Lessening the Damage: An Interview with Dorothy Allison

Ellise Fuchs

"I started out as a feminist activist when I was about 18 or 19, marching as an anti-war activist and lesbian feminist. Here I am 55 years old, and I'm having to fight for exactly the same issues all over again, with an enemy, an implacable enemy, who keeps coming back at me as if we have not been fighting for 35 years to establish these rights."

Dorothy Allison's saffron-colored hair frames her face. The full color is startling, as if she's stepped out of her black and white book jacket photo, and you're Dorothy Gale opening her door onto Munchkinland. Allison has been bringing color and life to her Southern working class background with books ranging from the short story collection Trash to her best-selling novel, Bastard Out of Carolina and memoir One or Two Things I Know for Sure.

Known for her honesty and an in-your-face writing style, she is also committed to teaching. First published in 1988, Trash was recently translated into Italian by Margherita Giacobino for the small publisher, Il Dito and La Luna. The collection is part of an ongoing series called Officine T-Parole in Corso, dedicated to translating in Italian texts that "enrich us, liberate us from preconceptions and put ideas in motion."

In early June, Allison came to Italy to introduce her stories. She read pieces from Trash in English, sharing the stage with women who read in Italian in each city she visited. The tour took her around Northern and Central Italy in a week's time. Her first stop was Torino, where PopMatters had the opportunity to ask her about her activism, love of language, search for truth, and life as a parent.

Here you are in Italy on a book tour for the Italian version of Trash. How does it feel when someone asks you to bring to life, in another language, something you wrote years ago?

It's very flattering. It's kind of oddly exciting. I realize that I have a specific political critique of my own nation. It's implicit in almost everything I write. Then I step outside of the United States, into another country, and I'm not sure whether that specific critique applies. But then I took this 90 degree turn in my head: I started rereading Trash and I tried to imagine, "What would it be like to be an Italian woman reading these stories?" And a very particular thing happened. It hit me again last night when I saw the Italian cover of the book projected large on the screen, the picture of the kids and the van. It works really well, because, well, it's like Jesus said, "The poor we have always with us." And the Italians have their own "trash." The Italians have some of the same family complex dynamics that I write about in the stories.

The Italian family continues to be rather sacred. People are just starting to talk openly about family issues, which are sometimes harder to say than, for instance, coming out as gay or lesbian.

I was raised in a very rural, working class Southern family, which I find to be really similar to a lot of the women I talked to in Italy... Let's be very frank: I write about families in deep trouble. I write about violence against women and children. I write about men who really are kept as little boys and raised to be little boys, who never grow up. That's one of the huge issues of the Southern working class culture. This is what Italian women tell me is one of the dynamics here.

It is true that men often go from their mothers' homes to their wives' homes without any steps in between. It is starting to change now, where one lives with friends in a shared apartment before marriage. But this is new for both men and women.

It's a little complicated. I am afraid of my own sense of American arrogance. And I'm afraid of making assumptions about other cultures. So what I do is, I ask questions. To be specific about your [original] question, when I get one of these inquiries, I want to know, what has this press done? What other books do they publish? What about the translator? What kind of work does she do? Everything I was told [for this translation] was wonderful. It put me in a context that I recognize and understand.

As I'm sure you know, Officina T-Parole in Corso, as part of Il Dito e La Luna, started this series with a translation of Leslie Feinberg's Stone Butch Blues. It makes sense that Dorothy Allison is part of it.

It's actually much more exciting to be in this context than to be with a big publisher that may sell huge numbers, because they don't pay much attention to the emotional or political content of the book.

Margherita Giacobino, the translator, likes to call Trash a "novel", because it tells one long, complex story through the multiple stories. She thought it was a better introduction for Italian readers than one of your other books.

And I think she may be right. Particularly with the edition they chose to publish that has the new story, "Compassion". It has that continuity of a novel. But truthfully, I wrote the stories teaching myself to write a novel. I can see how I was learning when I look at the stories again, including some of the things I do wrong, some of the things I had to get better at.

There is a very specific sound to your stories, an attention to language. Sometimes it is a "poor Southern" feel, an "angry feminist" voice, or a "lovesick lesbian" lament. And your English words carry a certain cadence and rhythms: they create a tone. How do you feel about being translated?

[Giggles] The best thing about being on the tour is listening. For example, at the reading in Italian last night [in Torino], I could follow what she was reading since I had read the passages first, and have the English text in front of me. Margherita's translation, the way it has been explained to me, is beautiful because it is not literal. It is close enough so that I can hear some of the same rhythms, tone, and pacing. I was speaking with the young woman who did the reading in Italian and she asked to hear me read a number of times. It seems the more that I read, the more excited she got and the more easy she got with the text because she was freer, I think. For me as a writer, pacing, language, timing is everything.

When you read last night, your accent came out. It was like the words exploded off the page with a life of their own.

There's a regional dialect also. It's not just about unique words that are chosen. It is about pacing. Southerners, particularly from the United States, are so church-constructed. A lot of it is the rhythms of the Protestant churches, Pentecostal churches, and Baptist churches. Have you ever listened to Gospel? It's a certain kind of poetry in which there is cadence and repetition and, to a certain extent, alliteration. All of which is about precise detail. It's hard to get it right on the page. It's much easier to get it right spoken. I can read it aloud much more directly and easily. When I have to put it on the page, I have to pay so much attention to where there's a comma, where there's repetition, in order to create the same effect in the reader's mind.

I read that you write "out loud." Is it true that you pace up and down in order to write?

I do. I write out loud and I read out loud different versions. But truly, the thing that works best for me is to do a reading for an audience.

So you read works in progress?

Yes I do. Sometimes I will tape that. But I've done this for a long time, and at this point, if I read for an audience, I hear with a greater sensitivity than on a tape recorder. I hear how the audience hears. Either they will follow the rhythm or they won't. And you can hear them not hear it.

I read that Alice Walker lived with her characters. I think she was describing writing The Color Purple, and she had people around her who would talk to her. I wonder, does it get that intense? Do you have conversations with these people?

You inhabit them. They talk. It's a little bit crazy. You can get in trouble. [Laughs] You can have bad dreams. You dream that you are those people. And some of the people I write are not happy or are undergoing horrific things. Sometimes they're trying to explain themselves to themselves. That happens [less] on the page. By the time I've put them on the page, I've done all that work, and the reader doesn't see it. But I have to do it. So I talk out loud a lot. One of the things I do is I walk. As the writer, you have to become each of the people in the story. Some of those people are not pleasant to inhabit, but you have to figure them out. Maybe there's an easier way, but I haven't found it.

I would think this is a more complete way, because otherwise, you might be writing a lie, or pretending in your writing.

Some of the language is tricky because in fact, it is lying. And you are making up the story. It's this huge conflict for me. People want biography. People want memoir. They want you to tell them that the story you're telling them is true. The thing I'm telling you is true but it did not always happen to me. It is absolutely true to my experience. I can't write a woman who does something that I do not believe women do. In Bastard Out of Carolina, I really wanted a happy ending. Everybody wants a happy ending to that book. They want Bone and her mother to get away safe with Reese and go live with Raylene on the river and raise catfish or something.

But that's not what I believe happens. And that stark ending of Anney leaving Bone behind is what I do believe happens in the best situation. In the worst situation, the mother and child are killed. That is a far more common ending. So I wrote a true story but it was a fiction. It's complicated.

Now, there are so many forms of memoir out there. It seems everyone has a blog or a zine. I'm curious if you think that, while everyone may have a story to tell, does this insistence lead to a sort of mediocrity in writing?

It could all be true, you know. Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone has an extraordinary life. But not everyone can shape it into a story on the page that is as powerful as their life. This is one of the great conflicts, something between a writer and an editor. It's something I've been doing for many years. And very early on, working as a feminist editor, one of the big fights [I had with a writer began]: Should you edit a woman's work? Shouldn't a woman's life on the page be her raw life? And I'm like, "Well yeah, it should be her raw life. But an editor's job is to help her make it the most effective presentation of her life." To me, books only live if people want to read them again. If you give that raw life in a repetitious, unedited, unshaped form, then you are doing it a disservice.

It risks becoming a sort of a whine.

And you get bored with yourself. I don't much care for memoir. Let me be very clear, I love memoir for what it adds to our information about women's genuine lives. There are some extraordinary biographies and memoirs written by women that I think are precious and marvelous. But there is also a huge body of biography that I will never want to read again and that was so badly written it was hard to read in the first place. I don't need that. I need impact, grace on the page, fire in the words, and the shaping of a story to a purpose.

I have written one memoir, just one. I used a deliberate construction because I think it is the hardest form in the world to do. One of the things I discovered when I was doing Two or Three Things I know for Sure was how difficult it was to get my aunts to sign a piece of paper saying that something actually happened. And then I would really push one of them and they'd say [using Southern accent], "Well, no, he didn't die. No. He's actually a very nice man." And I would say, "Why did you tell me he did that?" And they'd reply, "Well, wasn't it a great story?" In fact, it was a great story. But when you're looking for truth, you want truth.

You've often said, "Feminism saved my life." When you were in your 20s, feminism was different. Perhaps it was lived more intensely, more fervently. I was wondering how you see feminism today, and furthermore, why is this word still so feared and not embraced by men and women?

It's more dangerous even than it ever was, and it has always been a dangerous word. The odd thing is, I find myself going back to reading older feminist works like Shula Firestone and about what it is to be a woman rebel and to threaten civilization at its core. Civilization is constructed on the backs and the cunts of women. To say that and to say it strongly and forthrightly with your eyes looking into the face of someone else is the most dangerous act. It's why feminism is so scary. Feminism deconstructs the patriarchal world. The thread that runs through all of it is, in fact, a woman standing up and saying, "This is my life. My life is not in your service." And that's always going to be dangerous.

I think in mean times, and we are living in mean times, it is the threat that is almost too much for our culture. [Using man's voice] "If the women rebel, oh, we have to deal with that as well?" [Laughs] And to be truthful, many women live a life compromised around fear and it's not always about the fear of violence. I write a lot about the fear of violence, but there's also the fear of law and the fear of contempt. The fear of contempt is enormous for women because it really does destroy us. It's shameful to admit the things we are afraid of, the fear of not being loved, the fear of being isolated. And those are the ways of the feminist.

How do you feel about Third Wave Feminists?

The important thing is that there is not one wave and there's not just one third wave. I travel and teach a lot, so I meet many young people. It's very painful sometimes to meet women in their 20s. I meet them often when I'm a writer in residence at some university. It could drive you to despair. They'll come along and say, "We don't need feminism. The revolution has been accomplished." Then you'll meet them again and they'll have had some life altering experience and realized, "Oh it's still an issue." What I do find in American colleges is a sense of powerlessness, that nothing they do will make any difference. That's the wave that scares me because, in fact, that's the wave that will maintain things as they are.

How has being a parent changed your writing?

Oh God. [Pause] It changed Cavedweller. Completely. Before I finished Bastard, I started Cavedweller. I had started outlining a story about these three sisters that hated each other. But I started writing it from the perspective of the youngest girl, the daughter. I got a lot of that work done and a lot of the book which was eventually published. The second half of the book about Cissy and the cave I wrote in the early stages, before I fully became a mother.

But then my son was born. I had no concept that becoming a mother changes everything. It changes how you work as a writer. It changes how you think of yourself as a human being. And it steals huge amounts of emotional energy and time.

Tillie Olsen wrote in Silences about not being able to write as a mother. That was true for me. The first year of my son's life coincided with the publication of Bastard Out of Carolina. Two things happened. One was becoming famous, which is really complicated. And two was becoming a mother. I found out early on that I couldn't have children and so I never thought of myself as a mother. In fact, I worked really hard never to think about that because it made me feel angry. But all of sudden, I was a mother and I had this completely helpless, dependent, astonishing responsibility. All of my assumptions about how women were mothers and how families worked went away. I had all this new information.

As a writer you have to process it and you have to work through it. So I didn't get any work done for a year. All the work I got done was sentimental and banal and horrible. [Laughs] It's not anything you'd want to put out and let people read. I suddenly understood why, in fact, people wrote bad poetry. All my emotions were just humiliating to me. I became a woman I just couldn't even understand. I had to be that person for a little while. It took about a year for my sense of humor to come back, for me to see the absurdity of what was happening. And that's when I began to write Delia. I wrote the rest of Cavedweller as a mother.

As a lesbian, I had refused to process any of that information earlier on. I don't think I had a male model of how to be a female. I had a Lilith model of how to be a female. I wanted to be a dangerous, independent female. Dangerous, independent females don't carry babies. But I was carrying a baby. He was on my hip, aggravating my arthritis. I had to figure out how this person functions. Oddly enough, it made much more interesting characters. Even though, in some ways, Delia is a classic Southern character. She is this devastated woman who has fucked up completely and who is ridden by guilt and shame. She's just trying to do one thing right and make amends. She's not the rebel that I write more about. It was just part of the process of my incorporating all that information as a writer. Everything I've written since has been different.

In Skin, in an essay called "Promises," you wrote that you wanted to "make this place safe for him, bring him back to this landscape throughout his life, this wild country of beauty and hope and mystery." I'm wondering how you are doing with this promise. I understand that you are talking about an internal, personal kind of safety, but how do you feel about living in these "mean times," and how do you provide safety?

First of all, you realize that you can't. I wish it were as simple as building up a strong fence and a locked gate. But that's not safety. My concept of how to make him feel safe in the world is to give him a strong and sure sense of who he is and who he can rely on. And that's my concept of our family.

Now let's be very clear. I'm a lesbian. My partner and I have been together now for 18 years. I do not believe in marriage for anyone. I believe, in fact, that marriage is a lie in which women always pay [laughs]. It is a contract which serves the state.

However, I understand that some contracts actually are about trying to establish some level of safety in the world, such as inheritance or owning property. And I have worked very deliberately to construct some safety for my son. Most of that depends more on his series of godmothers. They are all in my will and if anything happened to me or Alix, they would step in and be parents for him. Meanwhile, they are co-parents to him, they are in his life.

I think he is going to be shaped by being exposed to a lot of different kinds of people. Their major job is to tell him they love him and to do anything that is necessary to help him in the world and to make him feel safe, sort of what the Catholic Church asks of godmothers. That's going to be complicated, because they are a series of different women, really different women [laughs]. It helps to make me feel that he is safer.

The world is unsafe. So my other job is to make the world safer for all our kids. [Big sigh] Before the United States went into Iraq, I went to New York and worked with the group, "Not in My Name," trying to prevent us from going into that war. It was clear to me, and still is clear to me, that it is a criminal act. It endangers all of us, all of us on the planet, but very specifically American citizens and directly my son.

When you generalize from your son to everybody else's sons and daughters, it gets very, very simple. My son is 13. In five years he will be of age to be drafted. There will be a draft and I do not believe in this war. I am very clear that my country is caught in this war and that it's going to continue. Therefore I have to be the best responsible, radical citizen that I can be to make my child safer and to make us all safer. It's not that we can win right now. In mean times, you're trying to just lessen the damage. It's what I feel like I'm doing all the time, lessening the damage.

Last night you said it is a writer's job to give permission to help others to say certain things. You believe in encouraging others to dare. I looked around and saw women nodding their heads, smiling. They were truly moved by hearing you read and by the things you said. It was as if they were given permission to be, to feel, and to want.

Talk about waves of feminism, there are waves of terrorism that move through our culture. And we're in another wave. People have become hesitant to speak about things that 20 years ago we had already established the right to do. They've lost themselves again. The hard thing I've learned is that if you do not continually fight for your rights, they will be taken away from you. You can never rest. I started out as a feminist activist when I was about 18 or 19, marching as an anti-war activist and lesbian feminist. Here I am 55 years old, and I'm having to fight for exactly the same issues all over again, with an enemy, an implacable enemy, who keeps coming back at me as if we have not been fighting for 35 years to establish these rights. Just the simple right to speak plainly about sex, to speak plainly about emotional reality, the complicated ways in which we love or do not love, the complicated ways in which we fail each other too.





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