“I don’t believe in being safe or right,” Dorothy Allison says to a group of men and women gathered around a writing workshop table. She pushes up her sleeves and rakes her fingers through her long hair, which is streaked with gray. Her voice thickens with gravitas as the dozen or so of us, who range in age from eighteen to almost eighty, look to her for guidance. If there were a tablecloth, she would whip it out from under all our dishes. She is as subversive in her sixties as she was in her thirties, when she co-founded the Lesbian Sex Mafia. If anything, age and motherhood made her more indomitable. “Write something inappropriate, however you define the term,” she prompts. “I give you absolute license,” she says, after a pause.
As we put pens to page, I wonder how the boundaries of appropriate and inappropriate subjects have changed since Allison published Bastard Out of Carolina in 1992, a book that is still banned from many classrooms and libraries for its depiction of sexual abuse. Such “absolute license” as she offers us was not extended to her, who grew up poor and female in the 1950s, and it is not often offered to those around this table who have left behind working-class families to pursue their educations. It is why, in part, I invited this radical to our Tennessee campus.
Born in 1949, in Greenville, South Carolina, Allison was the illegitimate child of a waitress and first member of her family to graduate from high school. Not expected to go to college, much less to win the Robert Penn Warren Award for her fiction, she has a lot to say about risking contempt, humbling yourself before scholarship committees, and understanding characters whose fury is as justifiable as it is unchecked.
Allison has been recognized with the Ferro Grumley prize, two Lambda Literary Awards, and the American Library Association Prize for Lesbian and Gay Writing. Her first novel was an award-winning bestseller made into an award-winning film. Her second novel, Cavedweller, became a New York Times Notable book of the year, and was adapted for the stage. These achievements overcame incredible odds, but what baffles her most is that she did not die before receiving any of them.
A social activist deeply invested in the early feminist movement, Allison met head-on the dangers of free expression. If her courage to keep raising her voice empowers others, she is not so naïve as to imagine our right to speak will ever be equal. Nor, I realize after spending several weeks with her, would she deprive anyone of the fight, her sentences often undercutting someone else’s surety, or her own. Having written genius works of resilience, she recognizes the favor you do a person to unsettle her.
The conversation that follows took place in my sunroom. At one point, a doe crossed the backyard and Dorothy stopped talking to watch her watch us, ears pricked to any threat of danger.
—Amy Wright for Guernica
Guernica: What defines class?
Dorothy Allison: It’s always an argument, because class is defined in opposition, and to some extent in denial. Especially in American society, there is a lot of shame and refusal. To a large extent we have the bias that we are a classless nation, and that’s just a frank outright lie.
The essential assumption of the working class is to be always inappropriate and embattled. You’re always in an argument with the over-class about who and what you are—particularly in the South but also in other regions. They have complicated gradations of class in California, yet we have very simple-minded ways we think about socio-economics in this country. We think in terms of the broad categories of working class, middle class, upper class, but if you ask someone to define herself it always gets more nuanced.
My sisters, for instance, never wanted anyone to know that we were poor, so there was a refusal to discuss our position in the class structure. If someone did try to talk about it, my sister Barbara would say, “Well, we’re really middle class.” Our stepfather always had a job. Our mama always worked, but the working poor is still a phenomenon, and I define the working poor as people who can’t eat every night. I know it sounds trivial and petty, but the struggle was to go to school five days in a row without having to wear the same outfit three times. Kids are ruthless. They notice all those details. So all of the earmarks of being raised poor were there, but we pretended with the rest of America that we were part of the great middle. It’s very hard to change something you can’t acknowledge.
Guernica: How does your conception of class differ from that projected on you?
Dorothy Allison: You know those famous pictures of the South in which dirty-faced kids are standing there with a finger in their mouths? They are not speaking because they aren’t sure what to say or how to behave. You are aware absolutely that you are not as valuable or as human as people who speak easily and who are comfortable.
Learning that is class is actually a huge empowerment. When I read Marxist theory, it was like being handed a shovel. You could do something. You could dig out of the hole. You could defend yourself, because what not being as important as others really means is that you’re always in danger.
Let’s be clear. I came out of an enormous violent Southern working-class family. Most didn’t graduate from grammar school. When I graduated from high school I was considered a freak. I had all of these boy cousins whose trajectory in life was to either become a mechanic or go into the Army. There wasn’t a lot of room for anything else, but the third option, which really happened to most of them, was to go to jail.
I had a cousin who got picked up with another boy for breaking into telephone boxes. I should explain that there used to be phone booths where you paid for calls with coins. They got a tool that could open the lock box and get the money out, and they were caught by the sheriff and taken to jail. Now that was a petty crime. They didn’t even get much money, but the police called their families, and the families came to jail. The other boy’s father was a doctor and so the other boy went home with his daddy. My cousin went to prison.
He went to the boys’ prison, where half of my cousins lived and learned their place in the world, because the goal of prison is to break you, and it did. When they came out of prison, which was called “the county farm,” they were criminals. They learned to be criminals, that criminal was what their essential nature was.
Both of my cousins had their earlobes slit. The violence that was visited on them, the beatings, were things that middle-class kids never experienced, so in the South they were almost black. Black boys might be shot, but my cousins were taken to prison, and they might die there. So, you learn to be careful, to hold your tongue, but you’re angry. You’re always angry, and it isn’t useful anger. It’s the kind of anger that will blow back on you and get you killed.
What was tragic is that the most respectable option for my boy cousins was to go into the Army, but none of them could go into the Army because all of them had been arrested, and once you have a record you’ve been defined. It marks you. You go to jail then to deeper and deeper jails into long-term prisons.
Guernica: You demonstrate the complexities of that anger through your characters.
Dorothy Allison: I remember reading a lot of writers from the thirties who were particularly expressive of class struggles I suppose because of the Communist movement. In particular I loved the stories and poems by Meridel Le Sueur, who had a way of writing about class that was human and outrageous and wonderful. I sort of took her as a model.
What seemed to me life-saving was that I couldn’t lie. I couldn’t put a candy-coated gloss on anything. In Bastard, for instance, there is a section where I give you a quick glimpse of Bone’s Uncle Earl, and she loves her Uncle Earl, and he is charming as a motherfucker, but there is one paragraph where I let you see how angry and dangerous he is. She asks him, “What do you do if…?” and he shows her the blade that he has palmed and is hiding in his hand, and she sees the look in his eyes and senses his power. That’s class. Trying to write with love and respect about people who even as you love them are destroying themselves and to try to write it accurately and with some of the grace of Meridel Le Sueur is the challenge. But you can’t write about this stuff and be boring. That would be a sin against God.
Guernica: You write that the working-class hero is “invariably male, righteously indignant, and inhumanly noble.” What defines a working-class heroine?
Dorothy Allison: That’s much more complicated. When I was growing up the portraits I found of working-class people were always very animalistic. The characters were portrayed as violent, physically dangerous, not very bright, and unreasonably angry, as if there were no reason for their anger. When I write these characters I try to take you inside what it feels like to be treated with contempt and to have such a narrow range of possibilities out.
That no-way-out is really the difference between boys and girls in working-class culture, because a working-class boy could run, or could when I was growing up. He could go West and change his name and start a new life for himself, and I know boys in my family did that. There is nowhere a girl can go. The only runaway position is prostitution and that can kill you about as fast as a violent uncle or a crazy daddy.
I’ve got one cousin who went the other way, and me, and that’s also complicated to talk about, because we were really smart. To realize at an early age that you’re smarter than most of the people around you is scary. The only person I knew then who was smarter than me was my mama and she was so damaged that there wasn’t a lot she could do with it. But she used to tell me, “You can do anything.” Now that was not true, and I knew it wasn’t true, but I also knew that I was smart enough that there was a place I could go. The tragic cost of that is that it removes you from your own family.
Here’s something I’ve never gotten over. When I was in sixth grade they did I.Q. tests. In Greenville, South Carolina, just before we moved to Florida. I got the highest score in the school. They made me take the test over again, convinced I must have cheated, but I took it over and scored higher the second time. The message was “You’re not the kind of person who’s supposed to be scoring that high.” They had an assembly where they gathered everybody in the gym to recognize the high scorers. That they did this still horrifies me, but they put me up there with the boy who had the second highest score and they treated us as if we had the same score. So, the message is, “You might be bright but don’t get ahead of yourself.”
It was almost like I was a boy because I was being judged on intellect rather than the other standard for girls, which was to either marry well or to become a famously successful high-class whore. But the options for marrying well are limited, and if you’re as angry and damaged as most working-class girls are you’ll marry the first mean-assed boy who takes you up, so the next thing you know you have three babies and he’s broken your jaw. They always break your jaw.
Instead, I went off and won scholarships. I applied for scholarships at church and ladies’ circles. They’re always service organizations run by middle-class women who are generous and kind to the poor. You win those awards by being humble and grateful. Gratitude can eat the heart out of you, because the first thing you have to do is acknowledge that you aren’t as good as the people you’re begging help from. That’s one of the reasons why a lot of the very successful working-class kids who win scholarships drink themselves to death or shoot themselves in the head.
I know the damage. I can’t even talk about it, because you’re ashamed first because you had to beg and second because you had to treat your family very poorly. It’s hurtful, and you’re alone. When I go teach at small colleges I try to get the working-class kids to get together for a meeting, and I say, “Look, I’m older than you. You will graduate. You need to go back home and make peace with your family. If you move into these people’s world—with these people being the middle and upper class—you will always be one down unless you’ve got somebody at your back.”
It is very expensive, but it is a way out. I did it. I had one other cousin who did it. She became a pathologist. We were the only college graduates in my family. There weren’t that many high school graduates. I was the first person in my family; she was the second. By the time I was living in New York in my thirties there were six. The cost of growing up working class is an unacknowledged dam on society. We pretend we have an egalitarian society where you can move up if you work. Doesn’t mean shit if you go to the county farm or get pregnant at fifteen, and that’s mostly what happens.
Guernica: Is peacemaking something you did later?
Dorothy Allison: It is, and I was forced by circumstances. I don’t think I would have listened to anybody who would have told me.
Guernica: What circumstances?
Dorothy Allison: The point at which I was publishing and starting to win awards coincided with the work I was doing for the Lesbian Sex Mafia. I was in New York City and working on the Sex and the Scholar Conference at Columbia University. We got picketed by Women Against Pornography. There were six of us they targeted, and we were called Pimps for the Pornographers, because we were feminists writing about sexuality.
They went after us like dogs after the conference, which blew up and became a huge fight within the feminist movement. People I’d known for years would cross the street to avoid me. One of the other women who got caught in that horrific situation killed herself. All of the sudden I lost the family in the women’s community I’d been building for a decade, which had become a substitute for the family I’d essentially lost.
When that happened it coincided with my mother having a recurrence of cancer, so I went home to try to help take care of her. I was on the verge of collapse, but what I discovered is that when you do go home they’re ready. My sisters didn’t like that I was writing about poverty and incest, but they also couldn’t deny that it was the truth.
And I loved my mother. She had never walled herself off from me as I had walled myself off from her. I was ashamed of her. My waitress mother with her bleached blonde hair and her bright red lipstick and her high heels. The only books she read were murder mysteries. I wanted to be an intellectual and to have an intellectual mother, but instead I had my mom. There was a period of adjustment, but it rebirthed my sense of pride in being working class. In addition to the outrage and anger there is that sense that we, my people, my tribe are stronger and more resilient than anyone gives us credit for.
Guernica: You’ve said, “One of the strengths I derive from my class background is that I am accustomed to contempt.” How has contempt served you?
Dorothy Allison: Being despised is very hard to survive as a child, but once you don’t die [laughter] you gain a kind of resilience. And it generates in you a reverse contempt that undercuts it. But it can go bad. It can go sour. Remember that all of the ways you derive strength can cut the other way. It can wear you down. I’ve noticed that it happens about once a decade again where all of the sudden they start using that language of contempt, and I have to stand up to it all over again with a whole new generation with another vocabulary.
For me it’s complicated by the fact that they seem to coincide with periods where I’m struggling with my own spirituality. I couldn’t quite go back to the Baptist church, but I go to Quaker meetings. I have deeply complicated feelings about the concept of God, but I genuinely cannot believe that we are merely meat and electrical synapses. I believe in the spirit, and that has been a place of struggle, which is also about class because people say, “You just think that because you were raised with Pentecostal music.” Maybe, but you know gospel music won’t kill you. It’ll give you some places where you can derive strength that isn’t about hating yourself.
Guernica: Do you consider literature an alternate form of gospel?
Dorothy Allison: It’s all glory at a difference from the mundane, and the mundane is mere survival. Gospel music, like poetry, like great literature, is glory. I’m reaching for glory. I wanted to live forever. I still do, but I have a much more complicated relationship to death than when I was younger. I am more accepting now. I no longer have that overwhelming impulse to live forever, but that’s the impulse that makes art. That’s the secret desire—that and the desire to separate yourself from those who hold you in contempt, whether that’s your stepfather or your cousins or your church or people at the grammar school who made you take the I.Q. test again. You want to claim your right to be among not just the humans but among the best of them.
Guernica: Your first writing teacher, Bertha Harris, told you “literature is not made by good girls.”
Dorothy Allison: The idea that great literature is written by nasty girls told me that nasty girls and women are my aunts. They don’t act out of meanness purely for the sake of meanness; they give back what is given to them. When they’re given respect, they return respect. When they’re given contempt, they show you that the contempt is not justified. The wages of violence is violence, so I try to avoid violence but confrontation I believe in. Holding people accountable I believe in, and that’s nasty. It means telling the truth even when it costs you something, even when no one wants to hear it or talk about it. You have to honor your version of the truth and you have to really search for it and make characters that live up to that. A no bones about it, we’re in this together approach is what I honor. My aunts were paragons of it. They were also self-destructive and fell in love with the wrong people and didn’t necessarily protect their children, but they tried. I don’t believe in simple.
Guernica: There is a scene in Cavedweller when Cissy helps fellow spelunkers out of the cave where they’ve gotten lost and exhausted themselves. She keeps pulling while they curse her, which seems a distinctly working-class strength.
Dorothy Allison: Yes, and it comes from having some terrible experiences. You learn to trust yourself. A sense of humor also helps.
It was shocking to me—because I was always fascinated with the upper class and dated a lot of girls from the upper class—that they were just so ineffectual. If they get a flat tire they don’t know how to deal with it. If someone called them a name in the street they didn’t know how to respond. They didn’t really have a sense of themselves. They didn’t have resilience. I’ve seen in my own family and in my own life you can be pushed to the wall, take a deep breath and stand up anyway. I don’t think everybody learns that, so it’s one of the backhanded advantages of having been pushed to the wall so many times.
I’m always conscious of having been the child I was. The defining moment of my childhood wasn’t having been beaten or raped, but of fighting with my sisters over who had to sleep next to the door. That’s a degree and caliber of shame that is bone-deep. I will never be able to forgive myself for it. I was the oldest girl and the biggest, and I’d already been raped and I’d already been beaten, and I knew I could survive it. My sisters were both younger and more fragile, but there were nights when I just couldn’t do it, and because I was bigger and meaner I would not be by the door.
I’m about to be sixty-eight years old. That started when I was six, that consciousness of responsibility and shame is always present. It’s in my writing always. When I give you my characters, there’s always somewhere where they’re not heroic. They’ve always got some place where they failed themselves or the ones they love.
Guernica: But what a standard to hold yourself to at six!
Dorothy Allison: Well, being raised in the Baptist church will give you a high standard, but you don’t think that way as a six year old. You think of yourself as strong. You don’t think of yourself as destroyed until you are destroyed. I can’t even tell you how many times we fought over who would be near the door. It may have only been only once, but it was enough to have marked me, to discover in myself that I was that terrified and desperate.
Guernica: Did you all ever talk about it later?
Dorothy Allison: No. Only in the most coded and abbreviated ways. There are things you cannot say and survive them. And so much of it is unspeakable. I don’t want to discuss the specifics of what my stepfather did to me, and I don’t want to know the specifics of what he did to my sisters. I know that one of them had a child because of it, and that is enough to know. There’s so much shame built into it. The defining aspect of class is shame.
Guernica: Do you agree, then, with Nancy Isenberg who in her book White Trash: The 400-Year-Old History of Class in America says Bastard Out of Carolina is an illustration of how “shame keeps the class system in place”?
Dorothy Allison: I believe so, but academic language denatures the constant struggle for survival.
Guernica: Isenberg says a key tension of the book is Daddy Glen’s embarrassment that he is the one member of his middle-class family who doesn’t amount to anything.
Dorothy Allison: She’s good at what she does, and I’ve read her book. It’s a good book, but that’s the perspective of a middle-class person. That’s not why he’s violent—I don’t think. I think he wants to be part of this genuinely loving and supportive family. Even though the Boatwrights are also an incredibly violent family, they have a core of love and support that he lusts after and hungers after more than he wants Anney and more than he wants sex. He wants to be part of something like that, and he’s not. I see that as the defining tension of the book. When he marries into it but is still not a part of it, that’s why he feels he has the permission to do what he does. He feels justified because he is so angry. He’s not loved the way he wants to be loved by anybody. Even though Anney loves him with her whole heart. Even though she leaves her child for him. That man cannot be loved enough to cure what’s wrong with him. But that’s the reading from a working-class perspective. It’s quite different.
Guernica: Why distinguish between middle and working class when the top 10 percent of America’s wealthiest families hold 85 percent of the nation’s wealth?
Dorothy Allison: I often conflate the upper and middle class, although they aren’t the same. It’s just that we have almost no access to the upper class, so we really can’t impact them in any immediately recognizable way, but we can impact the middle class—sometimes through literature.
I deeply believe that the best American literature is working-class literature, and part of it is the perspective of working-class escapees, and I use that term ‘escapees’ advisedly. I don’t think you genuinely leave your class of origin, but like the discovery that you’re queer and a bit like the discovery that you’re smart, it divides you; it separates you out.
Name the works of genius by American artists and you’ll find that working-class artists created them because they had nothing to lose. The choice is life and death: you will either be murdered outside the Greyhound bus station in your hometown, or you will go to New York to become a dancer or a singer or a poet or writer of fiction. And you find that over and over again. When you find a great artist and you query them you find out that they came from a small town, and they’re estranged from their family. You know why. Even if they weren’t queer they’re queer in that broader context of being unacceptable.
Guernica: Studs Terkel said that you “have an all-encompassing knowledge of what it’s like to be the other, the outsider.” How did you two know each other?
Dorothy Allison: We knew each other from the American Booksellers Association (ABA) meetings. We were both speakers in was it 1992? It was a huge weekend, because it was him, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, and that idiot who wrote the Chicken Soup books. We all wound up in a green room together. Hillary Clinton was in another room with secret service agents until shortly before we went onstage, but I got to meet her. I loved Studs Terkel’s books, and when I love books I remember them, so when I met him, I quoted some lines from one of them. He laughed and grabbed my arm and shook me and boomed, “I knew I liked you!”
Guernica: In Working Terkel reveals shared concerns between workers across income brackets. Is it possible in the 21st century to still find commonality in work?
Dorothy Allison: It is possible. What Studs is talking about is valuing the work, valuing the society that is shaped by the work they do. He didn’t equate the qualities of a CEO with a guy who digs in the mines, but he did equate the commitment to a shared society in which work is valued. He was a huge advocate for that. He was really talking about community in everything he did, which is why I loved the man. We shared the hope for a just society. In a just society we would all be valued equally for the nature of our contributions, even though our contributions vary widely.
Guernica: How much of class is economic, and how much is behavioral?
Dorothy Allison: Well the economic shapes behavior. You can’t change what you don’t know—like I didn’t know to apply for a National Merit Scholarship. When I went off to college, I was helpless because I really didn’t know the rules. I was terrified. How often do you wash your clothes? I didn’t want to fall into any of the stereotypes for the working class, so I am watching everybody. I’m watching how people eat. That’s the thing I can spot in a minute whenever I go now to universities. I can see the ones who are watching, and I know why they’re watching—that sense of ignorance and being at risk. You know that you have to pay attention. You know you’re at risk, but that’s an advantage. The people who don’t know they’re at risk will fuck up.
Guernica: What did your Master’s degree in Anthropology reveal about class that being born poor hadn’t already taught you?
Dorothy Allison: Almost nothing. Well, I’ll tell you the essential thing that I learned getting my M.A. at the New School for Social Research in New York, which is a good school. I worked with great people—Stanley Diamond, Rayna Rapp, Shirley Mandelbaum, great anthropologists, wonderful people, but the defining moment came when I took a class in Peasant Studies taught by a young man. I think it was one of his early classes, because he was still establishing his bona fides. He was telling jokes, and he asked, “Are there any peasants in the room?” I could feel my face get very hot and flushed realizing that I’m probably the only peasant in the room and one of the reasons I signed up for the class is that I did feel I was a peasant and wanted to learn more about how peasants were and studied.
He’s got all the names and the other classes you’re taking, so he said, “I’ve seen your name. Do you write?” I said, “I’ve written some pieces for the Village Voice.” He said, “You’re the feminist.” Catch that—the feminist. I remember feeling a sense of horror. He said, “Maybe you can give us a presentation about the feminist perspective on peasants.” I’ve never wanted to run out of a room more in my life, but I’m not a damn fool; I know I can’t run. I’ve got to come back at him or he’s going to be on my ass all semester. So I said, “I really don’t want to be the token feminist in the room.” That was when my assumption that Anthropology was a world of intellectual enlightenment became clear. [Laughter] No, that’s pretty much when I gave up applying for a Ph.D. I was always going to be the feminist and the peasant in the room.
Guernica: They got you out of the room.
Dorothy Allison: Yeah they did, but writing became more and more important to me. At that point I was writing a lot and publishing and thought, “Okay, if I’m going to risk my life, I’m going to risk it over here.” I realized that as an artist I wouldn’t be seen as working class. I’d be seen as an artist. To become an artist or academic is to step out of the class structure.
Guernica: Yet, you call yourself a working-class writer. How do you reconcile those two identities?
Dorothy Allison: It means that on no level will I deny my people. You become a writer or an artist, and it’s such a relief to step out of the class system and become that admirable separate thing. But it also means that I have to leave my mother or sister behind, and I just won’t do that. It’s the bad bargain we make with girls all the time. Marry a man and move into his family. Yeah, right. It’s a lie. You never really leave your people behind.