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An Open Book

Dorothy Allison's harrowing past still shapes her novels. As the feminist author of 'Bastard Out of Carolina' and 'Cavedweller,' says, 'The best fiction comes from the place where the terror hides.'

April 24, 1998|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — Dorothy Allison is telling a story. Sitting at the dining room table of her house in the outer Noe Valley, she sips from a bottle of Diet Pepsi and describes the redemptive power of language, the way words restore us to ourselves. Outside, the streets possess a midafternoon languor: A mother walks her daughter home from school while, down the hill, a streetcar rattles on its track. Here, however, the air is charged with urgency, as if Allison's story reveals not only who she is, but also how she's kept herself alive.

"I try to make a distinction between storytelling as a survival technique and storytelling as an art form," she explains in a voice as dry as dust. "But there's a really complex, deep connection. Kids in extreme situations of poverty or abuse, or even queer kids, live in these cauldrons of stress in which they deliberately create fictions of survival. I spent vast sections of my childhood living in the story of my life I was writing in my head. Sometimes it was a movie. More often it was a book, because I loved books. But I was re-imagining the life."

Listening to Allison, one can't help but get a picture of someone for whom narrative represents the fabric, the very texture, of the world. At the same time, it's sometimes hard to reconcile her comments with the simple, matter-of-fact way she recalls her life. At 48, Allison is direct, self-confident, unpretentious, a solid woman in bare feet and jeans, eyes flashing behind large-framed glasses each time she leans forward to make a point. After half a decade living near the Russian River area, she moved back to San Francisco last summer with her longtime lover, Alix Layman, a trombone player, and their 5-year-old son, Wolf; they share this house with Wolf's biological father, Dan Carmell, a gay man who works for the Oakland transit district. Now the four of them make up what Allison calls a "weird extended queer family" or, as she once wrote, "Mama and Mom and Dad and son."

In some sense, it's a peculiarly California kind of household, but even more important, it serves as a vivid reminder of the distance Allison has traveled and the idea that, at this point, she lives according to no agenda but her own.

"I feel like I've stumbled onto my notion of paradise," she says. "I love this state. I don't feel like such a freak here. My son is in a classroom where his assistant teacher has a ring through her nose and purple hair. I think that's a good thing."

*

Despite her engagement with the present, however, Allison continues to live in close proximity to her past. You can see it in the gallery of family photos hanging along one wall, and in the heavy, nearly Victorian furniture that fills her living room--a room, one imagines, not unlike those in her childhood home. Then there's her writing, which has always focused on personal reclamation as a central theme. Both her essay collection "Skin" and her memoir "Two or Three Things I Know for Sure" create a context for Allison's personal history, while her most famous work, the novel "Bastard Out of Carolina," is nothing less than an attempt to redeem her childhood, especially the physical and sexual abuse she suffered for 12 years at the hands of her stepfather, beginning at the age of 6.

Even her new novel, "Cavedweller" (Dutton), although less intimate, addresses similar issues. The story of Delia Byrd, an abused wife turned rock singer who returns to Cayro, Ga., to reconnect with the daughters she abandoned 10 years before, can be read as the other side of the equation, where the power of the victim is restored.

"I'm not supposed to be a person who writes," Allison says of this process, a patina of defiance hardening her words. "I'm not the kind of person who's supposed to be doing books. I'm supposed to be a waitress. I'm supposed to be a cook. I could be a housecleaner; I did that for a while. But I'm not supposed to have a mind. I'm supposed to be this animal creature that the world chews up and spits out."

If, as Allison suggests, her career is an exercise in defying expectations, it's an activity she's been involved in for many years. Born in Greenville, S.C., she moved north ("one woman at a time") until she landed in New York City, where she ran the Information Center at Poets & Writers, a service group, before moving to California a decade ago. Today, when she's not writing, she teaches at several places, including the San Francisco Art Institute. Still, her most stunning act of transformation remains the way she not only survived the ordeal of her childhood, but also has used it to empower the rest of her life.

"I left home when I got a scholarship to college at 18," she says. "But from about 16, I left emotionally. I've got a couple of years there that are just blank. When I was about 16, I tried to kill myself with a better focus than I had attempted at any earlier point.

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