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Allison, Dorothy E. (b. 1949)  

Dorothy Allison refuses to write didactic or romantic illustrations of the lesbian experience, focusing instead on the sheer survival of her lesbian characters in the hostile environment of Southern working-class families.

Allison was born in 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina, the setting for her first collection of short stories, Trash (1988), and her highly acclaimed novel, Bastard Out of Carolina (1992). She was graduated from Florida Presbyterian College in 1971 and subsequently earned her M.A. in anthropology at the New School for Social Research.

The Women Who Hate Me, a volume of poetry, appeared in 1983; it was expanded and reissued in 1991. Trash won two Lambda Literary Awards, for Best Small Press Book, and Best Lesbian Book, in 1989. Bastard Out of Carolina was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992.

In the preface to Trash, Allison describes her stories as a "shout of life against death, of shape and substance against silence and confusion. Writing . . . is the only way I know to make sure of my ongoing decision to live, to set moment to moment a small piece of stubbornness against an ocean of ignorance and obliteration." Indeed, the voice in Allison's fiction, the palpable expression of this motive, is its strongest feature.

The stories in Trash, variously focused on the disasters of family, on religion, poverty, physical violence, and sexuality, achieve their unity through the first-person voice and the "sheer avidity," as Roz Kaveney has observed, with which it recalls "even the most terrible experiences."

The voice in Bastard Out of Carolina is that of its adolescent narrator, Ruth Anne Boatwright, called Bone, whose earliest record is drawn from Allison's life. (Had the novel been wholly autobiographical, Allison noted in The New York Times, "it would have been a lot meaner.") Bone observes with wit and painful clarity the life of her working-class Southern family: hard-drinking uncles, feisty aunts, a mother who disappears into her own exhaustion, and, terrifyingly, a stepfather who abuses the child to punish her "for the fact of my life, who I was in his eyes and mine."

The intricacies of family love, at once supportive and treacherous, emerge from Bone's perspective as concretely as hunger. At the novel's mysterious conclusion, Bone herself emerges as a force of will, who lives, finally, by acknowledging the truth her story teaches: that "we do terrible things to the ones we love sometimes."

Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison maintains, "is not about growing up queer successfully." Here, and elsewhere, she has resisted pressure to write either the didactic illustration of lesbian experience, or what she calls the "romantic solution" story. "I don't believe that story," she tells Amber Hollibaugh, "so I can't write it and it seems to me to be a very small thing to do with a book."

Allison takes as her "purpose in life" to "write books in which lesbians live." Against the context her fiction creates, that verb takes on the resonance of triumph. As such, Allison's fiction forges a subtle politics of identity, expressed as forcefully in her writing as in the "damn sure truth" of her life: "If I wasn't queer," she says, "I wouldn't be a writer. I would probably be dead."

Ann E. Imbrie


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Dorothy Allison at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival in New York City. Photograph by David Shankbone.
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Brady, Anne Vaccaro. "Interview." "Raising Sons: We know our dreams for our daughters. What about our sons?" Ms Magazine (November-December, 1993): 149.

Drabelle, Dennis. "No Friends of Dorothy." The Advocate (March 9, 1993): 66-67.

Garrett, George. "'No Wonder People Got Crazy as They Grew Up." New York Times Book Review (July 5, 1992): 3.

Hawthorne, Mary. "Born of ignorance." Times Literary Supplement (August 14, 1992): 18.

Hollibaugh, Amber. "In the house of childhood." Women's Review of Books 9.10-11 (July 1992): 15.

_____. "Telling a mean story: Amber Hollibaugh interviews Dorothy Allison." Women's Review of Books 9.10-11 (July 1992): 16-17.

Kaveney, Roz. "Subcultural strengths." Times Literary Supplement (March 8, 1991): 18.


    Citation Information
    Author: Imbrie, Ann E.  
    Entry Title: Allison, Dorothy E.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated February 23, 2011  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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