Wise Not Withered

Potion-Brewing Witches - ATHIEI & AKUOL

January 6, 2020

Happy New Year and welcome to Week 8 of the Wise Not Withered Character Showcase! I'm thrilled to present a very special pair of characters: Athiei and Akuol, an aunt and niece potion-brewing witch duo. The illustrator for these characters was Joy Ajuong, whose family originates from South Sudan; our witches have strong influences from the Dinka people who are indigenous there.

Our American writer, Annamarie Mickey, did some fabulously thorough research and ran everything by Joy to ensure the most accurate and respectful representation of the Dinka people. Annamarie will introduce herself and talk more about her creative process later on in this episode.

The witches' names came directly from Joy's Dinka heritage: Athiei is a unisex name meaning "blessing", and Akuol is the feminine form of the name Kuol, which is a type of bitter fruit that can be used for medicine. Joy told us that Kuol is a fairly common name in her own family.

The idea I had for the witches was, like most of the other characters, extremely bare-boned. It was important to me that lots of different relationships were represented in the project, and I knew that I wanted the witches to be an aunt and niece pair. Originally I wanted the story to focus on the older witch, who is seventy-two, and conflict would arise when her forty-five-year-old niece messes up a potion recipe and accidentally releases and dark, mysterious power. Once Annamarie started writing the story, it became clear that both witches were equally important.

I thought it was an interesting concept simply with their ages and exploring the relationship between two grown women who are some kind of combination of mother/daughter/sister/friend. The older witch, seventy-two-year-old Athiei has twenty-seven more years of life and work experience, but at this point her forty-five-year-old niece Akuol is pretty established and skilled as well.

During the conversation over WhatsApp with Joy and Annamarie, I had an idea that I believed to be silly at the time. I had said that it could be funny if they're experimenting with potions, and Athiei temporarily changes their appearances to that of younger women. They both look in the mirror and say "Nah!"

Annamarie chimed in, saying that she thought about the usual cranky but affectionate older woman and the younger person who has to deal with them. But then she thought it would be more interesting if the niece was more uptight while the older aunt is more experienced and is in the stage of life where she is somewhat embracing a second childhood. So Athiei might be known for trying things that Akuol balks at.

I adored Annamarie's idea of the "second childhood", and it reminded me of hearing about post-menopausal women who in some ways revert to a more childlike state, in terms of positive energy and outlook on the world, similar to how they were before their first period. I didn't want to outright say that in the story, but the underlying idea would be there: the niece Akuol is pre-menopausal and coming to terms with "The Change" whereas the aunt Athiei has already accepted it since it happened at least a couple decades prior for her.

Joy added her own thoughts, saying how it's nice to show that as we get older it can be difficult to accept changes in our bodies and lives, and having the older witch be more calm and cheerful in itself shows that this isn't the end of the world. You can always find joy if you wish to and her goofiness imparts that lesson on the younger witch. Joy continued: "As for this dark force, I think it would be important to tie it in with their personal hang ups. We could have it connected to menopause with the younger witch. Perhaps literally or perhaps metaphorically."

Then Annamarie riffed on that: "Perhaps something related to fear, almost like when a teenager goes through puberty, prompted by uncontrollable and significant change. She feels that change deep down and doesn't want to admit it scares her. That could be partly why she clings so much to more strict magics and seems to have lost some of her creativity and imagination."

Joy added on that again, talking about how Akuol feels a sense of control in her magic abilities that she doesn't feel in other parts of her life. She desperately wants to be young again, not aware of the darkness brewing within herself in holding on in vain to that belief: "basically a metaphor for how attempting to reclaim your youth rather than accept the grace of aging can have negative consequences both for your own wellbeing and others."

The Potion-Brewing Witches' story is the only one in the Wise Not Withered project that has age as a key factor and conflict in the plot. It was important to me that although each character had to be at least forty years old, age would not be a defining characteristic for these stories, in hopes of normalizing the idea of middle-aged and elderly women as protagonists. However since the older witch has accepted her age, it felt right to include one character in the project who at the beginning of the story has not accepted it yet.

My original idea was that the niece would somehow be at fault for the main conflict, and it also made sense that Akuol's mishap wouldn't be caused by mere carelessness. At that point she would be forty-five and more experienced and capable than to mess up like a novice. So having the darkness and conflict arise from her insecurity about aging—with a role model showing another way of aging—made perfect sense.

The idea I had of a potion making them look younger also came with differences in how each witch would respond to seeing her younger self. It would make sense that Akuol, the more uptight one, would be shocked and yearn to look that way again. Athiei on the other hand would gaze upon their younger selves and relish in the memories of when Akuol first came to live with her and learn magic, feeling nostalgia and appreciation rather than disappointment and longing. Showing that difference in perception was indispensable.

Potion-Witches Game Ideas

The original idea for Wise Not Withered was going to be entirely through a lens of gaming, but as ideas came in from the writers and illustrators, I decided to not put the whole focus on just games, but rather media of all types. The witches though, with all their different potions, would be great characters for an open-world RPG, with ingredient-collecting and crafting mechanics.

Another one of Joy's idea: "Recipes could either be stumbled upon by player experimentation or by reading books scattered across the town or perhaps speaking to certain NPCs. If we wished to fight against the grave evil we could introduce combat early on say to hunt certain creatures for ingredients. This could teach the player that they can use the potions to augment their stats mid-battle. I think if you start with this relaxed Animal Crossing like tone for say the first third of the game, it would get people invested and accustomed to the characters' way of life so it would become shocking when the dark force appears due to their own hand. Sort of a tone shift, though the mechanics can hint at this future event."

Potions... Potions...

Annamarie did an amazing job coming up with potion ideas. Instead of simply describing them, I'm including excerpts from the story to show off her writing as well:

  • "Feather-light potions enabled their feet to hover inches above the ground as they stepped out from their cottage, just high enough to walk across the flooded grasslands with ease - a welcome convenience in the rainy season."
  • "The rain was still coming down steadily, and a deep fog had set in as the late afternoon wore on. Athiei opened a clear-eyes bottle, and the women drew lines on either side of their eyes so they would not lose their way. ... Akuol pressed a finger to her temple where she had drawn a clear-eyes line. By focusing her energy, she could not only see through the fog, but enhance her vision further."
  • "Akuol dug into her pack. She carried a vial of mica and ore. She retrieved one of the villager’s gifts next - a cured hide of an ancient lechwe, finally at rest after years of wandering when the merciful earth called its life away. She plucked several hairs from the hide and mixed it with the mica. Then she held it aloft to the rain - to the cycle of water, from the ground seeping into the river and condensing into the air and returning to its mother, ever-changing even in its constantness."

And now here's Annamarie, going a lot deeper into her creative background, creative process, influences, main takeaways from the story, and her experience being part of the Wise Not Withered project:

"My name is Annamarie Mickey, and I am the writer for 'Always Constant, Ever-Changing', or the Potion Witches prompt, as it was first pitched to me back when Juliana first reached out to me. I am from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area—lived here my whole life, went to school not super far from here.

As for how long I've been writing, I've been creating stories ever since I could hold Barbie dolls, basically. As far as more polished writing, I would say as early as middle school. Probably a lot of people around my age, my generation can relate to growing up on websites like Neopets. Neopets to me was highly formative, and it sounds so silly, but I created vast characters and stories, and I wrote so much in middle school. I got to explore so many different kinds of characters and explore ideas from books I was reading, and just whatever would pop into my head. So that was a highly formative time for me.

In terms of the kind of writing I like doing—and I think there were hints of this when I was younger, and it's definitely only gotten more polished and come more into the forefront as I've gotten older... I really like works that have an existential bend to them. Things that aren't always 100% straightforward, or sometimes maybe have bizarre sentence structure here and there, or really play with words, sometimes even creating new words or putting words together in weird ways that you don't see a lot, to really make you think about what you're reading, or pull you into the scenario of what you're reading.

I think you see a lot of things like that more in short stories, because in short stories you have such a smaller amount of time to make an impact on your reader. When I was in college, studying literature and writing, I really fell in love with short stories. Flannery O'Connor was one of my favorite authors that I read in college. She's one that really just comes out there and smacks you with the bizarre, and the weird, and the uncomfortable.

Also a lot of African short stories, Asian short stories... I took a few non-Western classes. They really delve into that kind of magic-realism bend. Sometimes you're not 100% sure what's going on, or things are a little bit weird... Every word counts. So when an author does something it needs to be very specific, and they're doing that for a reason. You can't just mess around with no purpose behind it.

That's what I really love about short stories. And now in my older writing I really embrace that way of writing, and I hope that comes through in Always Constant, Ever-Changing. Cause this was a witchy, magical story. I really got to play with some strange language here and there, weird things of describing scenes. For me, that is so much fun to explore, and I hope that comes across to the reader and pulls them into the scenario we set up with Athiei and Akuol.

With Athiei and Akuol, I think I couldn't focus on just one, because they live in such close proximity to each other, and Akuol has basically grown up with Athiei. Their lives and their duties and their job, everything is just so totally intertwined. They're both older women, but they're still both women in different parts of their life. I wanted to explore Athiei's wisdom, being the older one who had already gone through what Akuol is going through. That sense of when you're in your middle age, sort of reaching older age.

Obviously I'm young, so I can't empathize with this, but I have plenty of older women in my life. My mom and my aunts. I can sympathize with seeing them go through these changes, and juxtaposing that with the older older women I see in my life, who have come to an understanding, a freedom of where they are in their lives.

I think it's important for younger people to read a story like this, see characters like this, think about people like this. I'm younger, but obviously I'm not always going to be young. And younger people think about aging too. How's life going to be in ten, twenty years? They look to the older women in their lives and see how they handle aging. And that imprints on the younger generations on what to expect as they age. So I wanted to write a story that was focusing on that there is beauty in aging. You don't have to be scared of it.

I wanted it to be encouraging for anyone at any stage of life. Whether you're younger and you think about, how will I be when I'm older? And possibly if you're older too, I hope that I was able to reach out and touch some of those fears. I think it's especially poignant in women. Our society places so much value on youth, and so much is sold to us on staying young, being youthful, and being beautiful. But there is so much to be gained as you get older, and really I think that's what Athiei tries to reach out to Akuol. Even if she doesn't come out and say it; it's the way she lives, the way she presents herself, the way she celebrates life and what she does.

She goes into each day unafraid, excited. It's almost a youthful kind of energy, despite her age. The more I thought about that, the more that I really carved that into Athiei, the more excited I was to write it. I found the voice of the story, found those two opposing forces between Athiei and Akuol, and how they work together. And for me that's the heart of the story, it's them together. It's not just the one, it's both of them. Both of them navigating life with each other, what they give to each other, what they learn from each other. And for me I would say that's really the heart of the story.

As for the more like nitty-gritty of the story, forming its setting being in more South Sudan. That really came from the artist, from Joy, absolutely. Right at the beginning, when all three of us had met—me, Joy, and Juliana—we talked about ourselves a lot, where we came from, what our influences were, what we were interested in. We really wanted to bring a lot of ourselves to the story.

My bent is obviously always going to be a little more Western, because that's how I was raised, and that's the culture I'm surrounded in. I've always been drawn to... Like when I hear "magic", my first thought is going to be the more English, Western magic: Lord of the Rings, the medieval, the Renaissance, that kind of thing. A lot of literature I've read is that, and I do love that.

But Joy, her family is actually from South Sudan, so when she started sharing that with us, I was like, we have such a great opportunity here, where I can bring my love of magic and just the idea of witches, which is always fun for me to play with. Magical realism, all the powers and works in the world that work around us—it always fascinates me. So any story that has magic or anything like that is super up my alley. So to combine my experience with writing that sort of setting, and reading those sorts of stories, and placing that deeply in Joy's culture. The opportunity to have someone so close to that. Obviously I did quite a bit of research. I also asked Joy questions. Pretty much anything I wrote I ran by her to make sure that it was accurate or at least...

I mean it is a magic story. It is fiction. So it's not 100% accurate to real life. But making sure any liberties we took, or things that we did a little bit differently, sat well with the whole picture we were trying to put together. So it was so great to have that opportunity to explore a culture and a part of the world that you just don't see very often. So that was just absolutely fantastic. I love doing research and immersing myself in a different culture, in a different people. And the opportunity to bring that to the forefront, and having Joy consulting very closely on it, making sure the ideas I brought to it were respectful and proper while still hitting an emotional impact for all of us, was just absolutely amazing.

I joined the project because a friend of mine who is the artist on one of the other stories, had been recruited by Juliana before I had. And we had been working on a project together. So she reached out to me and said hey I joined this project, it sounds really interesting. It's about older women in a variety of stories, it's about expanding the world of fiction to include the older women. That's up both of our alleys to do something like that.

So I said yeah that sounds awesome. So I reached out to Juliana, and she immediately pulled me on board. When she sent me the list of prompts, Potion Witches was immediately up there for me, because I love magic and I love magic settings. I love what you can explore and what you can do.

Magic brings such an easy and immediate way to explore the metaphysical. Expressing people's psyches and their thoughts and their pain. Their journeys and what they're going through, through the strange around them, the magic, and bizarre around them. How does that manifest in the world around them? And when you introduce magic into a setting, you can really bring that to a forefront, you can play with it in ways that for me is so much fun! So Potion Witches was probably my first pick, if not my second pick. So when we got our prompts, and I saw that I was assigned the Potion Witches, I was so excited!

Working on the project was so much fun. I mean Juliana was just so gung-ho the entire time, especially at the beginning when we were firing ideas back and forth, trying to really hammer down what idea we wanted to do. There was a lot to get to the final product! (laughs) We threw around a lot of ideas before we finally settled on the final, what it eventually became in the end. And she was always just texting and messaging, which I don't mind! Because it means that the person in charge...

One thing I've learned is that when you have a project, especially something like this, where there's a lot of moving pieces, and a lot of people working together, you need a strong leader. You need someone who is 200% passionate. Because if you have someone who is even like 90% passionate about it, especially when we're mostly volunteering for this, just to do it because it's interesting and sounds fun, you really need someone who is going to hold the reigns, and just be totally on-board with discussing any idea, and going down any avenue, and really encouraging all of us, and keeping on us to work on it. Like I said I don't mind, because when there's someone that passionate behind a project, that keeps you passionate.

So even occasionally schedules get busy and everything, but I was still able to finish the story. Juliana was there the entire time, making sure that if I had any questions, I could ask, making sure I was still good, reading any revisions that I did, leaving me really great feedback that pulled the story together, really tightened the story as well. She was such a good second pair of eyes to have on the story. So yeah, working for the project was just fantastic and I'm so proud of the final product, and I'm really excited for people to read it.

I hope that when people read it, they will ultimately come with a feeling of... Going into 2020, starting a new year, starting a new decade, don't be afraid. That theme came out organically as I was writing. Usually when I go into writing, I don't always have a strict idea of what the theme is going to be. What is the big message of the story?

And for this one, the one that really came out was go forward, unafraid. I mean... Go forward despite your fear. We're all gonna be afraid! Instead of being antagonistic toward that fear, cause that's what Akuol does. She lets that fear fester in her, and that fear goes outward, it affects the world around her, the people around her. That's what happens when you let fear drive you. It affects not only you—it affects everyone around you.

Akuol really learns that she needs to accept the change around her, the change in her life, the change within herself, both physically and mentally. When you accept that, then you can move forward with bravery in spite of it, and the people around you can help support you as you move forward. You're not alone in this journey of life.

So writing this story for me, was just filled with hope, so much joy. There's so much joy in all the details of the story. And I really hope that that comes across, and I hope that when people read it, they feel that hope, and try to take that back into their lives. I mean, that might be a lot to ask for just a short story. (laughs) But for me, whenever I read it, that's what comes across to me. The hope at the end. The hope that I can take that into my life outside of the story. We're not perfect, but we try.

I'm just so honored and blessed to have written a story that reading it now, it means that much to me. And I hope that readers also see that and hopefully take some of that with them after they're done reading. So everyone who reads Always Constant, Ever-Changing, I hope that you enjoy it first of all! And I hope that you find some of those deeper meanings, or maybe other things in the story that speak to you on some level. That when you come out of it, you feel that hope and joy. And if you do that, then I've done my job. I loved writing it, and I hope you love reading it! Thank you so much."

Thanks for listening to the Wise Not Withered Podcast! More character showcases coming out Sundays until mid-2020!

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