I found Dorothy Allison's 1992 novel Bastard Out of Carolina in the late, great Harvard Square bookstore Wordsworth's when I was thirteen. I didn't have any friends in eighth grade (shocking, I know), so I would spend my free time walking to any bookstore that was closest to me, grabbing as many novels off the shelf as I could hold, and then hiding away in a corner to read them all.
When I picked up Bastard Out of Carolina, I felt a slight thrill at a novel with a dirty word in the title — but precocious teen that I was, I saw that it had a shiny medal reproduced on the cover, so it had to be OK, right? That embossed medallion proved that somebody important thought this book was worthy.
I read it, and the thrill I felt deepened — here was a world so familiar and yet so strange that I couldn't categorize it. Bastard Out of Carolina is the chronicle of a tight-knit Southern family and the violence that tears them apart and brings them together. It's also a book about what it means to grow up a girl. I came back to this book again and again, when I was trying to figure out how to write about my own history, my own life, which seemed missing from the wider world unless there as a punch line or a grotesque. Later, Trash, Allison's book of essays about her early life as a writer, confirmed my drive to try to create, no matter what. She described an existence as an artist that was tough, sometimes confusing, but never depressing, and always with the expectation of pleasure. I spoke with Allison, who is in California now, working on her next novel, about growing up poor, proving the world wrong, and whether or not the desire to create can save you.
Kaitlyn Greenidge: I was reading your essay "Monkeybites," in Trash, and you were really honest about how a nine-to-five allowed you time to write. Do you have advice for those of us who want to become artists but don't have the means to live the artist life?
Dorothy Allison: Well, it's always such an absurd concept, the artist life. Like you were supposed to get an endowment, a grant … You know, if you get a decent day job that's somewhat clerically related, you get access to a computer, and paper, and a reasonable desk situation. I considered that the biggest grant I could get access to. And it was.
Frankly, if I'd get an idea or something going during the middle of the day, I could steal a little time, write it up, so long as I did my business and kept my job. I have a big concept about meeting your obligations.
KG: Why is that important to you?
DA: Because I was born poor. How many things go back to that? America wasn't doing us much good when I was a baby. You had to be smarter, faster, and better than anybody else, and you had to follow the rules because they were always out to get you. And that's a terrible way to grow up, and kind of a terrible self-concept to have, but feeling constantly in danger does lead to a certain amount of pride and stubbornness and Fuck you all, I can do it better than you can. And I will meet my obligations.
Because we were poor, and because we came out of a family that had a certain reputation, we were assumed to be criminal. We were assumed to be thieves and wastrels and unreliable, and my response to that was to be the best little girl in the world. It's funny how many writers I've known who've had that, best little boy, best little girl. You have to have an independent sense of honor to deal with the world in that way when you are so constantly denied.