Jeida K. Storey: I’ve had the pleasure of reading your work before TISW, so I knew how deeply personal & devastatingly beautiful your prose is... but there’s unique vulnerability in these essays. What was it like recounting such personal moments? What was the easiest part? The hardest?
Athena Dixon: Writing the book wasn’t really writing a book for me at first. The essays started out as a way to release and cleanse. I wasn’t sure if I’d widely share more than a handful of them. Because of that I was able to be a bit more open on the page and tamp down my fear.
The hardest part is this present moment. People are starting to read about these experiences and feelings and it’s scary to be exposed. It’s scary to feel as if people in my personal life will look at me differently. It’s scary to let down the mask I’ve used for so long.
JKS: Your essays echo a theme of feeling unseen as a child, a lover, a Black Midwesterner. That resonated with me because I’ve also often felt unseen in different spaces. Well, now, with this book in reader’s hands, we can’t look away from you. Your words have captivated our attention; we know parts of Athena that you’ve beautifully allowed us to see. Other than feeling scary, does it feel therapeutic or empowering at all? Any other emotions come up?
AD: It’s very empowering! Through these essays I get to feel sexy and desirable. Smart and self assured. Strong in ways I had never claimed. I think the very act of putting air to some of these experiences bolsters what I always knew existed in the core of me. As well, in my feelings of invisibility, and being able to step outside of that to some degree, I’m hoping it does the same for some readers. I can’t hope that they connect with my work if I’m not willing to open up to myself, right?
JKS: Yes, absolutely! You’re so raw!
In a few essays, you briefly point to the illusion of feeling in control. How has that illusion played out for you in your author life? Have you felt that tug of wanting control even in the process of having this book published?
AD: I was gifted with a very good editor. She respected my work and how it came to be and so the control I had on my work wasn’t hard to adjust. I’d sat with some of the essays for eight years and really needed the fresh eyes. She provided that.
The difficulty for me, in terms of control, was making sure I understood I can’t control how someone reacts to my work and whatever feelings they have about it are not a personal judgement. It’s difficult to let that illusion go when your life is on the page.
JKS: Baring your soul is what moved me the most!
I always say a book isn’t good unless it devastates me in some way. I know that sounds negative but go with me. It can be a scene or a single line of prose—I’m always looking for something that shocks me & evokes strong emotion. When I read “Things Men Have Said to Me” I had to put the book down and have a good cry. And I sent it to friends! I feel like I cried for all the women (especially my Black sisters) who have heard such scathing words from men they like or love. Maybe even barely tolerate.
You incredible woman, how did you muster the courage to put these particular words on paper and why was it important for you to include it in the collection?
AD: Those lines had all in some way been considered for individual essays or inclusion in a grouped essay, but I thought they were more powerful alone. Each of them evoked such powerful emotions in me, negative or positive, that they were burned into my brain. It made sense for me to include them, but I didn’t want to lessen their impact by burying them in the backstories that didn’t need to be told. And honestly? I didn’t want to give any more weight to the men who said them. They aren’t important. It was the impression instead.
And lastly, I think it gives readers a chance to really dissect the power of words. How they plant seeds and grow even in the smallest measures. You don’t need a lot of them to cause damage.
JKS: Whew! So profound!
As the oldest of four girls and having grown up with a loving & hard-working dad much like yours, I was especially touched every time you highlighted your relationship with him. Has your dad read the book? What are his thoughts?
AD: My dad has read the book! He said it made his heart heavy and he had to put it down a few times because he never knew some of those things happened to me. But! He was also sure to tell me how proud he was and how it took bravery and strength to be that open.
He also questioned whether or not I thought he’d read it because of the sex! (Athena inserts laughing emoji) Most importantly, he said he was sure I was going to find an audience who had the same feelings and experiences.
JKS: That. Is. Amazing. (Jeida inserts laughing emoji) Your dad is right. The right readers will find this book & feel seen & understood.
Time flew! We’ve got time for one more question! In Native Tongue, you mention owning a pair of Jordans is on your Black bucket list. What else is on that list?
AD: A friend gifted me with my first pair of Jordans so that’s crossed off! I want to learn how to cornrow. I want to go to an HBCU homecoming. I want to learn the Electric Slide (don’t judge me!) Those are my top three. (Athena inserts laughing emoji)
JKS: Okay, so I can’t cornrow. I’ve been trying to get to an HBCU homecoming forever, specifically #GHOE at North Carolina A&T. But when COVID-19 is over, come to Dallas and we can electric slide and wobble until our feet hurt! (Jeida inserts laughing emoji)
Athena, thank you so much for being with me this hour!
AD: Bet! Thank you so much for having me!
You can grab your copy of THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN from Split Lip Press now!