Karin Kallmaker has posted the speech she gave for Dorothy Allison’s Golden Crown Literary Society 2018 Trailblazer Award Golden Crown Literary Society 2018 Trailblazer Award. It’s a great and impassioned introduction to Allison’s essential work.
In this new wondrous age with Supreme Court decisions affirming gay and lesbian marriages, and gender being redefined as nowhere near as rigid as it has previously been defined, I sometimes wonder if anyone knows what our lives were like at the time when I was a young woman, trying to figure out how to live my life honestly in the face of so much hatred and danger. Who are we if we cannot speak truthfully about our lives? How did we come to this new age in which we can take our lovers home or to church or walk hand in hand down the street without lies or pretense or a carefully crafted fictional stance to protect us?
Speaking truth to power was a tenet of the early women’s movement. We would change the world by the simple act of declaring our truth and refusing to back down or lie no matter how virulent the response.
How virulent was the response? Take a look at the coming-out stories shared in Crooked Letter i: Coming Out in the South (NewSouth Books). You will see the internal evolution of people who wanted simply to be themselves. It was not easy or simple or even a matter of confronting prejudice. Most of these people’s deepest struggles were with themselves, their families and their faith, their most personal convictions.
Confronting the enforced silence of manners and social expectations, we claimed our lives for ourselves. Was it heroic? Was it audacious, marvelous, scary and day by day painful? Of course. Did we change the world? Look around you and marvel.
Dorothy Allison, Gay and Grateful: On the Crooked Path to the Crooked Letter
When feminism exploded into my life, it gave me a vision of the world totally different from everything I had assumed or hoped. The concept of a feminist literature offered the possibility of pride in my sexuality. It saved me from either giving up writing entirely, or the worse prospect of writing lies in order to achieve some measure of grudging acceptance. But at the same time, Feminism destroyed all my illusions about Literature. Feminism revealed the city as an armed compound to which I would never be admitted. It forced me to understand, suddenly and completely, that literature was written by men, judged by men. The city itself was a city of Man, a male mind even when housed in a female body. If that was so, all my assumptions about the worth of writing, particularly working-class writing, were false. Literature was a lie, a system of lies, the creation of liars, some of them sincere and unaware of the lies they retold, but all acting in the service of a Great Lie — what the system itself labelled Universal Truth. If that truth erased me and all those like me, then my hopes to change the world through writing were illusions. I lost my faith. I became a feminist activist propelled in part by outrage and despair, and a stubborn determination to shape a life, and create a literature, that was not a lie.
— Dorothy Allison, ‘Believing in Literature’, in Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature, (New York: Firebrand Books, 1994), p. 167.
Crossposted to Feminist Quotes
Throughout my life somebody has always tried to set the boundaries of who and what I will be allowed to be: if working class, an intellectual, upwardly mobile type who knows her place, or at least the virtues of gratitude; if a lesbian, an acceptable lesbian, not too forward about the details of her sexual practice; if a writer, a humble, consciously female one who understands her relationship to “real” writers and who is willing to listen to her editors. What is common to these boundary lines is that their most destructive power lies in what I can be persuaded to do to myself — the walls of fear, shame and guilt I can be encouraged to build in my mind […] I have learned through great sorrow that all systems of oppression feed on public silence and private terrorization. But few do so more forcefully than the systems of sexual oppression, and each of us is under enormous pressure to give in to their demands.
Dorothy Allison, ‘Public Silence, Private Terror, in Skin: Talking about Sex, Class and Literature, (New York: Firebrand Books, 1994), p. 117
Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is that change when it comes cracks everything open (p. 48).
Dorothy Allison is a lifesaving writer. Every time I read her work, I feel like she’s reaching out to us in an authentic attempt to communicate something important about surviving in this world. In a world in which it can feel like there is little in the way of authentic, honest, communication, and in which so many interactions seem to be about what people can get out of each other, Allison’s writing is a great gift.
- Here are 5 famous authors who were famous for something other than their writing
- Apparently Great Expectations is the peoples’ favourite Dickens novel.
- From Elisa Rolle, a post about lesbian pulp writer Ann Banon. I’ve never read any of her novels ::hangs head in shame::
- Most of you have probably already seen this, “Straightening” Gay Characters in Young Adult Fiction
- Here’s one for the critical theory geeks from Philosopherzone, The Mind of Jaques Lacan
- And one for the writers, a lecture about dialogue from lesbian writer Dorothy Allison
- I love these science fiction cover art posts from Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations, A Selection of Vincent Di Fate’s early 70s covers, and The Best of Alex Schomburg’s 60s novel covers.
- A post about Danny Boyle’s great science fiction film Sunshine, Sunshine casts a fantastic light on science fiction. I remember that this film really got under my skin.
- From Bad Reputation, a review of Troll Hunter, which is a film I have to see.
- From Feminist Music Geek, Long live the pop star flesh, a great post about Debbie Harry and the David Cronenburg film, Videodrome; also from Feminist Music Geek, a post about Madonna’s much maligned Erotica phase, Lovers Pop.
- From Overthinkingit, The female character flowchart.
- From Den of Geek, some helpful advice for your big day, the golden rules of movie weddings and marriages
What I have tried to do in my own life is refuse the language and categories that would reduce me to less than my whole complicated experience (213)
Skin is a compelling collection of essays. Dorothy Allison shares with Joan Nestle an ability to make complex ideas and arguments accessible. It’s interesting that both these writers come from poor working-class backgrounds and I suspect they brought their “no bullshit” attitudes with them into their feminism. Allison is particularly good at getting to the heart of difficult issues.
She grew up in South Carolina, a member of what she calls “the bad poor”, the American underclass. She experienced horrific physical and sexual abuse from her stepfather. She came out as a lesbian in her adolescence and and got to university where she became involved in feminism. Since then she has become notorious for being on the “sex positive” or “pro-sex” side of the feminist “sex wars” (she was a founder of the Lesbian Sex Mafia and has been open about her femme identity and interest in BDSM). She also writes fiction and poetry.
As you would expect, there are essays about sex and pornography in this collection, but I think it’s important that Allison is not simplistically reduced to the role she has been ascribed in the feminist “sex wars”. The essays show her interest in a wide range of issues, such as class, lesbian experience, abuse, violence, creative writing and science fiction.
‘A Question of Class’
This is about how her experience of coming from “the bad poor” has shaped her politics. It explains a great deal about Allison’s uncompromising attitude and insistence on speaking out about the complexities of identity. Where she comes from, not speaking out is fatal:
I grew up poor, hated, the victim of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, and I know that suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us – extraordinary (p. 36).
I can see why this essay is the first in book – it is the basis for everything that follows.
‘Public Silence, Private Terror’
Here she talks about her experiences of the feminist “sex wars” and the impact they had on her. It is unapologetic, but makes it apparent that she honestly didn’t foresee that speaking openly about her views on sex would get her into so much trouble with other feminists. She took the radical feminist incitement to women to talk about their experiences very literally and then got burned in the process of doing just that. You might disagree with her views on sex, but I think this is an important essay to read:
The hardest lesson I have learned in the last few years is how powerful is my own desire to hang onto a shared sense of feminist community where it is safe to talk about dangerous subjects like sex, and how hopeless is the desire. Even within what I have thought of as my own community […] I have never felt safe. I have never been safe, and this is only partly because everyone else is just as fearful as I am. None of us is safe because we have not tried to make each other safe. We have never even recognised the fearfulness of the territory. We have addressed violence and exploitation and heterosexual assumptions without first establishing the understanding that for each of us, desire is unique and necessary and simply terrifying […]
As feminists, many of us have committed our whole lives to struggling to change what most people in this society don’t even question, and sometimes the intensity of our struggle has persuaded us that the only way to accomplish change is to make hard bargains, to give up some points and compromise on others. What this has always meant in the end, unfortunately, is trading some people for others.
I do not want to do that.
I do not want to require any woman to do that.
I do not want to claim a safe and comfortable life for myself that is purchased at the cost of some other woman’s needs or desires. But over and over again I see us being pushed to do just that. (113 – 114)
‘Survival Is the Least of my Desires’
This is about writing as catharsis, something Allison seems to believe in very passionately. Some quotes:
I believe the secret in writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of the writer’s courage. The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides, the edge of our worst stuff. I believe, absolutely, that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough’ (217).
It seems to me the only way I have forgiven anything, understood anything, is through that process of opening up to my own terror and pain and re-examining it, recreating it in the story, and making is something different, making if meaningful – even if the meaning is only in the act of telling (p. 218).
That’s what I believe to be the important of telling the truth, each of us writing out of the unique vision our lives have given us (219).
Her essay ‘Believing in Literature’ is also very good.
‘Skin, Where She Touches Me’
I found this the most disturbing essay in the collection. It left me feeling shattered and emptied out and it took me a little while to figure out why. It’s about her relationships with two of the most important women in her life: her mother and her first lover. Both of these women betrayed her in extremely painful ways, her mother though her inability to leave Allison’s abusive stepfather, and her lover by not caring enough to give up the heroin that eventually killed her, so both chose other things over Dorothy. But I think that what’s so disturbing about this piece of writing is the truth it expresses about the way women can have such complex and painful relationships in which we commit terrible betrayals and yet at the same time carry on loving each other because we do understand why it happened. This is not something we like to talk about.
All in all, I found it by turns a difficult, challenging and inspirational read.