Smart, Sassy, and Southern
Talking about writing and the South with one of its premiere voices, author Dorothy Allison.
By Adrienne Martini
JUNE 1, 1999: Writer Dorothy Allison is many things, but not one of those could be described as boring. Nor could any of her roles be described as inherently inferior. Her Bastard Out Of Carolina, an unflinching look at growing up poor and Southern, was a National Book Award finalist and was recently adapted into a feature film by Anjelica Huston. A collection of her essays called Skin: Talking About Sex, Class, and Literature, won the Lambda Literary Award.
On top of this, she's a teacher and a mother and a lesbian and an incest-survivor and a Southerner and an activist. Allison continually speaks her mind in order to effect change in this country, a better living situation for women, for gays and lesbians, for children. And it is her voice, stridently honest, with a belly laugh that is always just about to bubble up, that has made her the exciting, intelligent woman that she is.
Allison recently came to Knoxville to read from her latest book Cavedweller, a rock 'n' roll novel about the undefeatableness of even a wounded human spirit. She had been through town most recently for the Children's Defense Fund fund-raiser out in Clinton, Tenn., and was just now getting the chance to absorb some of Knoxville's charm before her next stop in North Carolina. Over a breakfast of grits, biscuits, and black coffee, she also had the chance to ponder just what it means to be labeled a Southern, female writer.
Allison's approach to life was partly influenced by her coming-of-age deep in the heart of the second wave of feminism, as well as the influential women who helped the liberation movement's birth.
"I remember going to Vermont in 1975 to a feminist institute and meeting Bertha Harris and Charlotte Bunch and all these activistsyou know, Socialist Communist Feminists: big, loud, strong women! And I was very, very shy, living in the feminist collective. I remember being in this room with these incredibly outrageous women, and at one point everyone was making so much noise that Charlotte Bunch said 'We need to speak. We have to make them be quiet.' And I stood up and this enormous voice came out. 'Shut up, sit down! She's got something to say!' And I didn't talk like that again for a decade.
"I was a poor, Southern-trash girl! I was a Baptist; it took me a long time to get loud and mean. I had to work it."
Allison firmly contends that her upbringing in Greenville, S.C. has shaped everything she has doneand that our own roots play just as much part in our own lives, regardless of where those roots may have started.
"People don't want to think that, but I absolutely believe it," she says. "The Pope said 'Give me a child 'til he's 8, and he'll be a Catholic.' That child may leave the church but he knows he's going to hell.
"You give me a kid in the South until they're 8, and you will have the person they are going to be. They may rebel against itGod knows I have, I haven't been to a Baptist church in many, many yearsbut rebellion is shaped by the way you see yourself and what you've been made, or what you resist of being made. It's amazing to me how many white trash kids I know who do get out, who go to college, who get a good job, and then at some point get sort of homesick for where they came from. And so they start listening to country music again. And cookin' fried potatoes!" she says with a hearty guffaw.
But Allison remains unclear on exactly what it is that makes a prototypical Southern writer. Is it an emphasis on family? On storytelling?
"I don't know, I don't know." She shakes her head and gives another sideways grin, which have been ever-present throughout the conversation, and flips her long, red hair out of her face. "I've run into a lot of Yankee writers who are very large on the family. I think the problem is that if you get more than one book published and you're a Southern writer and if you were even a finalist for any kind of a national award, you have to meet the myths of the South. You have to.
"The next thing you know you meet all these people who say, 'Oh, of course you're a writer! All you people sit around on the porch telling each other stories.' And, I'm like, 'No...that's not where it comes from.' And then but sometimes you just get tired and say, 'Oh yeah, all my stories are stories that my grandmama told me.' Maybe that is true for some, but it's rarely really true.
"Because that myth is so enormous and because also it veils that same old thing, that contempt that a lot of non-Southerners have for Southerners, and in fact the contempt that a lot of Southerners have for themselves. So maybe a Southern writer, in fact, is the kind of person who constantly has to argue with the rest of the country's definition of the South, because they're ignorant.
"What I think of in the South particularly is when I was growing up realizing that in fact the Civil War was not over, and that the entire South is still in the middle of a depression. In 1956, '58, when I first was going to school, it was really clear to me that we had shitty schools! It was really clear to me that there were no jobs, that we were a horrifically depressed economy. It took the rest of the country another decade to begin to acknowledge it."
Perhaps the most striking thing about Allison's work is its overwhelming hopedespite the fact the most of her characters find themselves in soul-killing situations. And, perhaps, that is what sums up what it means to write from a Southern upbringing, to hope in spite of the circumstances and to ultimately rise above them.
"It's hard sometimes for people to see it," she says, "but Bastard Out Of Carolina has hope. It also has a lot about growing up in the South and having a certain idea that sheer worth of life and joy is possiblemeanwhile, terrible things happen all the time, and people stand up under them."
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