Dorothy Allison

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How does Dorothy Allison use humor to discuss her sexual identity and prejudice?

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Dorothy Allison uses humor as a way of shielding the reader and herself from the full horror of her experiences.

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When discussing the use of humor in Dorothy Allison's work, we ought to consider her famous short story "River of Names," which appeared in her first short story collection, Trash. The autobiographical story offers a kaleidoscopic view of the violence faced by her family members as well as by Allison herself. Throughout the piece, we move back and forth between the narrator's childhood and her present life with her partner, Jesse, and the horrors of the narrator's past are juxtaposed against Jesse's comparatively idyllic upbringing.

At the end of the story, Jesse tells the narrator, "You tell the funniest stories." Either Jesse has a pretty perverse sense of humor or she has not been told the same stories that we, the readers, have been told throughout the piece. It is clear that the narrator engages in quite a bit of editing when presenting her stories to Jesse. The narrator even alludes to the way she adds a certain performative flair to her storytelling: "I tell the stories and it comes out funny. I drink bourbon and make myself drawl, tell all those funny stories." Perhaps her stories cannot help but seem exaggerated to someone from a different background. One could look at Jesse as a reader surrogate, someone from a much more comfortable, stable background than the narrator whom she wants to understand her but whom she also knows never entirely will.

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Dorothy Allison uses humour to represent and discuss her experiences with sexual identity and prejudice in many of her published works. She has described her use of humor in several interviews: “I’m always doing these panels or doing a talk or go to a program, and people will come up to me after and say, ‘you’re so funny. I didn’t know you were funny. I thought you’d be tragic.’ I’ve had enough tragic, girl. I actually do believe that humor is one of the life-saving approaches that particularly Southern working class people use, so here I am honey. Get used to it.”

Allison’s humor is often self-deprecating and masks the prejudice experienced by herself and her family. She’s written about being “trash”—“I was born trash in a land where the people all believe themselves natural aristocrats”— working class, and most notably a “bastard” in her semi-autobiographical novel Bastard Out of Carolina. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure describes some of her most horrific moments, such as a rape by her own uncle, and yet it is still littered with brutal honesty and humor: “I reminded myself that there were just some things we never had talked about before, like sex, money, and broken bones. Certainly we had never discussed love. Sex was dangerous enough, and our family was proof that love was a disaster waiting to happen.”

In terms of her sexuality, Allison, who identifies as a lesbian femme, sardonically acknowledges the fact that she will likely make others uncomfortable: “If I show up at a literary gathering, they tend to be uncomfortable with the fact that I’m a lesbian. . . . I really love talking about working class literature, which is one of the main ways I think about myself as a writer, but a lot of times working class literature focus doesn’t want to talk about region or sexuality, so pretty much wherever they invite me I bring the parts they’re most uncomfortable with.” She uses humorous stereotyping when recounting sexual experiences in Two or Three Things I Know for Sure: “She blushed. I love it when women blush, especially those big butch girls who know you want them. And I wanted her. I did. I wanted her. But she was a difficult woman, wouldn’t let me give her a back-rub, read her palm, or sew up the tear in her jeans—all those ritual techniques Southern femmes have employed in the seduction of innocent butch girls.”

Dorothy Allison uses self-deprecating humor and searing honesty to represent (and mask) her experiences of sexual identity and prejudice in several works.

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