Why Denise Crittendon Won’t Write About Violence
In Conversation with Brenda Noiseux and Rob Wolf on the New Books Network
Denise Crittendon’s debut science fiction novel, Where It Rains In Color, leads us to the planet of Swazembi, a blazing, color-rich utopia and famous vacation center of the galaxy. Set far in the future, this idyllic, peace-loving world sees no real trouble. But Lileala’s perfect, pampered lifestyle is about to be shattered.
The book deliberately plays with concepts of color and beauty. Tourists are drawn to Swazembi for its floating color vapors, its wind-force transit system, and the most beautiful woman in the galaxy, the Rare Indigo.
“We love colors when we see beautiful flowers,” says Crittendon. “We love colors when we see birds that are incredibly colorful and neon. So why wouldn’t we love seeing colors floating across the surface of the planet? I wanted to show that we enjoy color so much. As I was writing the novel, my thought process was, So you don’t like color, huh? You don’t like people of color, huh? Well, you know, check this out. Look at all these colors.”
From the episode:
Rob Wolf: Let’s talk about the main character, Lileala. She’s been chosen to receive a very select title, The Rare Indigo. But when we meet her, she hasn’t actually been formally inducted into the position. What is the Rare Indigo?
Denise Crittendon: The Rare Indigo was considered the most beautiful woman in the entire galaxy. She’s this icon. In our society she would be known as a beauty queen. This role of Rare Indigo is a coveted title and she was selected. She’s been groomed most of her life for this position and there are strict restrictions. She’s a little frustrated. She’s a little immature. She’s spoiled. She’s pampered. So we show her starting out in that capacity as someone who’s privileged and entitled and a little bit whiny at times.
Rob Wolf: She’s a Black woman, but she can also generate colors on her skin. Could you talk a little bit about the significance of those colors that she’s generating and mesmerizing people with and luring the tourists to the planet?
Denise Crittendon: I played with skin tone, and I made her as dark as she could possibly be. She’s blue black. Blue black was once a term, and maybe it still is. In some communities, that was used as an insult. You call someone they’re so black, they’re blue. That was not supposed to be a compliment. Well, I flipped it. I made it a compliment because I was a little tired of Black women, women of color, being the lowest on the totem pole.
You’ll see in other parts of the world, if women have this rich hue, they’re kind of pushed back at times. And it does not make any sense. This is absolutely ridiculous, so I was showing how ridiculous it is. I have this protagonist whose skin is so brilliantly black; it’s like coal mixed with diamonds. She can do something called shimmer. Her shimmer is one of her greatest glories, and it’s what people come to experience when they come to see the Rare Indigo. When she shimmers, it’s almost hypnotic. People are like spellbound.
Rob Wolf: There is an illness spreading in the story and what makes it so devastating to Lileala in particular, is that it manifests as keloids, which she feels make her ugly and disfigure her. It takes away the thing she values most, the thing that has made her most special. There’s so many different kinds of illnesses, but you chose one that actually destroys beauty.
Denise Crittendon: That came to me in a dream. A lot of the novel, I can say, was inspired by Zimbabwe, but most of it, too, came from this dream I was having, a series of dreams of seeing this woman standing on a cliff, which I now know was the asteroid. I don’t know how often I have had that dream. I’m not sure. But one night I had this amazing dream and this woman was standing there and she said that these glassy looking beings with large heads and dressed like they were trying to mimic earth attire said, We sentence you to the keloid planet.
It was clear in the backdrop that their belief is that if you want to torture someone or attack someone, you take what is their glory and you use that against them. Well, dark skin has a tendency to keloid when it’s when it’s been punctured or when you have a wound. They were taking what was our gift and using it against us, that that was the whole point of the dream.
Brenda Noiseux: I read a lot of sci fi and fantasy and oftentimes there’s a lot of violence. One of the things that stands out in this book for me is the lack of violence. Was that a conscious choice on your part or did the story happen to avoid violence or not need violence?
Denise Crittendon: It was conscious. It was deliberate. Everyone who knows me knows I can’t take violence. I don’t want to criticize the state of the world in that way but I honestly believe that if we would tone down the violence in what entertains us, the movies, whatever books, that maybe we would tone it down in society. Some people disagree with me for this. What you take in is what you’re going to put out. Because I avoid violence at all costs, I’m ultrasensitive to it. If I go to certain movies and it gets to be too much, I’m in the lobby. So there’s no way that it was going to exist in the world and in any world that I ever create. I deliberately made them a peaceful, peace loving society.
Rob Wolf: It’s very subtle, but it definitely evokes a very different culture that you’ve created this greeting for people. They greet each other by saying “waves of” and, it’s usually something positive, like waves of joy. It has a religious quality to it. I felt like it came from somewhere that I’m just ignorant of, but it could also have come from one of your dreams. That kind of thing goes a long way to evoking a very different sense of place and culture.
Denise Crittendon: You know, energy travels in waves, so I wanted it to be that they’re in touch with waves. I was invoking that sense of energy and that they understood energy and were tapped into energy. I wanted this to be a society that, in addition to being peaceful, that they’re focused on being happy. So your greeting is waves of joy, waves of peace. And if you’re saying thank you, you might say waves of thanks. And if you’re teasing someone or they’re doing something you don’t like or they’re acting jealous of you, then they’re a light stealer.
Brenda Noiseux: You had mentioned who you’re hoping to reach with Where It Rains In Color, not necessarily just existing fans of science fiction, but some folks who have not necessarily seen themselves in the genre before.
Denise Crittendon: I perceive it as a crossover. I’m hoping that sci fi fans embrace it, even though it’s different from other sci fi books that they may have read and not the type of worldbuilding that they’re used to. I’m hoping that the sci fi community engages, but I’m really hoping that women of color see themselves, especially young women of color. I think that women of color will pick up the book, enjoy seeing themselves elevated. Put on a pedestal. As I keep saying to people, a woman who was not being admired and revered despite the fact that she’s Black, but a woman who’s being admired and revered because she’s Black. Now, that’s the switch.
Brenda Noiseux: For those who are looking for a little bit more, you have a friend who inspired you to create a glossary?
Denise Crittendon: A friend called me and said her book arrived. She said I don’t want to start reading it because I don’t even know how to pronounce these names. I said, there’s a glossary. She said, Yes, the glossary gives you the reminders, the definitions, but it doesn’t tell you how to pronounce it. I said, I didn’t even think about that. And she said, That’s okay, we’ll create one. So she contacted me again and she had me pronounce every single, not every single word in the book obviously, but the difficult terms. So if you go to my website you’ll see a glossary that includes the pronunciation for the terms that might be tongue twisters.
Denise Crittendon is the author of Where It Rains In Color. Before making the big leap into the world of sci-fi & fantasy, Denise held a string of journalism jobs. In addition to being a staff writer for The Detroit News and The Kansas City Star, she was editor-in-chief of the NAACP’s national magazine, The Crisis. Later, she became founding editor of a Michigan-based lifestyle publication for black families. These days, she fulfills ghostwriting assignments for clients and writes speculative fiction on the side. She divides her time between Spring Valley, Nevada and her hometown, Detroit, Michigan.