Author Archives: Nimue Brown

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things.

Soup Of The Day with sci-fi author and poet Kevan Manwaring

Two of my favourite people in one blog post!

Blake And Wight . com

Hello! Mrs Albert Baker here, otherwise known as The Last Witch Of Pendle. Obviously there is no Pendle any more, since The Chronic Agronauts utterly destroyed it with treacle and sprats, but I’ve set myself up quite nicely here in Lancaster, running this little soup kitchen for the street urchins. There certainly are a lot of them and I’m always looking for helping hands to cook up and serve something delicious!

Helping me this morning is poet and science fiction author Kevan Manwaring! Good morning Kevan, thank you so much for coming to help me in my soup kitchen today! Can I take your hat?

Thank you most kindly. What a lovely place you have here.

Why thankyou dear! Now then, have a seat here by the window where it is a little cooler. How was your journey here from your own dimension? I hope you weren’t waylaid by any land pirates or…

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Videos for May

I made these two videos for the Pagan Federation online disabilities festival in May.

This first one I started much earlier in the year, charting the growth of the garlic – I haven’t got the final part of the process where it dies back.

 

This second video is a chant. I wrote it specifically for the event after Debi asked whether anyone could do one.

 

 


The Factory Girl Trilogy – review

I picked up a review copy of Stephen Palmer’s first book in The Factory Girl trilogy to review, and ended up reading the whole set. It was obvious by about two thirds through the first book that this isn’t a trilogy of separate books, it’s more like one huge book published in three volumes. Fortunately, all three books are now out there so you won’t get to the end of the first one and have to wait! This is Steampunk fiction.

 

Book one introduces Kora, and Roka – two girls inhabiting one body, and appearing on alternate days. Kora is rescued from Bedlam by a doctor, Roka of course only finds out about it the next day. The Doctor is intent on solving the mystery of Kora’s two souls. He believes that her father is responsible. Kora’s father runs the biggest automata factory in the world, and he wants his daughter kept safely hidden away. It soon becomes evident that other people are interested in Kora, and probably don’t have her interests at heart. Can she solve the mystery of herself and stay relatively free?

Kora’s mother is black, her father is white. She experiences racial prejudice, and sexism. Roka gets involved with politics and activism, accompanied by an automata called AutoRoka. Book one has a lot of politics in it and a look at the way in which causes can clash – socialism, suffragettes, communism, rights for automata…

 

Book two sets out for Africa, and there’s a lot more adventure in it, while book three brings us back to the UK for a lot more action. More than that I don’t think I can say without massive spoilers. Overall the plot is unpredictable, engaging, challenging and will make you think.

There are a lot of really interesting themes played out in this story. The entire tale hinges on the question of identity. Do we have souls? Are Kora and Roka really two souls in one body? What does it mean to be alive? Can machines have souls? What kinds of stories do we tell about who matters and who doesn’t, who has a soul and who doesn’t?

 

There was one device that I particularly loved, so I’m going to talk about that because I can do so without spoilers! Kora keeps a book in her pocket. The book is a children’s story about a girl called Amy going through a series of gardens and having encounters. Amy also has a book in her pocket and reads from it at relevant moments. Amy has a little sister called Alice, and there’s clearly a jam on Alice in Wonderland going on here, only I liked this story a lot better and I think we get the whole of that little book inside the trilogy. Inside the book inside the book there is a tedious chameleon who will not disguise itself as anything other than a chameleon. This was one of my favourite things.

My other favourite thing was the automaton who becomes a Marxist. This, in the context of a story that is very much about a production line, has massive charm.

Although the main characters are in their teens, I don’t think this is a YA novel particularly. I like that about it. The assumption that we only want to read about characters who are of an age with us needs challenging. Younger folk could read it, but it has clearly been written with adults readers in mind. It’s a fascinating book(s) and I very much enjoyed it.

Find out more here – http://www.stephenpalmer.co.uk/


Telling people to be grateful

While I’m largely in favour of practicing gratitude, I’m also interested in the ways it doesn’t always work. Telling people to be grateful can be one of those problem points. I see this as distinctly different from encouraging people to practice gratitude, which is fine. Broad encouragement pokes people towards looking at the good things in their life, appreciating them, voicing that appreciation and so forth. Telling people to be grateful has a very different swing to it. It’s come up recently with newspapers telling black people that they ought to be more grateful over their personal achievements.

If you’re telling someone to be grateful, it assumes you know what’s going on in their lives. They may not see their situation as being one where gratitude is an appropriate response. If you’ve worked your arse off to get somewhere against great odds, being grateful for the crumbs others have dropped is not a healthy response. If we make something positive out of disaster or tragedy, we should not be pressured to feel grateful for the awfulness that set things in motion.

If one party is telling another party what to do, it tends to indicate a massive power imbalance. Telling someone how they are supposed to feel is a way of invalidating their emotional responses. It can be a way of writing off a person’s experience, background, struggles and personal effort. Focusing on the need for gratitude can draw attention away from both the work a person has done, and the barriers they faced to getting to where they are. If people are achieving things in spite of prejudice, disadvantage, illness, poverty, lack of privilege… telling them to focus on what they should be grateful for is a way of taking power away from them. It says ‘don’t look at what you did, think of everything that helped’. And that isn’t always appropriate, or fair. Using the idea of gratitude to stop people celebrating their own achievements really isn’t cool.

Telling people they should express gratitude runs the risk of turning gratitude into an act of public performance. It can stop people from being authentic. It can stop people talking about the difficulties they’ve faced. For gratitude to be meaningful, it has to be felt. If instead, it is something we feel obliged to perform to avoid criticism, it becomes a very hollow, potentially toxic activity.

It’s always worth asking why it is we want a person to express more gratitude. What do we want them to shut up about? What do we not want to think about or deal with? What of theirs are we trying to own for ourselves?


Contemplating failure

There’s a lot of positivity culture out there to tell us we can have anything and everything we want. We have to be positive enough, never give up, keep visualising the glorious outcome. It doesn’t take into account that failure is a very real part of human experience. We will all fail sometimes. Being realistic about how and why we’ve failed and what the implications are, is really important.

We can fail through lack of knowledge, experience and skill. It can mean that we just have to pick ourselves up and have another go. Many things require patience and perseverance, and will not come to us quickly just because we want them. Recognising the work involved, and recognising that we may fall short makes us better able to deal with reality than going forth with relentless positivity.

The timing may be bad. We may be unlucky. Things beyond our control may wreck our plans. We may not have the resources to achieve what we wanted. We may need to change tack and study, or practice, or rethink in some other way. These are all common events. They do not represent a failure to be positive enough, and simply being positive won’t deal with them.

How do you tell when you really should give up? How much time and money and energy – yours and other people’s – should you pour into something before you’ll admit it’s a bad loss? When is it time to accept that a dream isn’t viable? There are only personal answers here. A consciousness of failure can help us shift our goalposts to more appropriate positions. When I was a teen, I wanted to be a famous and important author. Experience has taught me to accept that if I can make ends meet and some people like my stuff, that’s probably as good as it can get.

I could dream about one day climbing Everest, but this body is never going to be equal to it. I doubt I could get up even the smallest mountain these days. No amount of positive thinking is going to enable me to run long distances, either. When do we decide what’s possible and what isn’t? When do we give up?

One of the big questions here is around how chasing the dream impacts on others. Imagine the person who goes full time with their dream but earns very little, and whose family has to support them. Imagine that they put little time into their family or friendships, expecting emotional and practical support while they follow their dream. How long can that continue before the dream itself needs questioning. A year? A decade? It’s important to consider what we’re asking other people to sacrifice for the sake of our dreams. Are we making other people put their lives on hold for us? Are we killing their dreams for the sake of our own? Are we making them pay unfairly?

If your efforts and failures and aspirations only really impact on you, then how you live your life is really no one else’s business. Most of us don’t exist in that kind of isolation. Dreams need putting into context, and I think one of the most important measures for failure and for recognising the need to give up, is how much the unrealised dream is costing other people.


Otter encounter

Last night, walking home late after a Show of Hands gig (they were great) I saw an otter from the towpath. At first I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye, and thought I was seeing a cat. I had a few seconds of a dark shape with an arched back over fully stretched legs. This is a pose I’ve never seen an otter in – and I’ve watched a lot of otter videos, and read otter books. The characteristic otter is fluid and close to the ground. This one was moving like a cat. Then it dropped into a more standard otter shape, and I realised what I was seeing.

I alerted Tom, and shortly after also alerted the chap who came down the towpath after us. We all stopped and looked. From a matter of yards away, the otter stopped and looked back at us. I’ve written before about how powerful I find this when encountering deer and foxes. I’ve never had a wild otter look at me before. He looked long and hard – from the size of him (huge, easily four feet from nose to tail tip) he must have been a dog otter. He looked at us like he was sizing us up and making choices. Then he carried on the way he had been going, down the lane parallel to the towpath.

We all stayed still, hoping for a second sighting. Not many yards away from us, the otter came up over an earth bank – fluid darkness moving like something in water, or something that is water. He crossed the towpath in front of us, flowed into the canal and swam off at an impressive pace, leaving the trademark trail of bubbles in his wake.

Given that otters have big territories, this is very likely the same massive dog otter we saw at the bus stop locally about eighteen months ago. My guess is that he was changing waterways – as there’s a small river on the other side of the road he was on, and otters have been seen and even filmed only a little way further up that river. The canal is teeming with fish, I see a lot of them every time I’m wandering along it. Last night it was also teeming with insect activity on the surface. The fish eat the insects, and the otter eats the fish. Given how itchy I am today, I think some of the insects had a good go at eating me, as well. It is curious to think that in a roundabout way, I may become otter food.


Rebuilding

Building anything up is hard work – be that a skill, a fitness level, a project, or anything else you might decide to invest in. Rebuilding is a whole other thing. Rebuilding means doing again something you have already done once and then lost. While there may be advantages from the experience of the first time, emotionally speaking it can be really tough.

If you have to rebuild, it is usually because something went wrong. Illness or injury may have stopped you in your tracks. Someone else may have pulled the rug from underneath you. Perhaps you were set back by misfortune, or by external pressures demanding you put time and energy somewhere else. Perhaps you lost your nerve, gave up on yourself, decided your goals and dreams were stupid and unreachable. Whatever stopped you when you were building, will have to be faced in some way as you rebuild.

It is utterly frustrating having to revisit things you could once do and now only do badly, if at all. It is a real loss to contend with. It may seem easier to give up entirely and avoid the emotional pain that comes from facing what you’ve lost. It may be hard to figure out how to do a reboot, and you may well struggle because you think you can run when in practice you can now barely walk – literally or metaphorically. You may feel awkward dealing with other people who have seen you better able to do the things you can’t now do. There may be anxiety and shame to deal with alongside the rebuilding. You may have no confidence that you can make it work this time, either.

Try to be patient with yourself, and to treat yourself kindly. Whatever experience you gained the first time round will be valuable. Consider whether you can realistically get back to where you were and if it isn’t an option, look carefully at the options you do have. If you aren’t going to be able to climb mountains, maybe you need to think differently about hills.

Ask what you are re-building and why. Is it about pride? Identity? Refusal to be beaten? Are you making a heroic choice to keep going or a foolish choice to not recognise that you really are beaten? Are you doing this for you, or for someone else? What, if anything, do you need to prove? What do you need to get back? Can you afford to compromise? There are no right or wrong answers here, but it is a good idea to know what your answers are.

My grandmother always said that if you fell off a horse, you had to get back onto the horse as soon as possible or you might lose your nerve. The longer it takes to get back on the horse, the harder it can be. She applied this to a great many things that weren’t horses. Sometimes getting back on the horse is hard, painful, scary. What meaning you give to that, is entirely up to you.


Performative female

I’ve spent the last week or so pondering the idea that gender is largely performative and thinking about my own uneasy relationship with gender. I’ve got a body. I have never known how to get that body to perform as feminine. I’ve been shamed for not being able to do this well enough – for not moving, dressing or wearing makeup like a ‘proper’ woman. I’ve seen the performance treated as more important than the biology. More important than my self esteem and sense of self.

In my teens I tried hard to perform as female. But I can’t walk well in heels – my ankles are problematic. I’m innately scruffy, I don’t do elegant or glamorous well. I don’t mostly feel sexy, or cute, or pretty or any of the things that might go with presenting a conventionally female identity. I can do goth or steampunk or Pagan hippy, because these are performances that allow me to be silly, colourful, grotesque or ridiculous, and I am more those things.

One of the things that has come up for me as I’ve explored this recently, is that I’m carrying a lot of resentment. I often resent women who can perform as women more effectively than me, and who are rewarded for that. I can’t compete with women who can do sexy and glamorous and who are willing to use that to get stuff done. I like to think that if I had options on this score, I wouldn’t use that to get stuff done. But, the reality is that I live in a culture that prefers certain kinds of appearances, and I don’t tick the boxes. I want to be judged based on my knowledge, skill and usefulness, not my face or the shape of my body. I do not get to pick the terms on which I am judged.

Looking back over my life so far I see that attempts at performing gender have made me miserable. Spaces where I’ve not felt any pressure to be more conventionally feminine are always better spaces for me. Situations where I’m valued based on what I can do, not how I look, are always happier and more rewarding spaces. I’ve always felt the performative stuff as performative, it’s why the term has been so resonant for me. It can only be an act for me, a pretence. Trying leaves me feeling fake and uncomfortable with myself. I get a keen feeling of trying to be something I am not, and of taking on something I have no right to.

I sometimes respond to this by resenting the women who can perform female. Resenting the women who can do a better job of looking and acting the part. I’ve tried to trivialise and diminish what for some women is no doubt an important part of self. Part of this is because I am jealous of women who are better looking than me – of whom there are a great many. Jealousy is not an emotion I like, but I can’t do envy here because there is no way I can move towards any of this and not feel totally fake.

My plan in the short term is to watch out for situations where I feel under pressure to perform as female, and see what I can do to change my relationships with those spaces. Alongside this I’m watching out for the idea that being non-binary means being more overtly male, because that doesn’t work for me either. I can’t perform male. I need to build a sense of self that is not about my failure to perform gender, and that allows me a bit more room.


Black Box – a review

Black Box is a science fiction novel from Kevan Manwaring. It is a text poised to be unleashed upon the world and I think it’s exactly the kind of story we need right now. Set against the backdrop of a dying Earth, the story manages to both square up to the disaster we are unleashing upon ourselves, while refusing to give up all hope. It is, in every possible way, a journey into utter darkness. As the story leads us to gaze into the abyss, it reminds us how brightly small lights can show at such times.

This is a very hard book to review without spoilers. Not least because the plot revolves around some serious uncertainties about what is real and what isn’t. Kevan handles this with absolute style, requiring you to read the story, aware that multiple explanations may exist. The story calls upon the reader to navigate between what they fear may be true and what they hope is happening, making you feel like you are an active participant – that you are the observer whose very act of observation might somehow change everything.

I spent the first third or so of the book lurching back and forth between possible explanations. In the middle third I really felt the pull of disparate realities, incompatible truths and ways of being and seeing. I spent the final third of the book trying, and failing to guess where it was going and wondering how on earth, or for that matter in space, the whole thing could possibly come together in a coherent way. It did. By the end I felt that my brain had been pounded to mush and my heart squeezed through a mangle. It is a story that will make you feel things.

What holds it all together, I think, is a fine thread of humour – dark humour often. Sometimes the humour is so self-conscious that it dissolves the forth wall and reminds you that you are engaging in a story, not a reality. As this is a story that is very much about navigating between possible stories, these moments of deliberate dislocation through humour have all kinds of effects. And of course the darkness is more effective when it’s not relentless. We can get used to anything. We can be ground down in misery. Laughter will keep you human and keenly feeling, which of course means the author can keep cranking up the intensity.

This is an incredibly imaginative book, full of surprises and strangeness. It explores what ‘alien’ means, and alongside that, what human means, at its best and worst. It asks ‘what of us will survive?’ a question not just for this piece of speculative writing, but for humanity as a whole. We are not yet obliged to plunge into the abyss, other options exist for us. Highly recommended.

Black Box is with Unbound and coming out via a subscription publishing method. What this means is that you can dive in now and put down the cash for a copy, and when enough people have done that, the book happens. Please do that thing if you can – this is a book that deserves to be out there. Hop over here and look at the options in the right hand column, and pick your level… https://unbound.com/books/black-box/


My thoughts are not my prayers

There are a number of statements that float around the internet as memes – my work is my prayer, my thoughts are my prayers, my words are my prayers… it is all too easy to assert this and have it be a way to not really make any effort.

My thoughts are not my prayers. Firstly, I think a lot. While I am ambivalent about deity, I certainly don’t believe that deity is especially interested in me and I don’t imagine that every random thing wandering about in my head is something to ask a God to bother themselves with.

I do not have a disciplined mind, nor do I ever intend to have this be the case, nor do I think it’s a good idea. Thinking is good. Reflecting, pondering, questioning, imagining, planning… For any of this to work, you need room to try things out, and change your mind. You can’t be creative without giving yourself space to think things that you may later reject as rubbish. If every thought is a prayer, when is there time to be creatively messy?

If your thoughts are your prayers, then the inside of your head has to be pretty saintly. I aim to act well in the world as much as I can. I give myself permission to feel all the little shitty things that pass through. Frustration. Resentment. Anger. Envy. All the knee jerk reactions to experiences that have me wanting to put politicians in wicker men. I give myself space to process these reactions and to work out better ways of expressing them. These are not prayers. I do not want them answered. These are things I need to take responsibility for. Equally, there are old feelings of guilt and shame, uselessness, anxiety, despair and unacceptability that surface now and then. These are not prayers, but they do need processing.

I firmly believe that to be human is to have this full range of experience. To be human is to get cross about things, to worry about aspects of the future, to regret past action or inaction… we don’t learn or grow without being able to do all of this. If the insides of our heads were only prayerful, there are too many things we wouldn’t be able to process. Repressing all the awkward stuff doesn’t make it go away, it just means it emerges in weird, uncontrolled ways. The sudden lashing out that you can’t explain. The telling yourself you’re doing one thing when really doing another. Make no room for your shadows, and you’ll end up with some serious cognitive dissonance, especially around who you are.

I don’t believe that the point of a spiritual life is to transcend being human. I don’t believe in higher self, as I’ve said before – I’m much more interested in deeper self. I want room to explore and to ponder. I like to treat the inside of my head as my own, private space. By giving time to reflection, working with my shadows, owning the awkward bits and working to heal them, I become more whole, and in turn less fraught. I realise this does take me, slowly, towards a place where all the things in my head could be beautiful and functional and worthy of being directed towards something other than myself. But at the same time, I always want to be angry at injustice and frustrated by needless hoop jumping. I will always need space for daft ideas so that I can work my way towards good ideas.

I can’t help but feel that thinking you’ve overcome the least good bits of your own humanity is probably only ever a sign that you’re successfully kidding yourself.