Dorothy Allison

Notes to a Young Feminist

A few years ago, there was a conference in Minneapolis on "Feminism and Rhetoric." I went as a doctrinaire, whiny feminist. The focus of my rant was directed at younger feminist theorists who were using an arcane language that I found an obstruction to my understanding. I thought not only was it arcane, it was an act of cowardice because they were talking in such high falutin' language no one knew what the fuck they were saying!

So I did my rant about how, if you people don't clean it up, we're lost -- you can't keep talking in this language that none of us understands. I just laid into them. Then, feminist theorist Judith Butler gave her talk, and she changed how she spoke -- it was as if she were doing a consecutive translation. For every one of those marvelous words she used, she provided an alternative that I actually understood! I did have to, like, listen really close, but I got it, and I followed along! Afterward, half-a-dozen young philosophy students went up to her and, being incredibly nasty and critical, tore her apart for the way she had delivered the talk.

Since then, I have made a study of language. I can actually understand what they're talking about when they say "normative." It's true that sometimes I have to make notes and go look up shit. It's also true that I have to drink a lot of coffee and Diet Coke. And I have to, like, focus. If you let your attention wander for an instant, you're into an entirely different philosophical category!

The specificity of the language is sometimes necessary because quite often the subjects being discussed are notoriously complicated, frighteningly dangerous and self-revelatory. Let me assure you that when our feminist scholars, philosophers, speculators and thinkers use this language they're not always talking about a distanced subject but about their specific lives. The sex act they may in fact have committed, enjoyed, desired or refused. They are standing naked, and the only thing holding them up, in some cases, is that complicated language.

What I don't hear at conferences is what did in fact bring me to feminism. So let's go back, let's begin: Rubyfruit Jungle, Riverfinger Women, Meridian, Wise Blood, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, True Story of a Drunken Mother, Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law, The Girl, The Salt Eaters, A Woman Is Talking to Death, Edward the Dyke, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, The Bell Jar, Big Blonde and authors like Judy Grahn, Elana Dykewomon, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Carson McCullers, Audre Lorde, Lillian Hellman and Joann Ross.

What was the first feminist book you read? Not Our Bodies, Ourselves or The Feminist Mystique. No, take me back. All the way back. Take me back to the trashy books you read. Take me back to the stuff that you read and that you wanted to be. I'm 54 years old. To quote "Sex and the City," I'm abso-fuckin'-lutely tired. I read theory. I read to train my language and to sharpen my mind. But I write fiction. I write fiction for a specific, deliberate, reasonable, old lesbian purpose. The world I love is not on the page. The world I understand is not reflected on the page. What made me a feminist were occasional glimpses of my real life on the page.

We can talk a lot about mother-daughter transgression and generational resentment for a good couple a million decades, but I came to feminism as a lover. Feminism for me was a love affair. I came to feminism as an escaped Baptist. Feminism for me was a religious conversion experience. I came to feminism as a hurt, desperate, denied child, and I would've killed for the feminist mama who would take me in her arms and make it all make sense. And I've been running after her ass ever since.

I do not necessarily believe that someone can make it all make sense. I am, in fact, in love with the feminist ideal of "get used to being uncomfortable, you'll learn something." That is what I need, want, ache for, and I believe absolutely in the future of feminism.

I do not construct feminism as an ethical or moralistic system. When I talk about justice, I am talking about institutions that have ground me and my kind, right down to rock so far back that they owe me. They owe me as a working-class girl. They owe me as a queer girl. They owe me as a raped child. They owe me as a writer who had to raise money and who couldn't write for years because she had to raise money. Yet, I also know that that voice saying "They owe me" is the most dangerous bone in my body. It is a part of me that I have to resist. It is a bone I cannot stand on, feel or shape. Instead, I owe you, my feminist sisters.

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