A writer's job, Dorothy Allison said, is to "scare the hell out of people."
"They need it," said Allison, 62, a self-described Southern expatriate. "I'm always telling writers that you shouldn't become a writer if you want to be loved."
Allison will deliver the keynote address at the Conference on Southern Literature tonight. In its 16th year, the conference is a collaboration between the Arts & Education Council and the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Featuring 45 speakers, panelists and more, the event has been called the leading literary event in the South.
"We really want to encourage reading and celebrate the written word," said Laurel Eldridge, program director for AEC. "... You'll definitely have some names you're familiar with, but also get to know some new writers that you may have never heard of but will find really intriguing."
Part of Allison's address will be focused on what is unique about being a Southern writer.
"I have a lot of convictions about what it means to be a writer ... you become, by nature, a disreputable, untrustworthy person. You are going to tell secrets, you are going to scandalize the population. But then, what does it mean to be a Southern writer? That's the thing I have been struggling with."
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Allison said she grew up as a poor lesbian in the Baptist South and that she was molested by a family member. The early feminist movement shaped her perspective and changed her life, she said.
"Growing up I had this sense of shame ...," she said. "It was in the women's movement that I figured I didn't have anything to be ashamed of."
The condition of women, she said, was "unjust." As a high school graduate, Allison couldn't get her own credit card or rent an apartment without her stepfather's signature.
"You were legally a child unless you were married. The women's movement remade the world. We just didn't quite go far enough yet."
"It is a remade world. It's not the world I wanted. God knows we have not fixed things. God knows the resistance to change has been enormous."
Allison's novel, "Bastard Out of Carolina," is based on her upbringing and her struggles with her family in Greenville, S.C. Her past, she said, has made her "deeply grateful for (her) sense of humor." Family is something she has relearned.
"Family will stay with you. Family will forgive you. They'll even laugh at you... I had to relearn all of that... I had had such a hard time with my family that I wanted to run away from them. I had to figure out that running away from them wasn't going to fix anything."
Southern stories, often about family, are, she said, are "big and mean and funny and terrible."
Her influences include Flannery O'Connor, Emily Dickinson and Eudora Welty, who was one of the founders of the Southern Writer's Fellowship. Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings," Allison said, is a touchstone piece of literature.
Her involvement in the Conference on Southern Literature goes beyond attending it. Eldrige said Allison, who lives in northern California, is very involved in planning and raising money for the fellowship.
"She's a really big part of it all year round," she said. "I think she's a great inspiration..."
Allison believes part of her job is to tell people stories they don't want to hear, stories about race, class, poverty, loss. To go beyond the porch stories "triggered by sweet tea or whiskey," the comfortable stories.
"But writers, that's not where we stop. We tell the uncomfortable stories. It is vital and necessary that somebody do that."
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga student Jessica Medeiros contributed to this story.