dorothy allison & what she taught me about queer oral history

The early women’s movement was simplified, a movement of slogans, and I was not simple and I hated slogans. –Dorothy Allison

Allison talked about class awareness revolving around the women’s movement in the 1970s. “I am not like the others. They can afford to talk about this stuff, I can’t,” she recalls herself realizing in college, when she was first exposed to the feminist organization at her college, made up of mainly middle-class white women. I learned from her and the way she uses “afford” as a double entendre to connote class privilege of literally being able to have the economic resources to feel secure in talking about feminist issues in a university setting without worrying about getting kicked out: the early women’s movement was a movement that was dangerous to belong to if you were poor or Black or Queer. Later, she describes the literal danger she and her friends are in as feminists and lesbians: a neighbor throws a brick at their window. Being politically active around feminist issues in the 70s was a privilege and a risk, and some women were more in danger than others.Screen shot 2015-09-27 at 11.54.12 PM

I loved her description of the “intoxicating power” that came from joining the consciousness-raising (CR) groups a little later, after college, in Tallahassee. I learned that whatever I feel about feminism now is not quite what these women in CR groups in the 70s and 80s felt; that there was something uniquely intense and extraordinary surely that they felt then.

Even middle class girls in the 1950s were raised as animals. There was a way that men were real in a way that women were not. It’s hard to explain to young people today the impact of suddenly seeing yourself as having a soul.

I knew the 50s were in many ways horrifying for anyone who wasn’t white, middle class able bodied heterosexual and male, but having Allison lay out so powerfully and sinisterly the way women were deprived of their humanity was affecting. She repeats a couple of times how her work was about “organizing for own survival,” which expresses I think the weightiness of their political activity.

Screen shot 2015-09-27 at 11.52.19 PMIt was fascinating to hear Allison reflecting on the construction of the presentation of self, and how she was able to pinpoint a moment when the self she presented was more honest: at her first CR group she attends, a woman out loud acknowledges she wants to kill her father, who had sex with her. Allison talks about how she didn’t know rape and incest could be articulated aloud. This frees her, she says. Allison also talks about how the people she finds sexually interesting are “dangerous,” not accepted by the middle class lesbian feminists she spends much of her time with, and how the kind of sex she wants is taboo too. In fact, Allison’s thoughts on class and political activism are told through a narrative about sex, and I thought her oral history especially is an example of how fascinating talking about sex in an oral history can be, how essential sex is as people complicatedly begin to articulate who they are and what they believe.

Allison explains the way she navigates class differentials/identity through sex:

I was an intellectual working class femme, which meant I was a failed femme. Knowing that I was a failed femme meant I had to be much better in bed and much more aggressive in bed.

Butch/femme gender identities Allison talks about as restrictive, as closely tied to working-class identity, with certain expectations about how one acts in bed. She doesn’t fit in either category because of her class crossing, and negotiates this boundary through sex. She also says, “These middle class flannel wearing academic girls can’t fuck you right,” and when asked how she “made sense of it all,” she says, “I fucked and was ashamed.” She talks about stigma surrounding S/M sex – a stigma I was already conscious of from our readings about the sex wars. She talks about “coming out” about her sexual “deviance,” saying how beginning to have conversations surrounding desire that aren’t about shaming, just about acceptance and understanding and honesty, was so important to her healing and identity. Anderson asks her how her own consciousness shifted around race, and Allison in response talks about feeling uncomfortable and wrong all of the time, but feeling okay with that discomfort, and how sex and intimacy can establish trust, in a way that makes it okay to fuck up and try again. Sex is a place where Allison finds trust, where it had been originally taken away, and where issues of class, gender, race and sexuality are negotiated.

Screen shot 2015-09-27 at 11.45.37 PMThe main insight I gained from reading what was in Allison’s box in the archives was her articulations of what it means to be a storyteller, and how she uses and understands fiction:

I’m a storyteller. I’ll work to make you believe me. Throw in some real stuff, change a few details, add the certainty of outrage. I know the use of fiction in a world of hard truth, the way fiction can be a harder piece of truth. The story of what happened, or what did not happen but should have – that story can become a curtain drawn shut, a piece of insulation, a disguise, a razor, a tool that changes every time it is used and sometimes becomes something other than we intended. The story becomes the thing needed.

And also, “The truth is wider than the details of what really happened in my life (Skin, 215).” And finally, “I’m incapable of sitting down to write the story of my life.” (Interview in AWP The Writer’s Chronicle, 2002). That she is so primarily a writer, practiced in the art of creating narratives, meaning and healing through the art of storytelling and fiction, suggests that an oral history – the act of remembering a life, constructing a narrative that is a whole and intentionally as true-as-possible story of one’s life – might be fictive, and might be hard. When asked in survey where else Anderson should go for research and understanding, Allison wrote: all of my books. I think it is important as an oral historian to keep in mind that Allison believes the “truth” of her life she has discovered and shared though her writing.

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