I was asked recently – by the online digital label, Bitrate Audio – to select my desert island discs. (I'll assume everyone knows what that involves, but if not, see here.) For someone who likes making lists, this is always an enjoyable task. I've done it informally numerous times, choices changing over the years, or even by the day. My Bitrate Audio selection (comprising Béla Bartók, Joni Mitchell, Darren Solomon, Björk, Henry Cow, A Certain Ratio, Liza Minnelli, and Klute) can be found here, complete with a photo of me outside a bar in Amsterdam, looking completely un-femme (unless you happen to notice the shaved arms and plucked eyebrows perhaps). The tunes themselves can be played via youtube links and you should totally go and do that right now because they're all great!
Along with the eight discs, the castaway also gets to choose a luxury and a book. I requested a Bösendorfer Grand Piano and Dorothy Allison's book 'Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature' (Pandora 1995).
It's not obvious why Dorothy Allison's writing should resonate with me so much. 'Skin' is a collection of autobiographical essays by a southern United States, working-class, abuse-surviving, radical, queer, feminist, activist, lesbian, femme, parent, poet and author. Comparing all that with my own given descriptors at the top of this post, I appear to have very little in common with her. Queer, feminist and femme – yes, but not in the same kind of way. In particular, my femme is very little like hers. So what is it?
I guess it's this: Allison writes with brutal, unflinching honesty. Her opinions, her thoughts, her beliefs are hard won, anchored in her life and experience. Her truths are messy and complicated, not ideologically rigid. She writes from the heart, with great humanity and great skill. She's intelligent, engaging, provocative, funny, and above all compassionate, courageous and sincere. Her voice cannot be easily dismissed.
I've already posted one extract, from 'Sex Writing, the Importance and the Difficulty', on my tumblog (which I use for such things). Here are a couple more:
My aunt Dot used to joke, “There are two or three things I know for sure, but never the same things and I'm never as sure as I'd like.” What I know for sure is that class, gender, sexual preference, and prejudice—racial, ethnic, and religious—form an intricate lattice that restricts and shapes our lives, and that resistance to hatred is not a simple act. Claiming your identity in the cauldron of hatred and resistance to hatred is infinitely complicated, and worse, almost unexplainable.
I grew up poor, hated, the victim of physical, emotional, and sexual violence, and I know that suffering does not ennoble. It destroys. To resist destruction, self-hatred, or lifelong hopelessness, we have to throw off the conditioning of being despised, the fear of becoming the they that is talked about so dismissively, to refuse lying myths and easy moralities, to see ourselves as human, flawed, and extraordinary. All of us—extraordinary.
— from 'A Question of Class'.
As feminists, many of us have committed our whole lives to struggling to change what most people in this society don't even question, and sometimes the intensity of our struggle has persuaded us that the only way to accomplish change is to make hard bargains, to give up some points and compromise on others. What this has always meant in the end, unfortunately, is trading some people for others.
I do not want to do that.
I do not want to require any other woman to do that.
I do not want to claim a safe and comfortable life for myself that is purchased at the cost of some other woman's needs or desires.
Essential political decisions are made not once, but again and again in a variety of situations, always against that pressure to compromise, to bargain. (...) Simple answers, reductionist politics, are the most prone to compromise, to saying we're addressing the essential issue and all that other stuff can slide. It is, in reality, people who slide.
— from 'Public Silence, Private Terror'.
I'm not sure whether those extracts are representative of Allison's writing or not. Read the book for yourself and decide. Read all her books. As for me, I've only today discovered that a new collection, 'Conversations with Dorothy Allison' (from 1993-2009), was published earlier this year. Damn, how did I not know about that before?! I just hope the Christmas post doesn't delay its arrival for too long.