Femme Friday – Dorothy Allison

I heard Dorothy Allison read from Bastard Out of Carolina way back in the day at the late-lamented feminist bookstore, New Words in Inman Square, Cambridge, MA. I already owned her previous books, The Women Who Hate Me and Trash. It was wonderful to hear her speak about writing as a queer person, at a time when I was only newly out and wondering how that was going to work with my newly-minted MFA in Creative Writing. It was wonderful to hear her read her queer story. Her femme story.

Rae Theodore over at The Flannel Files just posted about an adorable encounter with Dorothy on an Olivia Cruise, reminding me that Dorothy has been on my Femme Friday list for some time and this Friday is all hers!

Deep gratitude to Dorothy for writing her own truths in stories, essays, poems and novels and for so tenaciously championing the power of all queer story.

      (Since yours truly is in Provincetown, the oldest continuously operating art colony in the US as well as one of the only culturally queer places I’ve ever been, it seems like the below is a good sample of Dorothy’s work to feature.)

The first painting I every saw up close was at a Baptist church when I was seven years old. It was a few weeks before my mama was to be baptized. From it, I took the notion that art should surprise and astonish, and hopefully make you think something you had not thought until you saw it. The painting was a mural of Jesus at the Jordan River done on the wall behind the baptismal font. The font itself was a remarkable creation – a swimming pool with one glass side set into the wall above and behind the pulpit so that ordinarily you could not tell the font was there, seeing only the painting of Jesus. When the tank was flooded with water, little lights along the bottom came on, and anyone who stepped down the steps seemed to be walking past Jesus himself and descending into the Jordan River. Watching baptisms in that tank was like watching movies at the drive-in, my cousins had told me. From the moment the deacon walked us around the church, I knew what my cousin had meant. I could not take my eyes off the painting or the glass-fronted tank. It looked every moment as if Jesus were about to come alive, as if he were about to step out onto the water of the river. I think the way I stared at the painting made the deacon nervous.

            The deacon boasted to my mama that there was nothing like that baptismal font in the whole state of South Carolina. It had been designed, he told her, by a nephew of the minister – a boy who had gone on to build a shopping center out in New Mexico. My mama was not sure that someone who built shopping centers was the kind of person who should have been designing baptismal fonts, and she was even more uncertain about the steep steps by Jesus’ left hip. She asked the man to let her practice going up and down, but he warned her it would be different once the water poured in.

            “It’s quite safe, though,” he told her. “The water will hold you up. You won’t fall.”

            I kept my attention on the painting of Jesus. He was much larger than I was, a little bit more than life-size, but the thick layer of shellac applied to protect the image acted like a magnifying glass, making him seem larger still. It was Jesus himself that fascinated me, though. He was all rouged and pale and pouty as Elvis Presley. This was not my idea of the son of God, but I liked it. I liked it a lot.

            “Jesus looks like a girl,” I told my mama.

            She looked up at the painted face. A little blush appeared on her cheekbones, and she looked as if she would have smiled if the deacon were not frowning so determinedly. “It’s just the eyelashes,” she said. The deacon nodded. They climbed back up the stairs. I stepped over close to Jesus and put my hand on the painted robe. The painting was sweaty and cool, slightly oily under my fingers.

 –“This is Our World” by Dorothy Allison; first appeared in the 1998 issue of DoubleTake

Every Friday, I showcase a queer femme goddess. Suggestions welcome!

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