Athena Dixon’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman (Split/Lip Press, 2020) cuts through the dusty prairie mythos and opens up a complex Black Midwest hungering to be mirrored in popular culture: kids eating potato roll sandwiches, fathers’ drinking Maxwell House instant coffee, segregated Elks clubs, doing the cabbage patch during a talent show, and the teenage terror of body odor. In this landscape, Dixon navigates different iterations of loneliness and what kind of space and solitude is necessary to rise into a confident sense of self. As a bookish only child until age 12, she writes, “What I can remember now that I am solidly in middle age is that the intersection of popularity and blackness was where I always got lost.”
This invisibility extended into adulthood as Dixon reflects, “I become a bridge between things these men want to forget and the lives they desire. Some sort of way station between the men they are and the men they hope to be.” Dixon exposes a paradox: people fear complexity as a permanent place to land yet when one shrinks oneself into a more simplified veneer, its hard for others to latch on and take root. From AOL chatrooms and poetry on an Angelfire webpage to fan-fiction, these essays explore how selves are crafted through language and expectation and the ways in which we learn to bare ourselves through thresholds of disappointment, desire, and discovery. This collection reminds us of the inextricable connection between what we choose to reveal and the tender revelations that precipitate.
TS: As I read this book, I couldn’t help but begin to picture its structure as a blossoming. By blossoming, I don’t mean the narrative arc of moving from childhood to adulthood. Instead, I notice the way you craft your confidence: moving from the shy girl to a woman who owns all of her complexities and failed fairytales. The Incredible Shrinking Woman as a title calls to the reader the way a sideshow does. We are pulled in for a surprise. This book is not about a woman shrinking to fit the cautionary morals of fairytales: This is the story of outliving outdated plots. On page 54, in a discussion of healing from a divorce, your present self is critical of your younger self’s idealization of marriage: “In the time before my forced forgetting, this fairytale used to be so much easier to remember.” Later, you introduce the unexpected: “Life was supposed to be exactly what I wanted, a pick-and-play version of the American Dream” (68). In the midst of this remembrance, something prescient is happening. You are writing stories, keeping scraps of essays and other writing. “I don’t even know who I am beneath what I’ve constructed and the parts of myself I’m unwilling to speak about,” you say, and I picture these scraps as either a broken familiar fairytale or the beginning of a more contemporary story. Perhaps it’s both. As a child, what was your relationship to fairytales? Which ones meant something to you and how did you play them out in early writing, in collections, or in games with yourself or with friends?
Athena Dixon: So, I have a really fractured relationship with fairytales so it’s a bit difficult to pinpoint their childhood influence or importance. I have no memories of reading them as a child or experiencing them through Disney movies. Even now, I haven’t read many or seen film versions of them. My interaction with them was very much through a teenage lens via the filter of romance novels. There’s a distance from traditional fables for me because I read them via characters in those adult books so much later than childhood. I came to distilled versions that were very stylized, modernized fairytales marketed towards a woman’s emotional desires. Those fairytales, shades of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella and more, were relayed through female characters who were very much a traditional damsel in distress, but still very independent and fierce, if that makes sense. I read tons of books in which the female lead was shown as all things to all people. She was always very accomplished, well-educated, beautiful, sexy, dependable, loyal, and a host of other characteristics. Yet at her core she was always yearning for a man to sweep in and care for her and fix the cracks in her spirit or help her heal from the trauma of another man.
I guess in some ways I ended up acting out these alternate fables as an adult instead.
Also, I was an only child for nearly twelve years, even though I was always surrounded by cousins and my oldest friend who I met in the second grade. While I had those playmates, my play was really solo for the most part. At times it was like playing next to other children, but not with them. But! I vividly remember making up my own scenarios. I would create elaborate scenes to act out alone. I had a series of running stories and characters in my head and on paper. It was very much me creating my own little world. What happened, however, was I writing what I now know is fan fiction. When I finally mentioned this to some of my playmates, I began to write for them and, sometimes, with them. We ended up creating our own stories instead of playing out traditional fairytales and that just continued on for the rest of my childhood.
TS: For those who didn’t grow up in the 90s, it’s hard to imagine this different, open terrain that was all about encountering strangers. Unlike modern apps—like Snapchat or Instagram—where you’re engaging friends or personalities you already know, the chatrooms of the 90s created blank canvases in which you could paint yourself into existence one word at a time behind a witty username. You identify as someone who struggled to take up space in a Midwestern landscape that was nothing but space, “Shrinking is something I learned to do at a very young age. In most of my childhood pictures, you will find me fading into the background.” How did taking up space in these chatrooms explore sides of yourself you couldn’t elsewhere? You write about this experience, “I learned to exist in the smoke and mirrors of the Internet way back when. I grew into adulthood during the days of AIM and private messages with the bustle of the chatroom moving all around me….In cyberspace, I can be any version of myself I want with no questions asked” (80). Do you think this early chatroom writing impacted your sense of self as a writer? Opened up this identity in a new way?
AD: I think those chatrooms really helped me solidify myself and guide me towards who I thought I wanted to be. I was a freshman in college when I started logging onto AOL and Yahoo, and other message boards, so I was just figuring out my adult self. I found I did really well in creating a social and romantic life at a distance. In those chatrooms, I could lead with my words. It didn’t matter if I was shy or awkward in real life. Online, I was confident in my ability to string together conversations and that made it easy to meet people from all over the country. Naturally, those interactions gave me a foundation of traits and experiences I could then translate into the poetry I was writing at the time.
Those interactions also led to me sharing my work with people off campus and learning how to engage readers outside of the open mics I did at school. I’d always been told by teachers that I was a good writer, but having that affirmation from peers really made me want to see just how much I could expand my creativity. I started making connections with online magazines and writing reviews and conducting interviews. I joined poetry forums and shared my work. I started writing for newsletters. I became a teaching artist at an arts academy. All of that was a way of discovering new angles of my desire to be a writer. It all stemmed from people I meet online in those chatrooms and message boards.
In some ways, too, those chatrooms helped me learn to build narratives. It was like making myself a character. I was always myself, but the distance online allowed me to highlight and shrink parts of myself that gave me advantages I never really had face to face. So, almost daily I was learning how to set scenes, craft dialogue, and really manipulate emotions by what I chose to share or not share in that online world.
TS: I can completely relate to identity-building through online profile construction in the 1990s and early 2000s. The internet, for me in that era at least, became a way of finding out what the world was like outside of my own small town in Nebraska. It was a line out and also a way of finding identity in a place where I didn’t feel like I fit in with the people or the culture around me. The first few essays in your collection dive into a certain kind of loneliness/isolation that stems from looking for ways to see yourself reflected in American culture at large and finding Black Midwestern identities underrepresented. You write, “Small-town black Midwesterners, like me, exist somewhere between the Bible Belt and the ghetto. We hover somewhere between now and then. And I think we are forgotten.” Are there specific aspects of the Midwestern experience that you wish were better understood by or represented in contemporary mainstream culture? What nuances to portrayals of the Midwest do you love to, and/or want to, see explored?
AD: More than anything, I wish people realized how much of a cultural exchange the rural Midwest can be. Often, places like my home state of Ohio, are seen as flyovers or homogeneous. That’s not always true. There’s such a mix of the Deep South because of older generations who migrated North; seasonal produce workers and those who stay year-round; growing immigrant populations; college students from all backgrounds; and more. I always felt growing up the Midwest, specifically in a small town, was kind of like being a chameleon –always trying to find a good fit because there was so much to pull from and the area was pretty much a blank slate.
What I have always been fascinated by is the quieter cultural exchanges, traditions, and experiences of the Midwest. Those experiences existing outside of larger cities. I hope in my own writing that I can capture what I call the background music of life—those small moments that make life move that may not be earth shattering or monumental, but help make up the pieces of a person. There are so many parts of the Midwest that get such a blanket treatment without a deeper look at what life really is there. I want to tell the story of my yearly hometown parade down Main Street and dig into those people participating. I want to capture the culture of the steel mills and factories. I also want to explore the dynamics of how a blue-collar town melds with college students. It’s very important to me to capture those experiences and experiences. I don’t want them to get pushed underfoot as unimportant.
TS: Throughout this collection of essays, we see a theme emerging around the positive adult figures and healthy relationship dynamics that helped you thrive as well as the way these very same role models or situations created a restrictive view of your potential or possible futures. You explain, “I was born into a trope, a dual-income household with parents who loved each other, a baby sister, and a pool in the backyard. I thought I’d slip directly into the exact same life and become an upwardly mobile black wife with a husband who loved her. I went to school, got the degrees, and stayed on the straight and narrow.” You’re given a blueprint and encouragement to replicate it. Yet these roles perpetuate a sense of invisibility. In the section, “M.A.S.H.” we see these expectations disrupted as they play out in a classic children’s game of chance that also includes the disclaimer, “the life you want may not be the life you receive.” It seems like you’ve worked hard to cast off external pressures and re-center expectations through the relationship with yourself. A quietude and calmness emerges when the noise and barrage of expectations is rejected. You write, “Quiet is in the heart. It is the return of pronouns. Now I and me. Quiet makes the questions boomerang.” This last sentence echoes other instances of quiet in earlier essays — a characteristic you share with your father, a way of being good. Here, quiet is a difficult space producing new life and new writing. In your view, how is quiet also a necessary space?
AD: I think quiet is necessary in a world where even our most intimate and personal relationships are transactional. Even in those close spaces, there is still the noise of expectation and obligation. That’s not to say those transactions have to be rooted in negativity and they may be both internal and external. I know my sister and I have a wonderful time together, for example. However, I know that there are internal pressures I place on myself as the older sister. And I know there are behaviors she expects from me as the oldest. Those transactions are made out of love, but there is still very much the need to disconnect and quiet myself in order to make sure I am serving myself just as much as others.
Without being able to re-center myself I don’t think I would be able to fully function in any of the roles I thought I wanted, have taken, or will take in the future. Even if I had a very defined path I intended to take, I found my inability to quiet and see myself as an individual always made the path that much more difficult. It was a very conscious decision to still myself and pay attention to how I needed to be fed and supported by myself before I could express that need to anyone else.
TS: I love how silence takes so many different shapes because you’ve found multiple uses for it. It is the sounding board of your aspiration, the incubator for ideas, and the vessel of personal evolution. Silence is an origin space. It is inherent to humans and, yet, it is something that we need to construct and consider carefully, as you’ve said. Now that you have this book out, what are you doing with silence from here on? Are you working on anything new or do you have any recommendations for readers to check out?
AD: I think having the book in the world has given me a chance to see that my silences and my need for them may in some ways be completely different than what I thought was necessary. The interactions I’ve had with those who’ve read the book have really opened my eyes. They’ve made me realize those silences I wallowed in were not as lonely as I’d made them. Connecting with others over similar experiences has spurned me to take a good look at what I really need. I think now I understand there are parts of me that simply needed to be heard and some of that pressure was alleviated. Going forward, my silence can be used in developing parts of myself I’d neglected or bolstering those strengths I’d been afraid to claim.
I’m working on a second collection at the moment. It’s untitled, but I’ve started shaping essays and I’m excited to continue to craft my voice in a way that best tells my story. I’m also still plugging a way at a script that’s kind of a psychological horror. I would tell everyone to check out the work of DW McKinney. She’s an amazing writer across essay, reviews, interviews, and more. She’s working on her debut book and I’m excited to see it out in the world!