80–81). Allison meets these criteria. Her feminist politics is evident in that she focuses on women who have been marginalized by totalizing forces and ideas. At the same time, she reminds the reader—through the wide range of women that she portrays, as well as their culpability in Bone's predicament—that we are as complex and various as the stories we tell. Finally, thanks largely to the novel's disruptive but essential middle chapters, Allison insists that we are all burdened with the responsibility of fashioning our own stories. While these stories will never offer the solace of transcendent justification, this constant negotiation between the word and the world avoids silence on the one hand and the purely negative on the other. And, if these stories are fashioned well, they will prevent us from passing on the debilitating glares we receive from others.


  1. Chapters nine through sixteen account for 115 of the novel's 309 pages.

  2. The short story is “Gospel Song.” Although Allison has made some changes, the story appears more or less intact in Bastard. Many of the stories in Trash, including “River of Names,” “The Meanest Woman Ever Left Tennessee,” “Mama,” and “Don't Tell Me You Don't Know,” feature characters and events which reappear in Bastard.

  3. Interestingly, Allison herself has been critical of the novel's middle chapters, even describing them as “soft.” But Allison's desire to write a “directed narrative”—the story of Bone's abuse—is at odds with her insistence that the book isn't about incest (Graff 46). See Allison's interview with Amber Hollibaugh (16) and her essay “Shotgun Strategies” (Skin 53–54).

  4. Thus, Allison avoids defining Bone as just a helpless victim. Allison is particularly adamant about avoiding such cliches. She complains, “Traditional feminist theory has had a limited understanding of class differences and of how sexuality and self are shaped by both desire and denial. … The difficulty is that I can't ascribe everything that has been problematic about my life simply and easily to the patriarchy, or to incest, or even to the invisible and much-denied class structure of our society” (Skin 15–16).

  5. Similar views of postmodern subjectivity can be found in Docherty's Alterities (41–68) and Norman Holland's “Postmodern Psychoanalysis.” Although Docherty's approaches identity from an ethical perspective and Holland's approach is psychoanalytical, both replace the unitary Enlightenment self with one which is both historically situated and defined by its relations or transactions with others.

  6. In “Social Criticism without Philosophy,” Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson underscore the limitations of both postmodernism and feminism: “Postmodernists offer sophisticated and persuasive criticisms of foundationalism and essentialism, but their conceptions of social criticism tend to be anemic. Feminists offer robust conceptions of social criticism, but they tend at times to lapse into foundationalism and essentialism. Thus, each of the two perspectives suggests some important criticisms of the other. A postmodernist reflection on feminist theory reveals disabling vestiges of essentialism while a feminist reflection on postmodernism reveals androcentrism and political naivete” (20). According to Fraser and Nicholson, “the ultimate stake of an encounter between feminism and postmodernism is the prospect of a perspective which integrates their respective strengths while eliminating their respective weaknesses. It is the prospect of a postmodernist feminism” (20). As I will argue, chapters nine to sixteen allow Allison to make this prospect a reality.

  7. Allison's feminist project in Bastard bears some resemblance to the “fourfold task” that Jane Flax describes. Feminist critics, Flax argues, “need (1) to articulate feminist viewpoints of and within the social worlds in which we live, (2) to think about how we are affected by these worlds, (3) to think about how our thinking about them may itself be implicated in existing power/knowledge relationships, and (4) to think also about the ways in which these worlds ought and can be transformed” (182).

  8. Nicholson writes in “Feminism and the Politics of Postmodernism” that “postmodernism can be characterized by the rejection of epistemic arrogance for an endorsement of epistemic humility. Such humility entails a recognition that our ways of viewing the world are mediated by the contents out of which we operate. This means that not only are our specific beliefs and emotions about the world a product of our historical circumstances but so are the means by which we come to those beliefs and emotions and by which we resolve conflict when dissent is present. This does not entail the position that there are no solutions to epistemic dilemmas, merely that there are no final ones” (84–85).

  9. For a brief discussion of the origins of the long—standing antipathy between Marxism and postmodernism, see Best and Kellner's The Postmodernist Turn (4–11).

  10. In Fiction in the Quantum Universe (1992), Strehle contends that the works of authors such as Pynchon, Coover, and Atwood “while patently not realistic, nonetheless seem impelled to explore, celebrate, criticize, and engage the outer world” (4). Linda Hutcheon and Alan Wilde are even less reluctant to argue that postmodern texts are politically relevant. Hutcheon claims in A Poetics of Postmodernism (1988) that historiographic metafictions, such as Rushdie's Midnight's Children or E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, are “inescapably political” (4). And Wilde makes the case in Middle Grounds (1987) that the neo-realistic short fictions of Grace Paley (among others) are both postmodern and, at their core, ethical. Maltby's Dissident Postmodernists (1991) focuses on writers such as Barthelme and Coover who “explore the political and ideological implications of the fictionality of meaning” (39). For other discussions of oppositional postmodernisms, see Wilde's Horizons of Assent (1981); Hutcheon's The Politics of Postmodernism (1989), Thomas Docherty's Alterities (1996), and Teresa Ebert's Ludic Feminism and After (1996).

  11. Although it will become clear that Bastard is, at least partly, an examination of the dangers and uses of language, the style of the novel suggests that it is an example of realism rather than postmodernism. Alan Wilde's notion of midfiction suggests how Allison bridges these designations. Midfiction, he says, “rejects equally the oppositional extremes of realism on the one hand and a world-denying reflexivity on the other, and … invites us instead to perceive the moral, as well as the epistemological, perplexities of inhabiting and coming to terms with a world that is itself ontologically contingent and problematic” (Middle Grounds 4). In other words, “whereas realism illustrates, somewhat meagerly, the arts of coping and survival, midfiction responds, with a greater sense of risk, by acts of redefinition and creation, by an imaginative reinterpretation of the place human beings hold, or may hold, in the world” (108).

  12. This fantasy is more realistic, however, than the one she creates after Glen breaks her clavicle in chapter eight. She imagines him distraught and begging for forgiveness. Taking her script from sentimental novels, she forgives him and promptly dies (116).

  13. On the second page of the novel, Bone, discussing the car accident which preceded her birth, says, “My Aunt Alma insists to this day that what happened was in no way Uncle Travis's fault, but I know that the first time I ever saw Uncle Travis sober was when I was seventeen and they had just removed half his stomach along with his liver” (2).

Works Cited

Allison, Dorothy. Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Plume, 1992.

———. “Dorothy Allison: Novelist Out of Carolina.” Interview with J. Graff. Poets and Writers Magazine Jan-Feb. 1995: 40–49.

———. Skin. New York: Firebrand Books, 1994.

———. “Telling a Mean Story.” Interview with Amber Hollibaugh. The Women's Review of Books July 1992: 16–17.

———. Trash: Stories by Dorothy Allison. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1988.

Best, Steven, and Douglas Kellner. The Postmodern Turn. New York: Guilford Press, 1997.

Docherty, Thomas. Alterities: Criticism, History, Representation. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1996.

Ebert, Teresa. Ludic Feminism and After: Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996.

Flax, Jane. Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West. U of California P, 1990.

Fraser, Nancy, and Linda Nicholson. “Social Criticism without Philosophy.” Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990. 19–38.

Hawthorne, Mary. “Born of Ignorance.” Rev. of Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Times Literary Supplement 14 Aug. 1992: 18.

Herman, David. “Modernism versus Postmodernism: Towards an Analytic Distinction.” A Postmodern Reader. Eds. Joseph Natoli and Linda Hutcheon. Albany: State U of New York P, 1993. 157–192.

Holland, Norman. “Postmodern Psychoanalysis.” Innovation/Renovation: New Perspectives on the Humanities. Eds. Ihab Hassan and Sally Hassan. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1983. 291–309.

Hutcheon, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1988.

———. The Politics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Maltby, Paul. Dissident Postmodernists: Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1991.

Nicholson, Linda. “Feminism and the Politics of Postmodernism.” Feminism and Postmodernism. Eds. Margaret Ferguson and Jennifer Wicke. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 69–85.

Roiphe, Katie. “Making the Incest Scene.” Harper's Nov. 1995: 65–71.

Strehle, Susan. Fiction in the Quantum Universe. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1992.

Wilde, Alan. Horizons of Assent: Modernism, Postmodernism, and the Ironic Imagination. 1981. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1987.

———. Middle Grounds: Studies in Contemporary American Fiction. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1987.


Principal Works


Further Reading