This Is a Southern Story

Over twenty years ago, Dorothy Allison gained her reputation as a powerful feminist writer from the South with her short stories, poems, and, in 1992, her first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina. Since then, the author has published a collection of essays, a memoir, and another novel. She spoke with me on the phone in late April to discuss story-telling, and being a woman writer.

“Almost everything I write begins with dialogue,” Dorothy Allison told me when I interviewed her last week. “Then, trying to figure out who these people are. They have to be challenging enough, and make me curious enough to follow them, otherwise the story stalls.”

I had seen Allison read aloud a story last July at Reed College during Tin House’s annual summer workshop series (you can find out more about this year’s workshop here). The story was about a college-aged woman being held up at gunpoint as she worked behind a convenience store counter. Throughout the story, Allison punctuated the narrative with the phrase, “this is a Southern story,” a device, she told me, that is part of her more-recent experimentation with memoir.

“I have a series of stories I’ve been working on and they are all based about ‘what kind of story is this.’ There’s usually a repeating line: ‘This is a true story. This is a story I don’t want to tell you.’ That sets up different constructions. You tell the one version of the story and then you back up and start over.”

She continued with enthusiasm to say: “But some of it is about language.”

Language, voice, the rhythmical repetition of a story’s tropes, the deepening of emotions, these are some of the things I came to identify Allison’s writing with, from Bastard Out of Carolina, to Trash, to Cavedweller. I had attended her reading last July with the same trepidation that I usually attend readings with: Will this reading make me stop liking this writer. But her presentation was warm and humorous. I asked her whether such performances came naturally to her.

“No,” she said to me softly. “That’s the illusion. The reality is that I’m terrified! But nobody can tell and I learned long ago that people can’t tell, as long as you don’t cave in to the fear. You have to counter it.”

“At Tin House a few years ago, I did a program about performance and how you can use performance to alter the way the work is presented and to alter the way that you see it yourself. I actually started an award through the Fellowship of Southern Writers that is based on spoken word performance because I really think there is a prejudice against powerful performance in the literary community. There’s an emphasis on very down-played presentations. I find it very frustrating and maddening.”

Allison said that she grew up in the Baptist Church—“Oh, that and gospel music and rock ‘n’ roll”—in which a really good minister, she said, would know how to manipulate voice and make use of repetition and rhythms to drive the message home. “When I started writing, that whole construction was in the back of my head. And in Bastard you can see that there are whole sections that read as poetry.”

Every writer has this attention to voice ingrained in them, Allison said, but these native voices are often abandoned for the “accepted motifs” of an “urban northeastern voice that everyone recognizes” as literature. When she was, as she calls it, a baby writer, Allison said that she was very aware that her work would not be welcomed.

“I had very few illusions,” she said, laughing. “I knew that I was writing out of a particular class and regional base that wasn’t going to get a lot of attention or be encouraged. Not at that time.” So, she wrote for her audience, which at the time was socially conscious feminists and lesbians.

But every feminist and lesbian writer has their gateway to writerly confidence and, Allison said, Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown, was one of hers. For Allison, this book was one of her earliest triggers that gave her permission to write.

“You get Rubyfruit Jungle and, oh god, a world of literature that said, ‘You as a woman writer, not only have permission to tell your story, you have a mandate. You’ve got to get your story out there and change the world.’”

Allison said that she writes with an audience in mind: her two sisters, who she refers to as “her tribe.” Allison also said that she writes for the audience of her closest women writer friends, like Karen Joy Fowler, Jane Hamilton, and Ruth Ozeki.

“Sharing stories seems to be a part of a conversation,” she said.

Allison lamented that the energy and purpose of the 1970s women’s movement is not present for today’s women writers. She said that she was very clear in telling the young women writers she works with today to connect with other women writers.

“You really cannot afford to not have a support system because the world is not going to support you or encourage you.”

I asked her whether she felt that the stakes were higher for women writers. She told me this:

“You know, there is no way around it. The world of the woman writer is absolutely distinct from the world of the male writer—even though as writers we share a lot of the same challenges—but women get in no way the encouragement or the context that male writers get. We’re just not taken seriously. To demand that our work be appreciated is always seen as an act of arrogance in a woman, whereas in a man, it’s seen as admirable. The challenges of writing are the challenges of writing. But the context, the encouragement, the appreciation, the audience, the money, the seriousness—I mean, it’s hard to take your work seriously when it’s not taken seriously.”

“I’ve been teaching now for 30 years and I’ve had some extraordinarily gifted students, and I can see quite clearly what has happened to the extraordinarily gifted young men who I’ve worked with versus what’s happened to the extraordinarily gifted young women. The men win prizes, they get published by the top-flight mainstream presses. Women don’t get that kind of encouragement or recognition in any way comparable to what the men do. And they are just as talented and sometimes more so.”

I asked her whether she felt discouraged by continual inequality in publishing.

“It’s very hard to see,” she said. “But, then again, I wanted a revolution and I didn’t get one. But we got a half-ass one.” She laughed.

“It’s a different world,” Allison continued. “I started to list to you all the things that are different from the world I was born into. It’s remarkable. I don’t believe that when I was a girl, women were actually full human beings at the most basic level and that’s changed completely, even though we still face astonishing barriers. It’s important to be pragmatic about building a support system for yourself.”

Next year, Allison will be part of a panel at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs that celebrates twenty-five years of Lambda Literary Alliance. While admonishing the publishing industry for not being more inclusive of diverse writers, she was optimistic about the abilities of digital publishing to level the playing field.

“There is much more access for every young writer you could imagine. Everything from baby transgender writers from the urban South to the adamant old butch dykes from the Northwest. That plea for full diversity is a plea for full representation of our culture and that is what makes literature strong and wonderful. Literature tells us who we are.”

And writing, Allison said, “is so much about the destruction of the ego because you see on the page, in plain language all your most tender, wrong-headed places. And you have to confront them.”

8 thoughts on “This Is a Southern Story

  1. I too saw Dorothy Allison at Reed College and I’ll tell you what…she made a huge impression on me as being very strong, brave, and a person who isn’t afraid to take that step forward and inspire people with her confidence. Great interview Mary! Following in her footsteps!


  2. She’s one of the most brilliant writers I’ve ever seen at a live reading. She did a lecture a few years back at TinHouse that was supposed to be about writing dialogue. It ended up being about so much more, and being one of the most inspirational lectures I’ve ever heard. It’s on the TinHouse podcast page under September 23, 2011, and worth the listen– trust me:


  3. I am dying to meet Allison now! What an inspiring woman. I love the “this is a…” repetition line strategy. I think I saw Pam Houston use it once before to marvelous effect.


  4. The sexism that still exists in literature and publishing is something I, unfortunately, wasn’t aware of a few years ago before I started thinking seriously about writing a book. It’s one of the reasons, if not the main one, I’m so drawn to self-publishing. I just don’t want to be part of the “tradition.”


  5. This makes me feel so inspired. Thank you featuring such a strong, thoughtful woman who is willing to challenge the traditionally male-dominated literary world. Baby writers like me need this kind of encouragement!


    1. Thanks! Dorothy Allison’s stories provide me with everything I love about American fiction. I wish everyone had the chance to see her read in person.


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