Monday, July 12, 2010

Dorothy Allison - by Ammie Brod

There are a lot of reasons I read books. I read to learn new things, to relax and distract my mind, but also to keep my brain on its toes; I read because it’s fun but also for the sheer joy of feeling words resonate inside of my head. There are also a lot of types of books that I enjoy—scientific narratives, history, poetry, cookbooks, and novels have all fallen prey to my restless and roving eye. But the things that stay with me the longest, the ones that keep me up at night and make me clench my teeth together because goddamn, they have this feeling to them that I’ve never been able to define as anything other than a feeling of truth. I don’t mean nonfiction; the feeling I’m talking about defies genre. I secretly (or not so secretly now, I suppose) believe that you can tell when something has been written from a true place, when there is no bullshit going on, when the person who was writing was speaking from somewhere inside of themselves that they absolutely believe in and so was able to let down some of the walls between themselves and the outside world. True writing feels vulnerable, but at the same time it’s so unbearably strong.

A few years ago I picked up a copy of Dorothy Allison’s completely lovely book of short stories, Trash, at a used book sale. I’d read the book years earlier in college, a time in my life where I perhaps unfortunately read a number of fantastic books and failed to understand them in almost any way; I was a very literal reader, trained by my public education to find symbolism irritating and the beauty of prose ignorable to the point where I read Lolita and was merely bored and grossed out instead of shattered into pieces by Nabokov’s writing. Graduating from college was probably the best thing that ever happened to my reading life. Anyway, so I picked up this vaguely-remembered book and brought it home, and damn if it didn’t break my heart in the best way possible.

Reading Dorothy Allison is a very specific feeling for me. The word I want to use is bitter: reading Dorothy Allison is the taste of crushed aspirin, acrid and lingering, something you can feel in your bones long after you’ve swallowed it down. When I read her in college she scared me, and so it’s no surprise that one of the stories I remembered best from my early perusal of Trash was a series of vignettes about food and relationships titled A Lesbian Appetite; it was a favorite in large part because I remembered it having an element of humor that was more apparent than it is in many of the other stories. Now I realize that Allison is often funny, just in a way that makes you want to bite your tongue until you draw blood.

A Lesbian Appetite was not as humorous as I remembered it, or rather the humor had more depth, more edge. The story mixes food and sex in a way that is so visceral and violent and sensual that I can’t think of anything else I’ve read that raises such conflicting feelings of hunger and anger, want and rage and denial. It's specifically about the food that poor white trash Southerners eat and how terrible and wonderful it is at the same time. You can taste what she's writing about—the bacon fat, the bubbling gravy, the biscuits, the pan-fried green tomatoes—and in between the reminisces about her mother's cooking, she talks about her lovers and the food that they either ate together or didn't, and the sex they had, or not. There's a scene that I love where the health-food girlfriend is forcing the narrator to slice and salt eggplant, and the narrator starts rubbing eggplant slices all over her to salt it with her sweat, and they have sex and fry the eggplant up with garlic and tomatoes and eat it together. It just... It makes me want to eat and have sex and lick grease off of my fingers. I want that salt and sweat, that laughter and tender force and finally the flesh and sharp tang of tomatoes in my mouth.

But what really gets me is this food nostalgia that she writes about. The food that she ate as a child and young woman is, in many ways, still reflected in negative ways in her present-day body. She has numerous health problems caused by her former diet; in fact, one section of the story details how, after a seventh-grade teacher informs her class that the children of the poor are lacking in intelligence because they are deprived of vitamin D in childhood and it keeps their brains from developing properly, she starts obsessively eating dairy to try and catch up, to make her brain strong so she can get out of where she is. Twenty years later, a doctor tells her she has a slight dairy allergy that has caused her to have an ongoing stomach problem, and she just laughs and laughs.

But despite all of this, despite the wreckage caused in her body, she daydreams and dream-dreams about the food of her childhood, about baking biscuits and cooking beans with onions and pork fat and the sweat on her mother's neck when she prepares these things, about how she knows how to make these foods but she can’t because, well, she is living a different life in a different place. But she wants them. There is such a sensory glut of taste and scent and smell that I feel a longing for these foods I’ve never tasted, just so I can think of them that poignantly. I remember being vegan and home for Thanksgiving and how hard that was, and I think about all the vegetarians I know who still eat turkey that one day of the year, and I think about the power of comfort food. It's so wired into our heads, what we do and don't want to eat and why. What we eat is literally a part of us, not only our bodies but our minds, our tongues, our sense of the past and our position in the present. It ties us into who we are. It’s family and geography and history, and sometimes you just want that taste on your tongue to remind you of who you are.

Ammie Brod spent most of her childhood trying to come up with a profession that would allow her to do nothing but read all day, but when that failed to pan out she became a classical musician and florist instead. Her fifteen minutes of fame, now passed, involved a google image search for the phrase "naked girls and me." You can read more of her writing at

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