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Dorothy Allison (born April 11, 1949) is an American writer from South Carolina whose writing focuses on class struggle, sexual abuse, child abuse, feminism and lesbianism. She is a self-identified lesbian femme.[1] Allison has won a number of awards for her writing, including several Lambda Literary Awards. In 2014, Allison was elected to membership in the Fellowship of Southern Writers.[2]

Dorothy Allison
Allison at the Miami Book Fair International 2011
Allison at the Miami Book Fair International 2011
Born (1949-04-11) April 11, 1949 (age 70)
Greenville, South Carolina
Occupationwriter, poet, novelist
Subjectclass struggle, child and sexual abuse, women, lesbianism, feminism, and family
Literary movementFeminism
SpouseAlix Layman



Early lifeEdit

Dorothy E. Allison was born on April 11, 1949 in Greenville, South Carolina to Ruth Gibson Allison, who was fifteen at the time. Her single mother was poor, working as a waitress and cook. Ruth eventually married, but when Dorothy was five, her stepfather began to abuse her sexually. This abuse lasted for seven years. At age 11 Allison told a relative about it, who told her mother. Ruth forced her husband to leave the girl alone, and the family remained together. The respite did not last long, as the stepfather resumed the sexual abuse, continuing for five years. Allison suffered mentally and physically, contracting gonorrhea that was not diagnosed and treated until she was in her 20s. The untreated disease left her unable to have children.[3]

Allison's family moved to central Florida to escape debt. Allison had witnessed family members die because of the extreme poverty. She was the first person in her family to graduate from high school, succeeding as a student despite her chaotic home life. She qualified as a National Merit Scholar. At age 18, she left home and enrolled in college.[citation needed]

College yearsEdit

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 began graduate studies in anthropology at Florida State University.


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

In 1979, Allison moved to New York City. She started classes at The New School, where she earned an 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 that was picketed by the New York chapter of Women Against Pornography, who called the panelists "anti-feminist terrorists". Protesters accused Allison of supporting sexual abuse of children because of the graphic content in her literary works.[citation needed] She responded to such critics in her collection, The Women Who Hate Me: Poems by Dorothy Allison.

In addition to writing fiction and poetry, Allison taught college courses, served as a guest lecturer, and contributed to publications such as 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. This won 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, who 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.[citation needed]

She had spent nearly a decade working on her first novel Bastard Out of Carolina, which she took half-finished to Dutton Publishing in 1989. They gave her a $37,500 cash advance to complete it,[citation needed] and the book was published in 1992. It was later adapted as a film of the same name, directed by Anjelica Huston for TNT. The book and film both generated controversy because of the graphic content, and the TV film was aired on Showtime rather than TNT. The Canadian Maritime Film Classification Board initially banned distribution of the film in Canada, but it was reversed on appeal. In November 1997, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court affirmed a State Board of Education decision to ban the book in public high schools because of its graphic content.[5]

In 1998, Allison published Cavedweller, which received numerous awards. That year she founded and endowed the Independent Spirit Award (not to be confused with the Independent Spirit Awards). The award, administered by the Astraea Foundation, is an annual prize given to an individual whose work within the small press and independent bookstore circuit has helped sustain that enterprise.

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

In 2007, Allison announced that she was working on a new novel entitled She Who, to be published by Riverhead Press.[6][7]

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

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. This prize is presented annually to a science fiction or fantasy work that explores and expands on ideas of gender.

Allison at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival.


Themes in Allison's work include class struggle, child and sexual abuse, women, lesbianism, feminism, and family. French literary scholar, Mélanie Grué, describes Allison's work as a celebration of "the vilified transgressive lesbian body."[8] Grué also notes Allison's ability "to make [lesbian] desire and pleasure public" in her writing, in contrast to the second-wave feminist views on "correct expressions" of stexuality. [8]

Allison released an updated and extended version of her 1983 poetry collection, The Women Who Hate Me, in 1991, published by the feminist publishing house, Firebrand Books.

Allison's first novel, the semi-autobiographical Bastard Out of Carolina (1992), 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 won the Ferro Grumley and Bay Area Reviewers Award for fiction. The novel has been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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

Allison's book Trash: Short Stories was first published in 1988 by Firebrand Books. Revised editions were published by Penguin (1990) and Plume (2002) with additional short stories such as "Compassion" and "Deciding to Live. It won 1989 Lambda Literary Awards for "Best Lesbian Small Press Book" and "Best Lesbian Fiction".

Influences include Toni Morrison, Bertha Harris, and Audre Lorde. Allison says The Bluest Eye helped her to write about incest[9]. 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."[citation needed] 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]

Sex and gender activistEdit

Allison has advocated for safer sex and is active in feminist and lesbian communities. She is one of the co-founders of the Lesbian Sex Mafia, an information and support group for women of all sexual orientations and identities.[10] In 1977, Allison became an associate of the American nonprofit publishing organization Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP),[11] which works to increase communication between women and connect the public with forms of women-based media.

Personal lifeEdit

Allison lives in Monte Rio, California with her partner, Alix Layman, and their son.[citation needed]


In 2006, Allison was chosen as Writer in Residence for Columbia College, Chicago. She served as the Distinguished Visiting Professor at Emory University's Center for Humanistic Inquiry in spring 2008. Allison also served as the McGee Professor of Writing at Davidson College for the fall of 2009.

In 2007, she was elected to the Fellowship of Southern Writers.[12]



  • The Women Who Hate Me: Poems by Dorothy Allison (1983)
  • Trash: Short Stories (1988) ISBN 9780452283510
  • The Women Who Hate Me: Poetry 1980–1990 (1991) ISBN 978-0932379986
  • Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) ISBN 9780452297753
  • Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature (1994) ISBN 9780044409441
  • Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (1995) ISBN 9780006548812
  • Cavedweller (1998) ISBN 978-0452279698
  • She Who (TBA)




See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Ed. Burke, Jennifer Clare (2009). Visible: A Femmethology Vol. 2. Homofactus Press. p. 44. ISBN 978-0978597351.
  2. ^ "Dorothy Allison". The Fellowship of Southern Writers. Archived from the original on 28 August 2015. Retrieved 20 March 2014.
  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.[permanent dead link]
  7. ^ Hartt, Jordan (28 March 2007). "An Interview with Dorothy Allison". Centrum. Archived from the original on 20 July 2011.
  8. ^ a b Grué, Mélanie (2015-09-16). "Celebrating Queer Lesbian Desires with Dorothy Allison: From moral monstrosity to the beautiful materiality of the body". Ilha do Desterro A Journal of English Language, Literatures in English and Cultural Studies. 68 (2): 127. doi:10.5007/2175-8026.2015v68n2p127. ISSN 2175-8026.
  9. ^ Dorothy, Allison (2012). Bastard out of Carolina. New York: Penguin. pp. Afterword. ISBN 0452269571. OCLC 27640153.
  10. ^ Queer Culture Center: "Owen Keehnen: Interviews, Dorothy Allison", accessed June 14, 2010
  11. ^ "Associates | The Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press". Retrieved 2017-06-21.
  12. ^ "Fellowship of Southern Writers | Dorothy Allison". Fellowship of Southern Writers. Retrieved 2018-08-19.
  13. ^ "Saints and Sinners Literary Festival"., May 8, 2007.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit