ARTS FEATURE

Deckle Edge Keynote Speaker Dorothy Allison Reflects on Her Relationship to the South

Mixed Feelings

Dorothy Allison

Dorothy Allison

As a writer, Dorothy Allison deals in brutal honesty and complex emotions. The Greenville native is the author of the searing, viscerally emotional 1992 novel Bastard Out of Carolina, a best-selling semi-autobiographical tale of devastating poverty and horrific sexual abuse in rural South Carolina. It’s as vivid as it is tangled, a tale that brims over with the affection and repulsion that the main character, Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright, feels for her mother, her circumstances and her hometown of Greenville. 

Her 1988 collection of short stories, Trash, is similarly themed, telling tales of how the poor and cast-off members of Southern culture fight to survive and the damaged bonds they form among family and friends. There are no simple emotions or motivations in Allison’s work, but there is always an unflinching honesty. So it stands to reason that, in conversation, she has no problem with the concept of complexity or with telling the unvarnished truth.

Take her feelings about coming home, for example. The California-dwelling Allison will return to South Carolina Friday night to serve as the keynote speaker at the Deckle Edge Literary Festival, where she will also receive the festival’s Southern Truth Award. She will also sit down for a conversation with fellow Southern author Bren McClain on Saturday morning.

One might think that Allison has mixed emotions about returning to the South, and one would be correct, though she seems entirely at peace with that.

“Yes, there are complicated emotions,” she answers. “It’s not a simple response. When I go back to South Carolina and I step off a plane or get out of a car, I’m suffused with a feeling of love and rightness. There’s no other way to put it. I’m where I’m supposed to be. But I can’t stay here.”

Allison, who now lives in California, theorizes that perhaps time, distance and experience have leavened some of the bitterness she once felt about her home state.

“Child, I’m almost 70 years old,” she says with a hearty laugh. “I’ve had a very, very full life. For one thing, I have an almost 27-year-old son. Raising a child sort of turns you on your head; all the things you thought you knew and understood alter completely because you’re watching another human being become who they’re going to be. It’s daunting, and it’s inspiring and it’s scary as hell.”

Watching her son grow up inevitably reminded Allison of her own childhood.

“When I was a child, all I could do was, ‘Head down, run forward, get through this and get out,’” she recalls. “My ambition from a very early age was to get the hell out of South Carolina.”

But in most of her work, she holds fast to her message: that hard times and traumatic experiences, however unwelcome, build strength.

“People, even evil people, don’t shape or make you the way people imagine happens,” she says. “In fact, terrible events and terrible people can push you to a place of strength and individuality. That’s part of what I treasure about the South, actually, because let’s be clear, the South has had some hard times itself. Especially for the indigenous trash of the South. We have a resilience and a very strong core of resistance to being defamed or dismissed because we’re so used to it.”

The fact that Allison was able to write about her experiences, even in thinly-veiled fiction, probably helped, as well, though she’s unflinchingly honest about the idea of writing as a method of healing.

“In some ways, writing is exorcism,” she says, “but writing is not therapy. Writing is bathing in fire. To step into stories out of your own experience, to write about your own family, that’s scary and daunting and painful. And it’s never secure. You’re questioning your own memory; you’re questioning who and what you were and are. Writing demands that kind of absolute immersion.”

It’s that devotion to writing, in all its forms, that drew Allison to Deckle Edge and back to South Carolina, no matter how tangled her emotions that return may be. And you can bet she’ll be speaking from the heart and honestly in her keynote speech.

“I have a huge file of what I’m going to be talking about, as is the usual case when I do these kinds of things,” she says, laughing again. “I think I have about 15 pages of notes, and that is going to have to boil down some more before next week. And also, I have a long history of being committed to not being boring. I’ve been through a lot of keynotes that are boring; I’m not boring.”

And judging by her affectionate-but-painfully-frank discussion of Bren McClain, the next day’s discussion won’t be boring, either. McClain, a former journalist turned fiction writer with one successful novel to her credit (One Good Mama Bone) and another on the way (Took), has jokingly called herself a “27-year overnight success,” and attended one of Allison’s writing workshops about 20 years ago.

“She was just as sweet as she could be, and just as inept as they come,” Allison says, unleashing that roar of a laugh again. 

“She could make sentences, but she couldn’t make a story. I was reading one of her stories and I said, ‘Every now and then you’ve got something, but you’re going to have to make a real commitment to demand of yourself a much better sense of story.’ I didn’t think she was going to work really hard; I didn’t think she was going to do the intensive emotional labor. 

“But I’d run into her over the years, and I watched her grow; that was extraordinary. And then, my Lord, she finished it! And my Lord, it was a real story! It was so exhilarating, I can’t tell you. When you work with someone who reaches above themselves to be a better writer and accomplishes it, it’s so inspirational.”   

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