Not the Girl Next Door:
An Encounter with Novelist Dorothy Allison
by Laura McCandlish
Last week, best-selling author Dorothy Allison graced Davidson with her presence. When I reflect upon her visit, what first comes to mind is Allison's confrontational honesty. During an informal lunch discussion that I attended last Wednesday, she abrasively asked for a show-of-hands of those Davidson students on scholarship. Instant discomfort colored the gathered faces, perhaps because we are embarrassed by our student body's level of affluence, or due to the fact that students view honors such as merit scholarships to be personal business. Regardless, Allison raised in our consciousness Davidson's need to recruit more socio-economic diversity. She couldn't help but openly express this perspective, recounting to our group that she was the first in her family to graduate high school and go on to college, and she went on a full-ride scholarship school she had applied to in Florida simply because she couldn't afford a winter coat.
In her reading last Tuesday night, her discussion on "The Way Out of No Way: Southern Working Class Writing" last Wednesday evening, and through conversations with students and faculty over meals, Allison remained upfront and personal. She spoke descriptively of her lesbianism, feminism, childhood experiences of incest and masturbation, and what she called growing up in a "white trash" Baptist family in South Carolina. These concerns also appear thematically in her writing. She demonstrates no fear of offending her audience, yet somehow her sincerity found a way to my heart. With a group at dinner, she discussed the demands of the writer's life and rasing a seven-year old son. As I often speak before thinking, of course I found it necessary to ask a woman whose stepfather repeatedly raped her as a young child, "Did you carry the child yourself?" to which she directly replied, "No, I'm sterile." I wanted to hide under the table for asking such an inappropriate question to the distinguished woman, but Allison put me at ease. She confronts all questions candidly and then quickly moves on. She has too much to say to dwell on any one issue.
In her reading, Allison admitted, "I write perfectly terrifying, mean stories that are charming and funny." Her unconscious sense of humor allows her to tell stories that make people uncomfortable. Allison first read a selection from her novel that draws largely on autobiographical experience, Bastard Out of Carolina. When she reached the lines in which her young protagonist, Bone, speaks of her rapist stepfather, Allison's voice rose to a raging volume, as if her words gushed from an open-wound. The audience sat in the palm of her hand, first captured through her contagious smile, unabashed laugh, and eyes of experience that peered out from behind her bi-focaled glasses. Allison followed by reading an excerpt from her new book, Cavedweller, with equal intensity. She defended her writing to the audience, saying, "So I don't write about sweetness in life. It's hard to write of sweetness in life when we live in America." She also emphasized her honesty, chuckling, "I will tell you anything, which is one reason I'm told I will burn in hell."
Allison has been perceived as somewhat of a firebrand, but her captivating spunk and genuine passion kept her audience entertained and engaged in her presence. In her lecture on southern working class writing or "Grit Lit," Allison spoke of class divisions in Southern Literature, openly admitting her personal bias toward the lower class. While some of the most admired Southern writers were and are wealthy, Allison said, "I remember being startled as hell when I realized that people with money can write." However, she never meant to imply that only working class people could write. Middle-class writers have complained to Allison that that they have no ready-made material to write about, yet she replied, "I have never met a middle-class woman that wasn't suffering the daily outrage necessary to write." Allison also agreed with me after her lecture, that regardless of economic status, a writer always has societal expectations they must renounce in order to pursue their craft. She developed the notion of storytelling as a life-saving strategy, where "you can see yourself in a way you're never thought to be."
I asked Allison why she chose to write realistic fiction versus memoir. She responded that real life doesn't always make sense, while fiction can be believable. Bastard Out of Carolina presents the fiction of a girl raped by her stepfather from whom her mother does not protect, while tje evemts may not have occured they mirror Allison's life. She added that memoirs preach "chasing people away while stories are glorious lies that work their way around the truth." Yet drawing on her Baptist upbringing, Allison's lectures retained a preacher's zeal. Her coarse zeal may have insulted some, but both evening programs closed with an influx of questions and a line of people waiting to have her sign their books.
So is Dorothy Allison merely a gushing firebrand or does she write intelligent, heart-wrenching, genuine literature? I'll vote in agreement with many critics for the latter option, read and you decide. In addition to Bastard Out of Carolina and Cavedweller, she has written Trash, a collection of short stories; The Women Who Hate Me, a volume of poetry; Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature; and Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. Rumor has it that she has been offered the McGee Creative Writing Position for Spring '01, so there's the chance she might be back to Davidson for extended time in the future. Also, thanks to the Women's Issues Committee, BGLAD, and the Literary Arts Committee for making our encounter with Allison possible.