The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

The Incredible Shrinking Woman by Athena Dixon

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Review by Laura Dennis

 

If I had to choose two words to talk about the past twelve months–let’s make that two constructive words–intersectionality and vulnerability would be strong contenders. Whether it be a deep dive into the work of Brené Brown or a reckoning with structural racism, these two topics have been on many people’s minds.

It comes as no surprise, then, that Athena Dixon’s essay collection, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, feels so relevant: intersectionality and vulnerability reverberate from page to page. Dixon explores the nuances of what it means to be Black (including how and what kind of Black she considers herself to be), Midwestern, middle class, educated, overweight (she does not shy away from saying “fat”), chronically ill (with lymphedema), and divorced. The title essay includes a masterful example in which the narrator compares herself to another heavy-set woman on a plane:

But she is not just fat. She is also white and blond. There is privilege there that impacts our bodies in different ways. It is not the fat that separates us. It is power in the ability to say “this space is to be occupied any way I see fit.” I am simply trying not to cause waves, trying to prove through my folding and tucking that I belong here. That I am not what you expect me to be. (84)

This blend of intersectionality and self-effacement appears throughout the book, whose narrator paradoxically fears both invisibility and being truly seen. In “Reader Insert,” she expresses this with the language of pie charts and Venn diagrams:

I know they see me as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a co-worker, and an employee. Some may even see me in varying overlaps, a Venn diagram of who and what Athena is, if you will. But a whole pie chart? That whole Athena? I don’t think that’s happened yet and I’m not sure it will. (66)

In the same essay, she reveals just how distressing this lack of visibility–even when self-imposed–can be: “I don’t even know who I am beneath what I’ve constructed and the parts of me I’m unwilling to speak about. I’m afraid, in some ways, to shout out to the world what makes me angry or happy or sad or horny. As if I can’t be all of those things” (66). Here and throughout the collection, the narrator’s vulnerability is on display. The essays “Vagina, Slightly Used” and “Lakeshore” talk candidly about relationships and sex, while “An Imprint Instead of a Flash” addresses depression and suicidal ideation. In “Once Upon an AOL,” Dixon tackles her divorce, the writing so raw that one wonders if a bit more healing might have made it easier to put words on the page. Her courage in writing into and through her wounds reminds us that people are not neatly packaged products, but rather works in progress.

Through it all, Dixon, a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee who has published a chapbook and co-hosts the New Books in Poetry podcast, demonstrates her poetic sensibility. We see this in phrases such as “He carries my beginnings like a prize” (21) or the entire closing passage of “Karaoke,” which could stand as a prose poem on its own. Sometimes the images and metaphors accumulate, other times they are pushed to the extreme, for example in “Liturgy.” This overflow of language acts as a mask, another place to hide, a way for the narrator to reveal parts of herself without feeling thoroughly exposed.

“Liturgy,” with its refrain “Justin is dead,” also showcases Dixon’s ability to experiment with narrative form, as do “M.A.S.H.” and the list-based pieces “Things Men Have Said to Me (Some of Which are True)” and “50 Reasons to Leave Your Lover (Some of Which are Good).” Other essays, such as “A Goddess Makes Platanos,” “50% Off,” or “Depression is a Pair of Panties,” develop their attention-grabbing titles in ways that keep one reading until the end.

The other captivating thing about this collection is the unfolding of pop culture over time. The rich, wide-ranging soundtrack, the films and TV shows, the fashions and the foods all anchor the writing firmly in time and place. From AOL chatrooms to Tumblr blogs, readers follow Dixon where she would have us go, watching her as she finds her different pieces, joining her on the journey to create a coherent whole.

 

The Incredible Shrinking Woman by Athena Dixon
Split/Lip Press, 2020  $16.00 [paper] 9781952897030 [paper]


Laura Dennis is a college professor in Appalachia. She manages and writes for the Attachment & Trauma Network (ATN) blog and reviews books for academic journals as well as Mom Egg Review and Still. Her own non-fiction has been recognized in a variety of outlets, including writing contests, Bethlehem Writer’s Roundtable and Kentucky Philological Review.

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