blackbirdonline journalSpring 2017  Vol. 16 No. 2
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A Conversation with Dorothy Allison
captured September 15, 2016

On September 16, 2016, the Virginia Commonwealth University community engaged in a conversation with author Dorothy Allison. The event was moderated by Mary Flinn and Randy Marshall, both senior editors of Blackbird. Allison’s visit was in conjunction with the 2016 VCU Southern Film Festival, which commenced the same day with a screening of the film, Bastard out of Carolina, based on Allison’s novel of the same name (Dutton, 1992). Throughout this conversation, Allison discusses, with wit and candor, her writing process, southern culture, and the “painful realities within the queer community.”

Mary Flinn: Welcome. My name is Mary Flinn. I’m a senior editor at Blackbird. We’re delighted to be able to moderate a question and answer with Dorothy Allison, a wonderful novelist [and] writer of critical and activist prose and poems.

Randy Marshall, who is the senior literary editor at Blackbird, will be leading the discussion. So, I’ll turn it over to Randy.

Randy Marshall: Welcome, and thank you, Dorothy, for agreeing to sit and talk with us this morning on this busy weekend for you. She is here as part of VCU’s Southern Film [Festival], and she has agreed to give us some literary time this morning.

Just to tell you a little bit about her publications, she’s the author of a collection of poems entitled The Women Who Hate Me that was published in 1983 by Long Haul Press. She’s the author of Trash, a collection of short stories that was published by Firebrand Books in 1988 and then rereleased [in] 2002 by Plume. She’s got two novels done, right?

Dorothy Allison: Two novels published and two more in the works.

RM: Two more in the works. I don’t know about the other ones.

DA: I’ll tell you.

RM: OK, I didn’t make good notes.

DA: Nobody knows.

RM: You all are probably really familiar with Bastard Out of Carolina, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1992. It also was nominated for—

DA: A lot of prizes. Let’s move on.

RM: A lot of prizes.

MF: It’s a wonderful novel, and it was recognized as such.

RM: It was a lot of prizes, a lot of prizes. She is working on a novel called She Who. So what is the second novel that you’re working on?

DA: OK. It’s a little complicated, because they’re inherent in talking about it as a series of stories. She Who got in trouble. You know how redneck girls are. I, for the first time in my life, experienced writer’s block, which was something I attributed to the middle-class motherfuckers. Working class writers, we didn’t have time to have writer’s block, or emotional energy. We couldn’t afford it. I must’ve somehow crept into the middle class, because it hit me like a train. I realized, I knew how it was supposed to end, but I couldn’t make it end. Michael Chabon talks about his second novel that became thirty-five thousand pages.

RM: Right, right.

DA: I think She Who is pushing that. So, it’s in a huge box, some of which is at Duke University.

RM: Well, I’m sure that the folks here in the room are going to ask you more questions about what’s up with She Who and what’s taking so long, and you talked about it a little bit last night. I’m not going to push it too much because I’m not one to talk. You’re a self-confessed slow writer.

DA: I am.

RM: But just to qualify that observation, I just wrapped up a forty-page essay on the work of Terry Hummer that took me four years to get done. So, slow.

DA: Brother!

RM: Welcome to the land of the slow. But before I turn it loose to the folks for questions, I just want to say that as a fifty-something queer poet whose life and work originates in the southern context, I’m very honored by the opportunity to talk to you this morning.

DA: Well, aren’t you sweet?

RM: Your work was just starting to leave its mark on American contemporary writing when I came through the MFA here in the midnineties. It was out there in the ether, and it really—the courage and compassion and the fighting spirit that characterizes your work has really been an inspiration to me, and I know to an entire generation of LGBTQIA folks. So, with that, I’m going to open it up to the table and see who’s got questions.

Audience: In all of your work—your poems, your essays—there’s this unspoken character, and that is the character of structural capitalism. Could you talk a little bit about that?

DA: I’ve never used the term “structural capitalism.” I’m not entirely sure what that means. I call it “criminal capitalism.”

Audience: Same thing.

DA: One of my motivations for the work that I do, aside from being raised a redneck girl in the South, which is like, no quarter. You don’t back up, and you don’t hesitate. And if they kill you, they kill you. But fuck ’em. That pretty much structures my confrontation with capitalism and class in this culture.

Also, because I’m sixty-seven years old, and I grew up in the South in what was essentially the fifties and sixties, and that means I hate the rich. I’ve still got a bumper sticker that says “Eat the rich,” which is not respectable. And I’m sure Donald Trump has something to say about it. He has something to say about most everything. I absolutely believe that the working class of this country is the grease that makes it run, and that grease is continually crushed in the machinery of capitalism. Is that good enough for you?

I get bombastic and angry on this subject. I have an enormous family. Enormous, truly. Twins, we run in twins in our family. They die. My cousins die with relentless regularity and they die of the diseases of poverty. Not just alcoholism and diabetes and stroke and every other little damn thing that you can imagine, but [they’re also] crushed in machines and working in the mills, although we weren’t good mill people. We were just a little too much troublesome. You live outside respectable life in America—you live on the downside—you see things that the upside doesn’t see, doesn’t want to see, can’t afford to see. Because otherwise we wouldn’t be greasing their machinery for them. So yeah, I hold a lot of people responsible, and the motivation for a lot of my work is to call attention to that. I am a nice person; I’ve got good manners. But I am not a nice person. Let’s be clear.

RM: Well, can I challenge that? You were talking about humor last night, and humor as maybe one of the only things that these poor people caught up in this machine have to push back against the brutality and the indignation of their lives. That struck me as something very interesting, and I was wondering if you could talk about it a little bit, and maybe even in the context of pointing to some of the things in your own work where you see humor being really operative.

DA: It’s complicated. When I teach young writers who want to address issues of biography or something relating to family stories—most of those stories are terrible stories. I mean, you poke a working-class southerner, possibly you poke a northerner or a middle-class—I don’t know. You poke somebody. And they will tell you terrible stories. Who died.

I was struck last night watching the movie [Bastard out of Carolina] again, and the relentlessness of Annie’s life with just one tragedy after another. But that’s most people’s lives. What enables survival in that context is just the most nasty, caustic sense of humor. And I remember one of the overwhelming responses I got when Bastard was published, when I would go around and read it. Two things: one, they would all stare at me like, “Oh my God, I didn’t know you were so funny.” And then, the corollary, which is, “How can you be funny about such terrible things?”

But, if you’re going to write and you want to fuck people up, the very best way to do that is to tell ’em a story that will have them laughing, and then tell them a story that’ll make them right fall down on the floor. You’ve got to soften ’em up, and you’ve also got to make it possible for the people you love and want to put on the page to show enough spunk to survive.

If you’ve ever gone to a southern funeral, aside from the presence of liquor, the most common thing that happens are funny stories. “You remember when they come to take the couch, and she hit him in the head?” You know those kind of stories? They’re ridiculously funny. Except that at the core of all that humor is a kernel of tragedy. It structures a lot of my writing, because I always do want to fuck you up. Sorry, not sorry at all.

Well, there you go. We were talking about Lee Smith earlier, who is one of my favorite people in the world, and Lee does it. Lee’s got a razor on her tongue, honey. She’ll tell you a funny story that’ll have you sobbing on the floor. It’s so nice.

RM: You mentioned that Lee’s book, The Devil’s Dream, was one of your favorites, yeah.

DA: She hasn’t written a bad book. But I’ve got a list of people who haven’t written a bad book, and most of them tend to be southern Appalachian writers. That’s where I go first, for my people. And then queers. Or maybe queers are first—it’s hard to keep track. People have so many shifting gender identities, I no longer track that at all. If I find you sexy, you’ve probably got some kernel of female in you, but that’s about it.

RM: Fair enough.

DA: Mhm. You’ve all got manners; you’re so polite. First thing we have to teach you is that you can be impolite and still have manners. So talk to me, babies. Who here is a writer?

[Some audience members raise their hands.]

OK, we’ve got to do remedial education. All right. You’re going to be a writer in criminal capitalism in America? First thing you learn is that when somebody asks you if you are a writer, you do not put your hand up in hesitant fashion. You put your hand up as if you are screaming to the Lord. Witness! Who here is a writer? You’re going to need that courage. Push that hand up. You’ve got to own the identity, because they will tell you if you do anything of worth—and I am very serious on this subject—if you do anything of worth, you will be told that you are doing something wrong. You will be told you have no right to that voice you have. It’s the nature of literary exchange in this nation. Actually, it’s probably true in Europe, too, although they have a different set of manners I don’t quite understand.

You have to find that kernel of muscle inside yourself and exercise it all the time. Otherwise, they will destroy you. What they will do, critics—people who make a living belittling other people, people who make a living in academia telling you what’s wrong with you—they will get you to destroy yourself. They will persuade you to persuade yourself that nothing you know is that important, and that the stories you want to tell are not—not to be shared, and that the act of writing itself is an inherent act of betrayal. That’s a lie. I’m sixty-seven and I’m not well; I could die any day. Ain’t no reason in the world for me to tell you nothing that I do not believe is true. You should find what’s true and say it loudly. And raise your hands a lot higher.

MF: How do you choose which part of that truth you prefer to put into fiction versus putting it into an essay or into something that is more polemic?

DA: You know, I don’t write essays much anymore at all. I don’t have the time or the energy. A lot of the venues where I used to do essays no longer exist. I don’t do Facebook. I don’t do any of that shit. I don’t snap, I don’t twit, I don’t do any. That appears to me to be where a lot of that [kind of] material is appearing now. Given that, fuck it. I’ll go back to story. I prefer story anyway.

RM: Last night, you mentioned something about this whole idea of fictionalized experience, but there’s something else that’s going on in your fictions. It occurred to me that critics might come out and say, “This doesn’t feel like it’s been transformed enough,” or that it’s—

DA: Well, fuck ’em.

RM: Right. Do you equate anything that you’re doing on that level with writers like Anzaldúa or, you know, those people who are doing [that] life/myth writing thing? Or Audre?

DA: I tend to come back to Audre Lorde and Zami more. And the whole concept of biomythography. It’s about giving permission. I do not write biography for many reasons, but one is that I can do a better story if I lie a little, sometimes lie a lot. Stories, for me, begin in something that I have seen or experienced or been told in such a powerful way that I want to retell it—that begins it.

And even if I begin with a literal rendering of something that actually happened, it is in the nature of my work that I will very quickly move away from what really happened to what could have happened. Almost always, there is a first-person narrator or a closely observed third-person narrator who is giving you this experience, which means shaping it with language.

I was raised on the Bible and country music and a little bit of rock and roll now and again. You can’t get away from trying to make a story lyrical. I saw somebody do a critique of my friend, Jim Grimsley, and said that he was doing grim realism, and I think what Jim and I are writing is lyrical realism. It’s what, oh, Silas House and Daniel Woodrell and everybody that I can think of whose work I love—[it’s what they do]. We take realism, which is that we tell a story that seems to us inherently true. We shape it with language in such a way as to impact an audience profoundly. But it’s not biography. And this is where we get into trouble. I got into trouble with Bastard because people would ask me about  . . . “Tell us, Ms. Allison, about what it’s like to be raped as a child of five.” Which is just such a gut-murdering question, but I’ve been asked that on television. You can either die when someone hits you with that, or you can come back at them.

And I have to say that the first couple of times it happened to me, I kind of half died. And I got angry, which is what happens to redneck girls. We get mad, especially those of us who don’t actually drink, because we don’t lose any of the edge of our anger. But you add to that a long, serious, and deep education in feminism—in which you see things that the rest of the world ignores continually—and a deep, deep education in the class dynamics of this culture, and you’re just running on rage all the time. I just try to reign it in enough to be effective, and by effective, [I mean] there are things I want to achieve, you know? I’ve got my people. It’s hard to talk about that.

RM: You’ve mentioned that one of the things you had to learn was compassion. You talked about sort of going on this journey to learn compassion, and it’s interesting to me that when Trash was reissued, that story, “Compassion,” got a lot of attention and was a milestone on that journey. Could you talk about that a little bit, about that journey toward coming to some kind of compassion?

DA: Well, you know, the thing that follows with compassion is forgiveness. I wasn’t raised on forgiveness. I was raised on revenge. I think that’s one of the things that’ll kill you—like diabetes and high blood pressure and all that. It’s one of the illnesses of the working class in America. It’s also an illness of women and feminists, that we are dogged by rage.

Rage can be a really strong engine for producing work. Begin with revenge. It’s a great place to start. But if you stay with revenge, it’ll kill you or you’ll kill yourself in the service of it. Also, you put so much energy into the people for whom you have that rage that you become their creature. It seems to me most of my life, I have been trying not to be their creature. Not my stepfather’s creature, not his upper-class family’s creature, not the creature made by a really bad education in Greenville, South Carolina. Somebody should sue somebody for that educational system. The motto of the South Carolina Education Board is “Thank God for Mississippi,” because Mississippi has worse schools than South Carolina, but not by much.

And the thing that saves you, if anything is going to save you, is reading stories in which people are not continually monsters. You know what I’m talking about? And I mean that even about writers who write monsters. You can’t read Stephen King without finding a core of compassion. You can’t read any writer who thinks a little under the surface, who doesn’t at some point have to grapple with forgiveness. And I mean by that, forgiveness for unforgivable acts. Not just the rape of children, but a culture that grinds up people like all my cousins. I hold this country responsible for the meth epidemic, and I think that is entirely a product of criminal capitalism. If you’ve got nothing else, you can learn to cook. You will, of course, explode the sucker in your trailer in the countryside and kill not only yourself, but probably your girlfriend and the four babies she’s got in the other bedroom, you know what I’m talking about? I hold this culture responsible.

But if I stay in my rage, I can’t do anything. What I believe is the glory of story is that you show people who go back and forth, from being angels of light to devils of darkness. In Bastard, the thing that was hardest for me to do was to try to understand Glen Waddell, to try to create some kind of story in which he made sense. There is no story that makes sense of a man who would rape and murder and beat a child. There is just not. But I’m a writer, and my job is to find my way into understanding what would twist a man like that, what would twist a woman to love a man like that, what twists people to destroy themselves.

Just on the level of writing, it makes a better story. It makes a deeper, more believable story. I don’t want to be writing after-school specials. I want to rip you up and make you think. If I’m going to live this life and have to constantly take a deep breath, and be what this woman that trapped me in my hotel room last night kept yelling at me—“You’re my idol! You’re a genius!” I ain’t no fucking genius. I’m a runaway redneck girl with a gift for language. It’s my weapon and it’s my glory, and to that, I’ve tried to add some measure of Baptist compassion. You know about Baptist compassion? We’ll forgive you, but we’ll hurt you real bad before.

RM: Well, in that phrase that I’ve seen about you, you were calling yourself a “born-again Californian.”

DA: Yeah!

RM: That “born-again” has nothing to do with church, I’m taking it? Or does it?

DA: Well, let’s just say that I live on a piece of property with two stands of redwoods, and that’s kind of church.

RM: There you go.

DA: The homeless in Guerneville, which is the little town near where I live, they meet in the redwood grove. They smoke a lot of dope and they talk nonsense, but, you know—it’s kind of, it’s church. I find it more comfortable than going back to Baptist churches. But I do miss music. I miss gospel music. It’s my one complaint with marijuana: it doesn’t actually produce much in the way of good gospel.

RM: You’re the one who opened the door for music; I’m going to be a poet-homer for a minute. When are new poems coming? Do you write any poetry at all? Are you writing any poems at all?

DA: I’m not that good a poet.

RM: You’re not that bad a poet, either.

DA: A lot of what I write begins in poetry, but pretty much for the last two decades, even when it begins in poetry, it shifts to narrative—but a particular kind of narrative, and you can see it. I can see it in Bastard, in which there are whole chunks that are narrative-toned poems that appear in the manuscript. What I find happening in my work is, I begin with a lyric and then it drifts, and it drifts more into narrative, although I never go to dry narrative. In my mind, the language has to sing. Even the most bluntly detailed, stricken story that you tell, to my mind, has to sing.

That was the trouble I got into with She Who in some ways, because I tried to grapple with what happens to you when you have experienced violence, and who you become trying to resist the impacts of violence. And I found that I was writing a great deal of what can only be called lyric poetry about violence and the impulse to violence. And there is a part of me that’s horrified by that, and I couldn’t let it go. Although, I might. You never know. If I live long enough. But I do different shit.

It’s an interesting life being a writer in America. It’s like being an actor in medieval times—you know, the ones they used to bury outside the city walls? This is pretty much the role of writers in America, especially writers like me, who believe we’re doing something. I know writers who are just, “Let’s just make a living. Let’s just feed the family. Let’s just pay the mortgage.” And then there are people like me who are like, “OK, I’m going to try desperately to pay the mortgage and feed my dogs and keep my kids safe. But meanwhile, I still want to rip people up and do it in such a way that they will almost be grateful to me.” Which is an achievement, if you think about it. That puts you in a particular place that does not always make a living. You have to be willing to accept a state of poverty to do that kind of work, and I never wanted to take a vow of poverty. I don’t like poverty. It’s not something I want to visit on my family or on myself, for that matter. Poverty kills you.

RM: Well, about as far away from that poverty experience as you can get is maybe Hollywood, and you’ve obviously had some experience there. You told some stories last night.

DA: There’s still people who mean well. God save ’em. You know that “No better than she ought to be” phrase from down south? Maybe you don’t know this phrase. They’re all no better than they ought to be. They all want to be rich. The primary motivation I see in dealing with Hollywood is—they basically want to get something from you for as little money as possible, and earn as much money as possible. Which means, of course, transmuting whatever they take from you into something that is much more palatable and acceptable in American terms.

So, they really want to take the teeth out of what you’re doing. Resisting that means you won’t make as much money. You’ll be a difficult person. But they don’t read. It’s just kind of amazing. Thank God for audiobooks, or they’d never buy any of us, because that’s how they understand us. It’s a different animal. They don’t even exist in the class system that the rest of the country does.

I got taken down to Anjelica Huston’s house and she was married to this wonderful artist, so she had this place in Santa Monica. And she did send a limousine. I’m a sucker. I was like, “Oh, fuck. She sent me a limousine.” And they put me in a limousine, and there’s all this liquor. I don’t drink, but I was like, “Oh, there’s liquor in the limousine, isn’t this cool?” And then I go to Anjelica Huston’s office in the compound that she and her husband owned in Santa Monica. She weeps on my neck, and she’s talking to me very sincerely, and there are these dogs under her desk. And I’m like, you know, I’m a redneck girl; I’m looking at the dogs.

And here comes possibly the most beautiful boy I have ever seen, maybe twenty, but I swear to you, it was like Michelangelo’s David walked into the room. And my mouth falls open, and I’m a dyke. This boy is so pretty, and he smiles at me, and he smiles at Anjelica. He bends down, and he gathers up the dogs and clips little leashes to them and starts through the door, and I’m like, “Who is that?” And she says, “Oh, that’s my dog walker.”

It’s a different world. They don’t live in the world with the rest of us. This is a boy that—I swear to God—if he walks down the street, people throw money at him. Be grateful he’s moving down their street. And I’m like, “Fuck me.” And that was when I thought, “I got to get out of here. This is dangerous to somebody raised as poor as I was raised.” The smell of money in the room could make you drunk. But it’s also the smell of poison, because it’s a world that does not value what I value. They don’t read.

RM: You don’t think Anjelica thought her dog walker was a pretty boy?

DA: Actually, I don’t think she noticed. No, wait, that obscures some really essential things. I think it was important to her that all of her people be very, very pretty. She had so many people. She had people—they brought in tuna, [and] she says, “Would you like a tuna fish sandwich for lunch?” And I’m like, “Well, I like tuna fish.” It was rare seared ahi, without even any mayonnaise. And I’m like, “I’m in a different world. The lunch she’s serving me probably cost eight hundred dollars. This is very dangerous.”

MF: She’s the third generation in her family to be making movies, too.

DA: She had a really clear grasp about violence. Writing about violence and portraying violence. And when we talked, I realized I could trust that. I didn’t realize that she didn’t actually have a sense of humor. Because, you know, the rich don’t. A sense of humor is a product of stress. They don’t have the right kind of stress to develop from an early age the capacity to find irony and astonishment in the world. So, my biggest complaint with the movie is that it is not structured right. The book is structured so that if you really look at it with a nasty, editorial eye, you’ll begin to figure out that there are scenes of sometimes gentle—but sometimes really pointed—humor that will have you laughing out loud. And very shortly thereafter, you will be sobbing. That’s how it’s designed, and it’s designed that way because I fear you can’t tell that painful a story if you don’t give the reader what the working class has as a survival technique, which is an appreciation of the absurdity of life.

Well, she doesn’t have that. She was raised rich. There was always the stuff at her back that none of my people ever had, which means that she’s lacking a basic muscle. So, she didn’t see the structure of the book and couldn’t put it in the movie. It’s just one goddamn misery after another. That’s not how anybody survives. Jesus Christ, there’s a car wreck and then you all sit by the side of the road and talk about what a goddamn miracle it is we got out of there without too much damage.

Audience: I first became aware of your work as a dyke looking for literature about my life. But you were so good at your writing, you got noticed beyond the community of lesbian writers, and I think that you are the pivot figure in the arc of that story going mainstream.

DA: In some ways.

Audience: I wonder how that came to you. I wondered about your reflection about being that writer.

DA: Yeah. It’s a bit difficult because it’s about talking out of class. It’s about talking about some real hard, painful realities within the queer community, and that is our resentment and fear of each other.

I started publishing stories that were very, very queer—very much about being a dyke and not just admiring other women, but wanting to do things with them. And I wanted to write details about—I really wanted to fuck on the page. Because, you know, straight people do it all the time, and I couldn’t find anything. I was looking for it constantly, and I thought, “OK, I’ll write it.” And there were people that were thrilled and grateful. But there were a whole bunch of people that were pissed off at me for this kind of writing. I got accused of being a pornographer and playing to the lowest common denominator. Then, I got accused of not being queer enough. I realized, you can’t try to please people who are holding you to a standard they don’t even apply to themselves.

There ain’t no way around this, we take a lot of damage. You grow up queer in this culture, you take a lot of damage. You get a whole hell of a lot of self-hatred and shame built into the muscle that you develop to survive.

I remember Daughter’s Press. This was Barbara Grier. She had asked for a story for a collection. I sent a story to her. She called me up on the phone, and I liked her. She had done some really amazing work—lifesaving historical work with rescuing manuscripts, and publishing work by early dyke writers, and getting it out in the world.

And I was like, “OK, I want to be in your anthology.” And I sent her a story. And she was like, “Who are you writing for?” She called me up, and she says this on the phone. I said, “Well, mostly myself.” And she’s like, “I think you’re writing for gay men.” And I’m like, “Well, I—I can handle that.” And she says, “Well, I want to publish stories for lesbian women.” And I’m like, “Well, it’s very a lesbian story, although I would say it’s a dyke story”—bringing in the implications of class, which Barbara never wanted to talk about. And she just was like, all over my ass. And she’s like, “I can’t publish this. This is for boys.” Uh, have you met my girlfriend?

RM: Is that when you came up with the whole thing about [how] maybe you’re a faggot trapped in a woman’s body?

DA: It was pretty much a reaction. They told me I had a dick in my head, whereupon I got a cap and affixed a dildo to it and I wore it for a while. You can’t fuck with us, my kind of people. We fuck right back.

RM: Well, in the interest of full disclosure, my family controlled the adult franchise here in town for quite a while.

DA: Oh, the adult franchise. Code for porn, right?

RM: Yeah.


RM: Yeah. We were the smut vendors in the city. I think after you published that essay about strap-ons, our sales in that sector—we probably should pay you some royalties from it.

DA: Oh, God.

RM: But I mean, you know, that frankness, in terms of representing your erotic—

DA: Well, if they run you out of the town, and you’re run out to the outskirts—which is pretty much what happened to me within lesbian feminists, I got run to the edge—you’re going to sharpshoot right back at ’em. And everything they accuse you of, you’re like, “OK. I’ll take that and I’ll run with it. All right, you think I’m writing for faggots? I’ll write one for a faggot that’ll really fuck you up because it’ll make you get horny.”

And I knew that half of what was coming at me was people’s own discomfort with their own sexuality. You don’t come out of the kind of violent abuse that I endured as a child without damage. And some of that damage structures your sexuality. I realized pretty early on, when I was a teenager, that most of my sexual fantasies were violent. When I started actually allowing another human being to touch me, I went for the most dangerous person in the room.

It’s a joke in my family. I’ve got two sisters and we’ve all got this same syndrome, except that we’re gender-different, which means if we walk into a room and there’s a motherfucker in the room, if it’s a drunk man, my two sisters are right over there feeling him up. “Hey, honey!” And if it’s a mean-ass female, I’m over there saying, “Baby.” I know, I know. When I was writing most of the work that you will see, or at least beginning it, I was responding to all of these “radical lesbian feminists” who were insisting that if your sexuality was not honorable and respectable and presentable, you should just not do it. And I’m like, “You’re going to tell me I can’t fuck? You can go to hell.” They’ve been telling me I can’t be who I am, and I don’t respond well to that kind of insistence.

RM: It seems like you have done a lot of work to get around some of the shame that was involved, and—

DA: You don’t get around it; you go over it. You own it.

RM: And then to have it coming back at you from that community. It seemed like that was a large impetus for your poetry collection.

DA: To a certain extent. You know, the other thing that’s a large impetus, not only for poetry but for stories, is how many people I saw die. And mostly, people who kill themselves. Sometimes they did it with liquor. Sometimes they did it with fast cars. Sometimes they did it in the honorable way—I almost did it several times—which was to date the most dangerous person in the room. I was always dating women that put me in the emergency room. That was very high-class romantic where I come from. It took me a long damn time to get past some of that and to figure out that I could get fucked right without getting near killed, which is a huge breakthrough where I come from. So one of the things that started happening not just with my writing, but with my feminist organizing, was like, “OK. If I come out of this place of damage, I know all of these other people that come out of this place of damage. And I’ve got eighteen friends who killed themselves in the last three years. Why can’t we do something about this? Why can’t we organize in our own defense?” That’s how we wound up founding the Lesbian Sex Mafia—which was, of course, to grab the title that would most offend the upright feminists, most of whom were career-making.

RM: And now you’re just a total pushover, because you said last night that Anjelica Huston weeping on your shoulder—

DA: Oh, Christ Jesus. Oh no, I know.

RM: You know, just was pushing your buttons. So now it’s everything, you know, “Oh no, oh no.”

DA: You don’t even have to be pretty; you’ve just got to weep on me, and I’ll cave in. God, I should’ve learned long ago to avoid this. Yes, ma’am.

Audience: When I took a southern literature class here, you were the only queer author on the entire syllabus. It was the first time I’ve been exposed to your work, and it meant a lot to me as a queer woman from here.

DA: It’s just criminal. There’s so many others.

Audience: Yeah.

DA: Have you read Michelle Tea? You should go pick up Michelle Tea for Christ’s sake. I think that bitch might be thirty years younger than me. Twenty. At least twenty-five years younger than me. But she’s writing in the same vein of sexually explicit, working-class conscious, take-no-prisoners, gorgeous shit. Go pick up The Chelsea Whistle. You’ll see some really wonderful stuff.

Audience: In your short stories, you talk about how you’re motivated to write because of these ghosts of the people that you lost. The first moment when you started writing, you were in the hotel room, in this manic process of trying to externalize feelings of being haunted, and I kind of—

DA: It’s either jump off the balcony or write a story.

Audience: Right, right.

DA: Yeah.

Audience: I struggle with that, too. Did you teach yourself to start writing every day, or did you just keep following those impulses?

DA: Especially early on, I was very compulsive about writing. I had to make a living. I’ve been supporting myself since I was sixteen. That means you get jobs that completely drain and exhaust you. Very quickly, you become calculated in how you organize your life, to be able to both make a living and write.

I really figured out early on that waitress work would kill me if I continued to do it at that level. Because you would just come in so exhausted, and then you’re going to write for three hours? You’ll be dead in a short amount of time or have an illness that will fuck you up. So, I started looking for them clerical positions, which not only were easier on you physically and emotionally, but made it possible for you to steal paper supplies, the use of computers, and all that other shit. Oh my God, when they invented computers.

Oh, Poets & Writers. I should just someday acknowledge how much I stole from Poets & Writers. I tried to give back value and do my job well and get my work done. But every time, I’d get my work done, and then I’m going to pop that computer over and I’m going to write a short story. If my boss comes in, I can flip that screen and I’m putting addresses in. This is how almost all the writers I know found a hustle. You have to find a hustle that makes it possible for you to do the work.

I’m sorry, I know that the American literary ideal is that you get an endowment, you get an award, you get a prize, you marry well. I can’t tell you how many fucking writers I know who got their first books done because they married well and their divorce settlement paid for them to be able to take two years off and write a book. These were mostly heterosexual, but not always. Queers can do that shit, too. Finding a way, it’s a jones.

It’s not that you’re doing something glorified and wonderful, you can’t help yourself. The only way you survive your life is to write stories, or to turn horrific experiences into something inherently beautiful on the page. You know what I’m talking about? Writing either a poem or a story or a chunk of narrative that makes sense of what does not make sense. You know the phrase “a way out of no way”? We steal a lot from black culture. Queers particularly, because we’re all up against it, and survival means you use whatever you can find. A way out of no way. Fuck with you on the subway? You write ’em a short story. She betrayed you and treated you bad? You put her in a poem. Oh mama, put her in a poem. She’ll be shamed the rest of her life. It’s so good.

RM: Since you bring up that point of affinity with African American culture, can you talk a little bit about just some of the things that you’ve gleaned personally?

DA: You may not know about Bertha Harris. Bertha Harris was an experimental southern writer born in North Carolina. She had this amazing story she wrote about being a toddler. Her mother didn’t really want children, so she constructed her crib with a cage top, and she’d put Bertha in the cage and lock it.

She wrote in a kind of code. I understand the code, and if you go read her books, Lover particularly or [Confessions of] Cherubino, you will see that she was writing in an experimental language. Southern writing in an experimental language. She was writing about fucking. But somehow it seemed to be all about flowers, or fruit. You could never be quite sure: “Wait a minute, is she fucking or not?”

RM: That’s like Zora Neale Hurston, or Jean Toomer, maybe.

DA: Yeah! Coded, pushing the edge and pushing the edge. But Bertha, when I met her, when I took a class with her, I discovered she had the same experience that I had, which is, we would send stories out, and the editors would write back to us under the conviction that we were black, because we were writing about southern working class. And the language that we used read, particularly to Yankees, that we were black.

Bertha had the difficulty also of being named Bertha, which they thought, “Well, of course she’s black.” And me? I’m Dorothy. Let’s just say Tiffany and Dorothy are not in the same room. But I had the same experience, and in fact, I got accused of writing black, and I’m like, “Not actually. I’m writing in a vernacular of the southern working class.” You can track it. If you read enough, you can go read, oh Christ, my favorite, Daniel Woodrell. Go read Winter’s Bone, because he sent me the manuscript when he was working on it, and he says, “This is what I’m doing.” And I’m like, “I know these people on your pages. They talk like my people talk.”

Or Jim Grimsley or Silas House or sometimes, sometimes, Jill McCorkle. Because Jill can shade into the middle class, but everyone once in a while [she writes the southern working class]. Or Lee Smith. Southern working class includes black writers. It’s all working class. Now, you have to recognize the really profound distinctions, particularly in how writers are encouraged or published. Let’s just be clear, you’ve gotta own the fact that if you’re white, you’ve got an advantage in getting published in many publications. Not all.

RM: But at the same time, I think that this thing that you bring up at this moment in U.S. culture, where there’s so much “everything old is new again” in terms of the conversation around race. There is another thing. There’s an intersectionality of class to talk about.

DA: But the thing is, it’s not just that there’s another thing. There are other things. There’s sexuality and gender, and gender and sexuality are not the same thing. And there’s color, but then there’s gradations of color. [In] the South, at this point, you can’t even tell who people are anymore. I mean, is she black or is she white? Well, she’s taupe. The wonderful thing that has happened in the South is that some young people—it’s not an across-the-board thing—but that the mixing of races in the South and the friendships across color lines and the bonding across class and color lines. No, not across class: basically, working class people bond across color in the right conditions. Because it’s mean, this whole thing is mean.

I don’t watch Donald Trump rallies because I’m damn sure I’ll see some of my cousins, and I’ll have to go kill ’em. We’re not a clean people. We’re fucked up. But every once in a while, we’re reaching for glory. And every once in a while, we’re reaching across divisions that are sometimes imposed from the outside, sometimes inherent.

MF: Lee [Smith] wrote an essay for the Millennial Gathering of the Writers of the New South at Vanderbilt in 2000. It’s titled “Driving Miss Daisy Crazy: Or, Losing the Mind of the South,” and that was about that change and sort of dynamic.

DA: Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of wonderful, isn’t it? And people you wouldn’t expect. Larry Brown—Larry and I—

MF: Larry was very much in that scene.

DA: Oh my God, we did a panel at the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. That’s how I met Larry. They put us on a panel and they called us “Grit Lit.” And it was me, Larry Brown, and—oh, Lord save her—Bobbie Ann Mason. It’s in a little theater in New Orleans. There’s a big table and there’s pitchers of water and there’s pitchers of orange juice. And I’m like, “I didn’t get any breakfast.” So, I pour me some orange juice out of Larry’s pitcher. Mistake. Serious mistake. Because that was like half orange juice and half vodka.

I’m like, “Whoa, fuck!” And as soon as I said “fuck,” Larry turned to me and said, “Sister.” And poor little Bobbie Ann Mason stood up and said, “I don’t belong on this panel. I don’t write grit lit.” And we’re like, “We’ll bring you in anyway, honey.” It was one of the funniest, most wonderful conversations I’ve ever had, because Larry was a genius and fearless, and he was crossing color and class with every paragraph. But he was also drunk.

RM: We’ve got a copy of The Women Who Hate Me in the archives here, and I had never really looked at it and didn’t realize there were such nice illustrations. But I couldn’t figure out who they were, and I was wondering if they were relatives.

DA: Oh, yeah. They were. I was living in a lesbian feminist collective. We had twelve bedrooms and a pool table.

RM: So, I was going to see if you recognized any faces.

DA: These were all women that were in the collective. I’m trying to remember the artist’s name. I remember dating her, but I don’t remember her name.

RM: I think her name is McLaughlin.

DA: Yeah, yeah. She always had a pen in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and a girl huddling up next to her behind.

RM: They’re striking illustrations, and I thought they might—

DA: She was a fine artist. She became an architectural renderer and a drunk. Let’s be clear: like I said, we take damage. Great artist, lovely work. The child is her version of both her and me. That little girl? I’ve seen pictures of her as a girl, but that was her impression.

She was reading some of the stories that I was writing and that were incorporated into Bastard, and then the others, they were all women. That’s Bev Fisher, over here, the one in the middle. Bev Fisher was an editor at Quest. It was a lesbian journal, but she was there under false pretenses. She was queer in that she only dated black men. And then one day, one of the black men came into the office and stabbed her three times. She survived, but not—didn’t stay as an editor and left town. You push my button, and I’ll tell you terrible stories.

And that was a girl we all dated, who was crazy as a bedbug—just seriously crazy. She founded a lesbian retreat in Saint Augustine with little cabins. I think you can still go stay there and see actual living lesbians. I think that’s how she advertised it: “Come see actual living lesbians!”

RM: The oldest living lesbians in captivity.

DA: We were crazy. To be an activist, you’ve got to have a little bit of crazy going on. You ain’t gon’ get rich. You’re not even gonna necessarily get any good sex, although I think it happens more frequently than people acknowledge.

Audience: When am I going to stop feeling so fucking poor? I was always wondering, do you still feel working class? Do you still feel mean? Or that you have to be mean?

DA: There’s no way around it, and you will never stop feeling poor. I got a credit card, but I shop at thrift stores. I can’t help myself. They told me I had deprivation mentality. They say you are who you are by eight. And it’s there and it stays. You also will never get over feeling ashamed, even though you’ll put all this stuff in place to fight it off and pretend that you’re not. I recommend you learn to live with it and make something of it. Make it useful rather than making it a source of more damage. I used to date upper-class girls so they could teach me how not to have deprivation mentality.

When I was an organizer in Tallahassee, Florida, the first time I went on TV, we were organizing a march on the capitol. For the ERA. Don’t you just love it? History. I went on television. I don’t believe that anything I had on my body that day was actually mine, because my collective dressed me right down to my panties. One of the women in the collective loaned me some because she had good underwear, and she said, “You can’t wear them panties, they’ll show under your whatever.” And I remember talking to this semi-hostile reporter and looking down and realizing nothing I had on belonged to me and that I was attempting to pass and be acceptable while saying completely unacceptable things.

It took me a long, long time to stop letting my girlfriends dress me, or try to change my language. There’s a whole section all about my girlfriends trying to make me stop cussing. Well, fuck it. I am who I am. And I’ve got some hard edges, and I’m occasionally unpleasant, but I can be a real good time. And I know who I am, and I’m not sure that some of the women who were trying to make me more polished knew who they were.

Damage is complicated, and how you cope with it—complicated. If you begin to figure out how damage moves through this culture, the shapes of how it works through this culture, you have in your hands a weapon, because you will always know how to go to the heart of anybody that you’re dealing with. And it feeds into what we were talking about in terms of compassion. I’ve dealt with some real nasty motherfuckers who threatened my life, and called me up [saying], “If you don’t give me four hundred dollars, I’m going to tell your boss what you do on Saturday nights.” And I’m like, “Tell him. Fuck you.” You’ve got to know that that person who is trying to blackmail you is more afraid than you are. You have to know their damage. But if you know, and you can see it, they can’t get you. They can’t do you any more damage. It might make you lose your job, but what the fuck. Clerical work ain’t that hard to get if you can type sixty words a minute, which I don’t think I can do anymore. Arthritis is a problem.

RM: You’ve been amazing. I printed out a copy of a poem that I was hoping I could get you to read.

DA: Yeah? Which poem?

RM: “We All Nourish Truth with our Tongues.”

DA: Oh, honey. Yeah, give me that.

[Reads “We All Nourish Truth with our Tongues” from The Women Who Hate Me (Long Haul Press, 1983).]

DA: Well, that pretty much says what I’ve been trying to tell you.

RM: You know, it’s funny. I told myself I was gonna ask you this question. What’s worse: knowing you were a bastard your whole life or not finding out until you were fifty?

DA: Well, if we own all the meanings of the word “bastard,” I think knowing it from the beginning is best.

RM: You think?

DA: Well, you can grow the muscle to handle it. Having it sprung on you at fifty, you might strain yourself reaching for it.

RM: Yeah?

DA: Yeah.

RM: That’s my experience. Talk about lies and love and—

DA: Family. I just don’t know any way around it. I have a great deal of sympathy for people who survive the best they can in the lives they construct to enable that survival. You can’t grow up queer without knowing what I’m talking about. You pretty thing.

MF: Thank you very much.  

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