Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature

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Skin book coverDorothy Allison published Skin: Talking about Sex, Class, and Literature in 1994, only a couple of years after her amazing first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina. I've read the novel probably three times, but for some reason it never occurred to me to look for further work by Allison. I guess I assumed that she, like Harper Lee, had probably given so much to write that amazing novel that she didn't have any writing left in her.

I was so wrong.

I got an inclination of this a couple of years ago when, on the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Allison's 1995 memoir, Two or Three Things I Know For Sure. Just as much as Allison's fiction, and in many of the same ways, her memoir was stunning, beautiful, mean, and hard to get through. I read it twice back-to-back. Then I didn't read anything else of Allison's.

Until this week, when, on a whim, I picked up Skin from the library. Collected and published a year before the memoir but spanning the decade or so before, the essays in Skin cover much of the same ground, but in a different way. In Skin, Allison reconciles her life and work as a feminist activist with both her radical sexuality (Allison is a lesbian who identifies herself as a "pervert" a "femme," and a masochist) and her Southern working class background. In the essays, she speaks passionately and honestly about two things most people can never be honest about: sex and money. She also talks a great deal about writing and what it means to her to be a writer as well as a working class Southern lesbian feminist.

Skin is one of the most seeringly honest and brave books I've ever read (and it is in the company of Allison's other work in that category). Allison is insistent that you absorb her truth when you read her books, face it head on and deal with it, and I admire that about her. When she speaks of her family and the poverty and pain in which she grew up, she paints her relatives neither as martyred deserving poor nor as indolent trash, but as people in often desperate situations doing what they could. It's rarely pretty and often heart wrenching, but it is real, and because it's so real, it is easy to recognize oneself in Allison's stories.

The more surprising thing about Skin, though, is not Allison's discussion of her childhood and class background, which is ground she covers in Bastard and in Two or Three Things, but her discussion of her sexuality. She not only speaks candidly of her own sexual preferences and needs, but is also honest about how alienated she was and is from many feminist and lesbian circles due to the way she expresses her sexuality. Allison is critical of "political lesbians" and of the way women repress their sexual desires in general. She writes not hesitantly but insistently about violent sex, sex toys, and pornography. She claims her sexuality, like her class, not as something at odds with her feminism, but integral to it. Reading it is a revelation.

Reading Skin took me from being a fan of Allison's work to being a convert to her brand o feminism. I plan to immediately read Trash, her first book of short stories (1988) and follow it with her most recent work, the novel Cavedweller (1998). Then I'll wait with baited breath for the release of her next novel. Reading Allison's work makes me not only want to live honestly, but to write honestly. I can't emphasize strongly enough what that's worth.

3 Comments

Trash is amazing, I re-read it recently... I read her non-fiction, but it's been years and years. I'm going to put it on my to read list.

I love Allison, but really didn't like Cavedweller, though I've blocked out what my problem was with it, apparently, since I can't remember anything about it. I'll be interested to hear what you think, though.

You might also be interested in Jonis Agee's fiction--particularly .38 Special and a Broken Heart.

i picked up cavedweller a few years ago in a little used bookstore (in pullman, wa of all places), read the whole thing straight through, and have read it many times since. the writing is as clear and potent as in bastard, but the subject matter is less agonizing. it's actually become one of my favorite comfort books...

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