Novelist Dorothy Allison told a Saint Mary's College audience that people need good stories to get them through times of war.

"Maybe it will be for distraction that you pick up a novel," said Allison. "Or maybe it will be for comfort."

During her Nov. 27 presentation as part of the college's Social Justice Speakers Series, Allison said writers can make a difference in our post 9/11 world by engaging us in good stories "where things happen for a reason." She saved her highest praise for writers who are also social activists like her late mentor, Grace Paley.

Allison, whose best-selling novel "Bastard Out of Carolina" and other works often reflect her background growing up poor and female in the South, traced her literary awakening to reading Paley's short stories as a teenager.

"I think that the most exotic creatures are Brooklyn Jews," Allison said of Paley's characters. Allison said she remembers thinking how similar the characters were to members of her own family "but with different food and a better sense of humor."

Paley explored the daily lives of Jewish women with dialogue heavy accented by a blend of the Yiddish, Russian and English of her own childhood. "It wasn't until I moved to Brooklyn that I could start pronouncing words from her books," said Allison.

She said she met Paley during meetings in New York of anti-war protesters. "She was an organizer," said Allison. "She was the kind of person who made things happen."

As with all good writers, Paley's stories contain "moments of grace and glory."

"Her stories are what she gave back to the world and by doing so, tried to shape it," said Allison.

Allison's own work is often shaped by the violence and abuse she experienced in her childhood. Like other writers, she said she tries to tell "stories that sing with hope even when we tell terrible stories."

By Debra Holtz
Office of College Communications

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