Novelist, poet. Allison was born on April 11, 1949, in Greenville, South Carolina, a self-proclaimed bastard child of an unwed teenage mother, Ruth Gibson Allison, who dropped out of seventh grade to work as a waitress. Allison was raised in extreme poverty by her mother and an abusive stepfather, who repeatedly beat and raped her from the time she was five to eleven years old. Though Allison’s mother contributed to this scarring childhood by tolerating her husband’s violence, she invested in Allison’s future by keeping a jar of money for her daughter’s college education and thus taught her bright daughter that she had a right to excel. Allison was the first in her family to finish high school and went on to Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College) on a National Merit Scholarship. She earned a master’s degree in anthropology at the New School for Social Research in New York.
In the early 1970s, Allison joined a lesbian-feminist collective and severed all ties to her family until 1981. She credits the women’s movement with making her writing career possible, nourished by women friends and lovers who initially helped her overcome a “terrible drive” to burn her journals, stories, and poems.
The Women Who Hate Me (1983), a collection of poetry, published in an expanded version in 1991, focuses on lesbian sexuality and relationships between women. Trash (1988) includes stories and poetry with a lesbian-feminist emphasis that were inspired by Allison’s working-class, poverty-stricken childhood. “Ours is a culture that hates and fears the poor, queers, and women,” she says. “The people I love most are the people society doesn’t like.”
Allison received mainstream recognition with her first novel, Bastard out of Carolina (1992), which in 1996 was adapted to a film directed by Anjelica Huston. The semi-autobiographical narrative, which takes place in Allison’s hometown, explores themes of poverty and choice through the eyes of Bone Boatwright, who draws strength from family stories and, despite beatings and sexual abuse, finds her own voice and identity. Allison takes up the notion of storytelling as both a survival tool and a weapon in two works of nonfiction, Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature (1994) and Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995), a lyrical memoir.
Cavedweller (1998), Allison’s second novel, follows the character Delia and her attempt to come to terms with her past and its losses. Set in Cayro, Georgia, Cavedweller explores the connection between identity and place and continues Allison’s desire to record the lives of marginalized southerners. The numerous women who populate the novel meet or live in a world of headstrong Baptists, truck farms, trailers, convenience stores, and beauty parlors. Underneath hides an underworld of caves, mapped or unmapped, in which Delia’s daughter Cissy seeks refuge and comfort. Metaphorically representing a journey into the past, the silences of stories, the lesbian body, and more, the caves also suggest the writer’s ambition to uncover the “harder truths” and map paths to redemption. The text was adapted for the screen in 2004; the film version starred Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon.
Although she has accepted visiting appointments at Emory University (2008) and Davidson College (2009), Allison’s permanent residence is now in northern California where she lives with her son, Wolf Michael, and her partner, Alix Layman. California is also the setting of her long-anticipated third novel entitled She Who, which focuses on the lives of three women coping with the aftermath of personal violence.
Griffin, Connie. “Going Naked into the World: Recovery and Re/presentation in the Works of Dorothy Allison.” Concerns 26, no. 3 (1999): 6–20.
Iring, Katrina. “‘Writing It Down So That It Would Be Real’: Narrative Struggles in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” College Literature 25 (spring 1998): 94–107.
Megan, Carolyn E. “Moving toward Truth: An Interview with Dorothy Allison.” Kenyon Review 16 (fall 1994): 71–83.