At Guernica, Amy Wright interviews novelist, activist, and feminist Dorothy Allison on class, how poverty can influence a life’s path, the definition of a working-class heroine, and the role of women writers in literature.

A social activist deeply invested in the early feminist movement, Allison met head-on the dangers of free expression. If her courage to keep raising her voice empowers others, she is not so naïve as to imagine our right to speak will ever be equal. Nor, I realize after spending several weeks with her, would she deprive anyone of the fight, her sentences often undercutting someone else’s surety, or her own. Having written genius works of resilience, she recognizes the favor you do a person to unsettle her.

Guernica: How does your conception of class differ from that projected on you?

Dorothy Allison: You know those famous pictures of the South in which dirty-faced kids are standing there with a finger in their mouths? They are not speaking because they aren’t sure what to say or how to behave. You are aware absolutely that you are not as valuable or as human as people who speak easily and who are comfortable.

Learning that is class is actually a huge empowerment. When I read Marxist theory, it was like being handed a shovel. You could do something. You could dig out of the hole. You could defend yourself, because what not being as important as others really means is that you’re always in danger.

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