Dorothy Allison

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For the Australian actress, see Dorothy Alison. For the detective, see Dorothy Allison (psychic).
Dorothy Allison
Allison, Dorothy.jpg
Allison at the Miami Book Fair International 2011
Born (1949-04-11) April 11, 1949 (age 66)
Greenville, South Carolina
Occupation writer, poet, novelist
Nationality American
Subject class struggle, child and sexual abuse, women, lesbianism, feminism, and family
Literary movement Feminism
Spouse Alix Layman
Children Wolf

Dorothy Allison (born April 11, 1949) is an American writer, speaker, and member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.[1] Her writing includes themes of class struggle, sexual abuse, child abuse, feminism and lesbianism. She is a self-identified lesbian femme.[2] She has won a number of awards for her writing, including several Lambda Literary Awards.


Early life[edit]

Dorothy E. Allison was born on April 11, 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina to Ruth Gibson Allison, who was fifteen at the time. Ruth was a poor and unmarried mother who worked as a waitress and cook. When Allison was five, her stepfather began to sexually abuse her. It lasted for seven years (until age 11) and then she was able to tell a relative, who told Ruth, and it stopped. The family still remained together. The physical abuse resumed and lasted for another five years, and she contracted gonorrhea from her stepfather. This went undiagnosed until Allison was in her 20s, making her unable to have children.[3]

The family moved to central Florida to escape debt. Allison had witnessed her family members die because of the extreme poverty. Allison soon became the first person in her family to graduate from high school. At age 18, she got out of the house and went on to attend college.

College years[edit]

In the early 1970s, Allison attended Florida Presbyterian College (now Eckerd College) on a National Merit scholarship. While in college, she joined the women's movement by way of a feminist collective. She credits "militant feminists" for encouraging her decision to write. After graduating with a B.A. in anthropology,[4] she did graduate studies in anthropology at Florida State University.


Allison held a wide variety of jobs before her career took off: she worked as a salad girl, a maid, a nanny, a substitute teacher, helped establish a feminist bookstore in Florida, worked at a child-care center, answered phones at a rape crisis center, and clerked with the Social Security Administration. She trained during the day and at night she sat in her motel room and wrote on yellow legal pads. She wrote about her life experiences, including the abuse by her stepfather, poverty, her lust for women. This became the backbone of her future works.[5]

In 1979, she moved to New York City, where she began classes at The New School where she would receive her M.A. in urban anthropology in 1981.

Allison was one of the key figures in what became known as the Feminist Sex Wars. She was a panelist at the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality where the New York chapter of Women Against Pornography picketed outside, calling the panelists "anti-feminist terrorists", and even accused Allison of being a proponent of the sexual abuse of children because of the content in her works.[citation needed] She responded to these critics in The Women Who Hate Me: Poems by Dorothy Allison, a collection of poems that won her recognition among the gay and lesbian community.

At this time, she was teaching college courses, served as a guest lecturer, and contributing to publications like The Village Voice, the New York Native, and the Voice Literary Supplement.

In 1988, Allison published Trash: Short Stories, a collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, which won her two Lambda Literary Awards. The book was inspired by a negative review of Mab Segrest's collection of essays, My Mama's Dead Squirrel, that infuriated Allison. Segrest's work was one of her favorite novels and she was repulsed by reviewer's use of words like "white trash" and his insulting attitude toward Southerners. To dispel the stereotype that Southerners were stupid, brain-damaged, or morally lacking, she spent the next two years writing Trash.

She had spent nearly a decade attempting to finish her first novel Bastard Out of Carolina, which she took half-finished to Dutton Publishing in 1989, where she received a $37,500 cash advance to complete it. It appeared in 1992. It would later be adapted as a film on TNT directed by Anjelica Huston, but was aired instead on Showtime because of its graphic content. Initially the Canadian Maritime Film Classification Board banned the release of the motion picture. The ban was reversed on appeal but in November 1997 the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a decision to ban the book in schools because of its graphic content.[5]

In 1998 Allison published Cavedweller, which received numerous awards. She founded the Independent Spirit Award. It was while writing this novel that Allison, with her partner Alix Layson, a printer, became a mother of a son named Wolf Michael.

In 2002, Allison re-released Trash, but added a new short-story "Compassion", which was selected for both The Best New Stories from the South 2003 and The Best American Short Stories 2003.

In 2007, Allison announced that she was working on a new novel, She Who,[6] to be published by Riverhead Press.[7] The story follows three female protagonists in California, all of whose lives have been shaped by violence.

She had a three-month residency at Emory University in Atlanta in 2008 as the Bill and Carol Fox Center Distinguished Visiting Professor.[5]

Allison at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival.


Themes in Allison's work include class struggle, child and sexual abuse, women, lesbianism, feminism, and family.

Allison's first novel, the semi-autobiographical Bastard Out of Carolina, was published in 1992 and was one of five finalists for the 1992 National Book Award.[4] Graphic in its depiction of Southern poverty, family ties, illegitimacy, child abuse, and rape, Bastard went on to win the Ferro Grumley and Bay Area Reviewers Award for fiction. The novel has been translated into over a dozen languages. A film version, directed by Anjelica Huston, premiered in 1996 on Showtime amid some controversy for its disturbing content. The film was banned by Canada's Maritime Film Classification Board, both theatrically and in video release.

Cavedweller, Allison's second novel, was published in 1998 and became a New York Times bestseller. It won the 1998 Lambda Literary Award for fiction and was a finalist for the Lillian Smith Prize. Cavedweller has been adapted for the stage and screen, most notably in the 2004 film starring Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon, directed by Lisa Cholodenko.[8]

Allison's book Trash: Short Stories was originally published in 1988 by Firebrand Books. It was later re-released by Penguin (1990) and Plume (2002) with additional short stories such as Compassion and Deciding to Live. It won the 1989 Lambda Literary Award for "Best Lesbian Small Press Book" and the Lambda Literary Award "Best Lesbian Fiction".

Her influences include Toni Morrison, Bertha Harris, and Audre Lorde. Allison says The Bluest Eye helped her to write about incest. In 1975, Allison took a class from Harris at Sagaris, a feminist theory institute in Plainfield, Vermont. Harris told her to be "honest and fearless, especially when writing about lesbianism". In the early 1980s, Allison met Lorde at a poetry reading. After reading what would eventually become her short-story "River of Names," Lorde approached her and told her that she simply must write.[5]

Support of small presses[edit]

Allison founded The Independent Spirit Award (not to be confused with the Independent Spirit Awards) in 1998, a prize given annually to an individual whose work within the small press and independent bookstore circuit has helped sustain that enterprise. The award is administered by the Astraea Foundation and is designed to encourage people and institutions that are vital to supporting new writers and introducing readers to works that may otherwise go unread.

She has contributed to Conditions, the Village Voice, the New York Native, and the Voice Literary Supplement.

Allison is a member of the board of International PEN. She serves on the advisory boards of the National Coalition Against Censorship, Feminists for Free Expression, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, a prize that is presented annually to a science fiction or fantasy work that explores and expands on ideas of gender.

Sex and gender activist[edit]

Allison remains dedicated to safer sex and is active in feminist and lesbian communities. She is one of the founders of the Lesbian Sex Mafia, along with Kirstie Friddle of Quincy, Illinois, an information and support group for women of all sexual orientations and identities.[9]

Personal life[edit]

She lives in Monte Rio, California with her female partner, Alix Layman, and son, Wolf. Allison was chosen to be Writer in Residence for Columbia College, Chicago, in 2006. She served as the Emory University Center for Humanistic Inquiry’s Distinguished Visiting Professor for spring 2008. Allison also acted as the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College for the fall of 2009.






See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Dorothy Allison". The Fellowship of Southern Writers. Retrieved 20 March 2014. 
  2. ^ Ed. Burke, Jennifer Clare (2009). Visible: A Femmethology Vol. 2. Homofactus Press. p. 44. ISBN 0978597354. 
  3. ^ Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit, Michigan: Gale. 2004. ISBN 978-0-7876-3995-2. 
  4. ^ a b "Depth, From The South At Hamilton College, Dorothy Allison Offers Crowd A Sip Of Reality." Laura T. Ryan Staff. The Post-Standard (Syracuse, NY). STARS; p. 21, October 22, 2000
  5. ^ a b c d Marsh, "Dorothy Allison"
  6. ^ Nolan, Margaret. "Dorothy Allison: Zen redneck dyke mama". The Watermark. 
  7. ^ Hartt, Jordan (28 March 2007). "An Interview with Dorothy Allison". Centrum. 
  8. ^ Internet Movie Database: Cavedweller (2004), accessed June 14, 2010
  9. ^ Queer Culture Center: "Owen Keehnen: Interviews, Dorothy Allison", accessed June 14, 2010
  10. ^ "Saints and Sinners Literary Festival"., May 8, 2007.


  • Contemporary Authors Online (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2004), ISBN 978-0-7876-3995-2
  • Philip Gambone, Travels in a Gay Nation: Portraits of LGBTQ Americans (Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2010), ISBN 978-0-299-23684-7
  • Janet Z. Marsh, "Dorothy Allison" in Dictionary of Literary Biography: Twenty-First-Century American Novelists, Second Series (Detroit, MI: Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009), ISBN 978-0-7876-8168-5

External links[edit]