I first learned about author Dorothy Allison in Portland. It was a combination of fortuitous reading and word of mouth. My dear friend Mary happens to be a champion for Ms. Allison, and was once lucky enough to interview her for a female writer series she runs at PDXX Collective. At the same time Mary shared with me the joy of speaking with one of her literary idols, I read one of Ms. Allison’s essays on the craft of writing, “Place,” which was featured in Tin House’s wonderful collection The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House.
Only recently did I take the time to read one of Dorothy Allison’s novels, her fantastic debut Bastard out of Carolina. When I saw it sitting with a stack of books on a stoop in Park Slope, I knew it was time to read one of Allison’s longer works. The semi-autobiographical story follows young Ruth Anne, or “Bone,” born into a loving and charismatic but ultimately poverty-stricken family in South Carolina. Bone recounts the many travails of her mother’s family, from her wild brothers’ constant drunkenness and brushes with the law, to the death of one of her sisters. Interwoven into her anecdotes about growing up in a small town, Bone shares the tragic relationship forced on her by her stepfather. The images of abuse, both sexual and physical, have the same raw honesty that makes Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings unforgettable. These are not stories we want to tell, but they are stories that need to be told.
My favorite aspect of Bastard out of Carolina, and something I suspect is dominant in all of Allison’s work (she is a self-proclaimed queer feminist), is her focus on womanhood. Women are the heart of the story, from young Bone and her sister to Bone’s mother and her sisters. Men play their roles, but this is a book about women’s struggles. It’s about women struggling with motherhood, poverty, and growing up. It’s about strong women who face seemingly insurmountable challenges, from cheating husbands to scraping together enough money working at the diner to feed their children. Throughout it all, Bone watches her mother and sisters stand together in the face of adversity. I dog-earred numerous passages from the book, from the feisty (“‘A man has needs’…’So what you suppose a woman has?'”) to the more ominous (“Women all over Greenville County were going to smash stuff and then sit down to wait for Armageddon or sunrise or something. It sounded like a good idea to me.”). Throughout the story, as Bone grows up and comes into her own strength, she pushes against the forces in her life that try to push her down, much as I imagine Dorothy Allison did within her own life.
I am a sucker for regionalist writers, those authors who focus the breadth of their work on a place. In the same way you can’t mention Alice Munro without thinking about the Canadian wilderness, Allison is forever connected with her homeland through the stories she tells. Her writing evokes the gritty world of the poor Southern communities of her childhood–from the revival tents to the kitchens full of homemade pies and pickled vegetables. In her essay “Place,” she says that “place is people with desire.” I think there is no finer example of an author who understands how to write about place through its people. The world of South Carolina that Allison paints is inhabited by people who desire many things–from booze to love to the lord. Perhaps most of all, her people desire survival. They seem to have that in common with their creator, a survivor herself.