- An Interview with Dorothy Allison
Dorothy Allison is best known as the author of Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), which was a finalist for the National Book Award and has become a touchstone in scholarly treatments of class, gender, sexuality, trauma, and violence in contemporary literature. Like many good titles, Bastard Out of Carolina invites multiple interpretations, "out" and "of" combining to mean either "part of" or "external to," "shaped by" or "banished from"—connotations that parallel Allison's complex relationship to her personal narrative of place and class, trauma and memory. Allison was born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1949, "the bastard child of a teenage mother from a desperately poor family," as she has remarked on more than one occasion. Her work reflects that background with unsparing criticism and caring concern, a combination that is simultaneously unflinching and endearing. Allison has lived "out of" South Carolina for more than three decades, first in Florida and New York, then more permanently in Northern California. She writes from a perspective that is "out of Carolina" in several senses, combining the detachment of an external observer—Allison did graduate work in anthropology—with the texture of firsthand, lived experience.
Allison employs a language that is also simultaneously at home and alienated, drawing carefully and caringly on a regional dialect, but often to demonstrate how that specific language stigmatizes particular groups of people. Her work explores the complex intersections of socioeconomic status with [End Page 651] sexual orientation, gender identity, and racial prejudice. Bastard Out of Carolina represents the powerful effects of naming from its very first line: "I've been called Bone all my life, but my name's Ruth Anne" (1). Allison's Ishmael begins in the passive voice but then immediately makes an assertion of identity; the novel's thematic structure hinges on the difference between what one is called and what name one claims. After Bone Boatwright is born to an unwed teenage mother, she is "certified a bastard by the state of South Carolina" (3). Bone's mother objects to this official act of naming: "'Bastard!' Mama hissed, and then caught herself. She hated that word" (10). When Bone's mother attempts to secure a new birth certificate, one without the stamp of illegitimacy, she is reminded of the realities facing women in her situation: "This is how it's got to be. The facts have been established" (4); "You've lived in this county all your life, and you know how things are" (9). When Granny counsels Mama to ignore the birth certificate, commenting that courthouse records remain unread, Mama still objects, realizing that "how things are" means that the official act of naming performs more than it denotes: "Mama hated to be called trash" (3). To be trash is to be marked as inferior in a racial economy that privileges whiteness, and thus Bone hears a familiar note when her friend says "nigger"—"the tone pitched exactly like the echoing sound of Aunt Madeline sneering 'trash' when she thought I wasn't close enough to hear" (170). Allison reminds her readers that the first term in "white trash" is as insidious for its racial implications as the second is offensive for its class denotation.
Allison's work insists that linguistic constructions are causally efficacious and develops a realism that is both lyrical and coarse in order to explore the often violent and traumatic effects of claims to and about class, race, gender, and sexuality. Her writing represents the ways that a fundamentally inequitable socioeconomic system dictates who people are by preventing them from becoming what they could be. When Bone responds with outrage to her friend's racist language, the friend replies in turn, "Everybody knows who you are" (170). The claim doubles as a declaration and an accusation. Bone's sense that she has already become "a Boatwright woman" (309) before she has turned thirteen [End Page 652] seems to corroborate her friend's claim about what everybody knows to be the case. Bone herself confesses in the novel's final paragraph that "I was already who I was going to be" (309). Allison's second novel, Cavedweller (1998), appears to...