A diverse profile of literary figures will speak at White Lecture Hall this Friday. “Out in the South: Writers in Conversation” brings Dorothy Allison, Shirlette Ammons, Jim Grimsley and Minnie Bruce Pratt together to read from their pieces and converse. Though the authors’ work runs the gamut from memoir to poetry to music, all share the commonality of being queer-identified and from North or South Carolina.
The event fits neatly with the programming of NC Pride 2011, the state’s largest gay pride celebration, whose marquee events take place largely on and around Duke’s East Campus.
The presence of Dorothy Allison in particular, whose debut novel Bastard Out of Carolina established her place as a force in Southern literature, is a long time in coming, and celebrates the arrival of an anthology of her work at Duke’s Special Collections Library.
Kelly Wooten, who works at the Sallie Bingham Center for Women’s History and Culture in the Special Collections Library, helped to coordinate the efforts to bring her papers, including rough drafts, personal journals and published creative pieces germane to Southern culture, women’s history and sexuality studies.
“She’s known for her identity as a lesbian, as a Southerner and her efficacy in women’s rights and the LGBT movement—she’s known in the queer and BDSM communities as well,” Wooten said.
The Carolina Wren Press was interested in the same themes, and had begun arranging talks for two of their recently published authors, Minnie Bruce Pratt and Shirlette Ammons, when they entered into a co-sponsorship with the Library.
Shirlette Ammons, who lives in Durham, will be reading excerpts of her poetry book Matching Skin, which the Press published last year. More than any of her other writings, Ammons says this book explores being “out in the South,” and examines her roots as a rural North Carolinian from a Christian background.
Now a long-time Triangle native, Ammons said she stuck around Durham for its unique character.
“Durham has a little bit of grit and a lot of creativity,” she said. “[It’s] a convergence of like minds and people who challenge me. I always seek ways to find likeness and community.”
The writers will represent both the diversity and common topicality, Wooten said, answering the questions, “What does it mean to be a queer writer in the South? Does it matter?”
Allison, now 62, has broached subject matter that has developed radically throughout the decades—she’ll explore the implications and intersections of community, identity, activism and the narration that binds these ideas through writing.
“It’s gotten easier to be queer, frank, forthright about your family, your sexualities, your perversities, your gender identity,” Allison said. “Writers, our job is to put on the page mythic renditions of our lives—that’s what I love to see in our work. What are the stories we tell ourselves, what are the stories we don’t? It’s always as much as you can stand.”
She recalled, for instance, having a shotgun fired through the door of her home, but said it was actually more terrifying being morally condemned by the very preachers she collaborated with on sexual abuse prevention projects. But if homophobia and anti-gay violence are dwindling, essential issues of character remain to challenge queer people, Allison said.
“Creating a queer identity is always gonna be complicated. Detailing that identity is what writers and writing does. But every once in a while you’ve gotta be willing to get your front door shot down.”
Dorothy Allison, Shirlette Ammons, Jim Grimsley and Minnie Bruce Pratt will read selections of their work for “Out in the South: Writers in Conversation” at the White Lecture Hall on Duke East Campus at 7p.m. A book signing and reception will follow.