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. She married but when Dorothy Allison 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 from him that was not diagnosed and treated until she was in her 20s. The untreated disease left her unable to have children.
The 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.
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, she did 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.
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. It was picketed by the New York chapter of Women Against Pornography, who called the panelists "anti-feminist terrorists." Some protesters accused Allison of supporting the sexual abuse of children because of the graphic content in her literary works. She responded to such critics in her collection, The Women Who Hate Me: Poems by Dorothy Allison. This work won her recognition among the gay and lesbian community.
In addition to her writing of fiction and poetry, Allison was teaching 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. Segrest's work was one of her favorite novels and she 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.
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 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. The TV film was aired on Showtime rather than TNT for that reason. Initially the Canadian Maritime Film Classification Board banned distribution of the film in Canada. The ban 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.
In 1998 Allison published Cavedweller, which received numerous awards. That year she founded and endowed the Independent Spirit Award. During the period of writing this novel, Allison and her partner Alix Layman, a printer, became mothers of a son, whom they named Wolf Michael.
In 2002, Allison released a new edition of Trash. She added 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. The story follows three female protagonists in California, each of whose lives has been shaped by violence.
She had a three-month residency at Emory University in Atlanta in 2008 as the Bill and Carol Fox Center Distinguished Visiting Professor.
Themes in Allison's work include class struggle, child and sexual abuse, women, lesbianism, feminism, and family.
Allison's first novel, the semi-autobiographical Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) was one of five finalists for the 1992 National Book Award. 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. It was adapted as a film that premiered in 1996 on Showtime.
Cavedweller, Allison's second novel, was published in 1998 and became a New York Times bestseller. It won the 1998 Lambda Literary Award for fiction and was a finalist for the Lillian Smith Prize. 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 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. 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." 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.
Allison founded The Independent Spirit Award (not to be confused with the Independent Spirit Awards) in 1998. This is an annual prize to be given to an individual whose work within the small press and independent bookstore circuit has helped sustain that enterprise. The award is administered by the Astraea Foundation. It is intended to encourage people and institutions that are vital to supporting new writers and introducing readers to works that may otherwise go unread.
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 remains dedicated to safer sex and is active in feminist and lesbian communities. She is one of the founders of the Lesbian Sex Mafia, along with Kirstie Friddle of Quincy, Illinois. This is an information and support group for women of all sexual orientations and identities. In 1977, Allison became an associate of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP). WIFP is an American nonprofit publishing organization. The organization works to increase communication between women and connect the public with forms of women-based media.
She lives in Monte Rio, California with her female partner, Alix Layman, and son, Wolf.
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. She has been elected to the Fellowship of Southern Writers.1989 - Lambda Literary Award "Best Lesbian Small Press Book" for Trash: Short Stories
1989 - Lambda Literary Award "Best Lesbian Fiction" for Trash: Short Stories
1992 - National Book Award finalist for Bastard Out of Carolina
1992 - Ferro-Grumley Award for Bastard Out of Carolina
1992 - Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Bastard Out of Carolina
1995 - Lesbian Book Award for Skin: Talking About Sex, Class And Literature
1995 - New York Times Book Review notable book of the year Two or Three Things I Know for Sure
1998 - Lambda Literary Award "Best Lesbian Fiction" for Cavedweller
1998 - Lillian Smith Prize finalist for Cavedweller
2007 - Jim Duggins Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists' Prize (Saints and Sinners Literary Festival)