LJ Talks to SFF Writer Denise Crittendon About ‘Where It Rains in Color’

A veteran journalist, Denise Crittendon has been writing for so long that she sometimes wonders if she has ink in her blood. Her career includes two major metropolitan daily newspapers and stints as editor-in-chief of two magazines, one national and one based in her hometown, Detroit. Kristi Chadwick, LJ’s co-columnist for SFF, talks with her about writing, reading, and the SFF genre.

A veteran journalist, Denise Crittendon has been writing for so long that she sometimes wonders if she has ink in her blood. Her career includes two major metropolitan daily newspapers and stints as editor-in-chief of two magazines, one national and one based in her hometown, Detroit. She lives in her city of origin six months of the year and spends the rest of her time near relatives in Spring Valley, Nevada. Kristi Chadwick, LJ’s co-columnist for SFF, talks with her about writing, reading, and the SFF genre.

What drew you into writing speculative fiction?

Speculative fiction was an obvious choice for me because I don’t like being boxed into a specific way of thinking and viewing the world. I like to look beyond and ponder about all sorts of scenarios. For instance, suppose we’re dreaming or maybe we are someone’s dream. Maybe we’re just a cell in the elaborate brain of a higher intelligence. The possibilities are unlimited, and I love diving into them. As a child, I was the type who was always staring up at the clouds or being reprimanded for daydreaming in class. I also asked tons of questions—especially “why?” After I became a newspaper reporter, asking who, what, where, when, and why became my daily routine. But it didn’t take long for my raging imagination to begin yearning for more and asking “what if,” which is the ultimate speculative fiction question. For years, I would wake up in the morning with probing ideas and strange dreams swirling in my head. I’d jot down these dreams and ideas, not sure what they meant or what I would do with them. Then, I began reading Frank Herbert, Ray Bradbury, and my personal heroine, Octavia Butler. I knew that was the type of writing I wanted to emulate.

Your SF debut, Where It Rains in Color, focuses on Lileala and her journey through discovering that her power is not just in her beauty. What brought this book idea to you?

It all started with a dream. Although I’d been having creative dreams for years, this one haunted me and repeated itself a few times. I’d see this mysterious woman standing alone on a cliff wearing a hooded cape. One night, a couple of peculiar-looking beings appeared beside her, and I heard them sentencing her to the “Keloid Planet.” Meanwhile, she talked about speaking in something called the Inekoteth tongue. When I woke up, I jotted it down and went off to work. Years later, I was in between jobs and pulled out these notes, hoping to use my brief downtime to turn them into a novel. Unfortunately, my hastily written novel didn’t sell, and since I had a new, demanding job editing a national magazine, I couldn’t focus on a rewrite. I stuck it in a desk drawer and forgot about it. Fast-forward two decades. I was no longer working a nine-to-five job and happened to stumble upon my abandoned manuscript. At the time, I had established myself as an independent ghostwriter but felt compelled to pull out this template of a novel and revise and develop it. For about a year, I worked on it off and on in between projects.

The novel has another backstory as well. After years of introspection, I wrote self-help books for teens. I was volunteering at a girls’ home and wanted to create something to empower them, as well as other teens. Before long, local organizations began inviting me to conduct teen “inner beauty” workshops on weekends. With Black girls, one thing stood out—no matter how pretty, how bright, how talented—many of them didn’t like their hair or their dark skin. I was crushed, though I understood the source. How else could they feel in a society that had fed them a steady diet of porcelain images—from white, blue-eyed baby dolls to Rapunzel and Snow White fairy tales?

So, when I sat down to bring the woman in my dream to life, these concerns were heavy on my mind. To address them, I fantasized about ways to promote a powerful identity and instill an understanding that societal perceptions do not define a person. In my talks to the girls, I always stressed the importance of taking your power back. Where It Rains in Color is part of that self-affirming effort. The novel also includes the underlying theme that when we look beyond surface appearance, we might be surprised by the inner treasures we discover.

Do you feel that science fiction and fantasy is a genre that opens opportunities for Black writers? Are there other genres you would like to see more Black writers publish in?

I perceive science fiction and fantasy as an escape from our current reality of oppression in a society that’s fixated on relegating individuals to a hierarchy based on race and skin color. Other novels often keep Black characters mired in injustice, mainly because it’s happening all around us. It’s the truth. However, Black writers who choose spec fiction can unleash our imaginations and create whatever worlds we want, however surreal. This isn’t the case with literature that’s stuck with prevailing social norms, three dimensions, the laws of physics, etc. I firmly believe in the Einstein quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Since sci-fi is expansive, Black writers can produce alternative landscapes on Earth and/or among the stars that showcase aspects of our abilities and talents that the larger society prefers to overlook. Besides sci-fi and fantasy, I think I’d like to see more Black writers exploring magical realism.

What do you hope readers come away with in your novel?

More than anything, I hope Where It Rains in Color helps shift perceptions about race in general, and people of color in particular. I realize one product can’t be a cure-all, and there’s no such thing as a panacea for any problem or issue. However, I believe the grandiose, futuristic world I have constructed and the unconventional attitudes of their insular society can make a dent. That’s all any of us can do—keep chipping away at old archaic notions little by little.

By “archaic notions,” I’m referring to the belief that one group of people is superior to another. I’m trying to dispel this by flipping limited beauty standards and lifting Black women beyond the barriers of the narrow, physical self-assessment that has been imposed on the entire planet for years. I’ve done a great deal of traveling and even lived for a year in Harare, Zimbabwe, near South Africa. While there, I discovered it doesn’t matter where you go, if the members of that society have been exposed to any form of media, colonialism, or other outside influences, the standards of beauty are Eurocentric.

Without fail, a society will look toward the ideals flaunted by those in power. As a result, Black women have received subliminal messages (and in some cases direct messages) of inferiority. Ask them about this and many will disagree, but note the consumer behavior. Billions are spent annually on fake hair extensions and, according to Nielsen data, Black women comprise the vast majority of that hair-buying market. That doesn’t sound like confidence in oneself to me. In various regions across the globe, including and especially Africa, toxic skin bleaching creams are so popular that some countries have banned them and declared a public health emergency. Keep in mind, the women (or men) who use these products are destroying natural layers of melanin intended to minimize the effects of aging and protect the skin from the UV rays of the sun. Why? Again, it’s all related to self-images that have been taught.

Consider that in 2011 Psychology Today’s online edition actually published research compiled by a scientist who claimed to be able to prove that Black women are unattractive. I was shocked that anyone would invest time and energy in a project intended to denigrate other human beings. But rather than get angry, I vowed that I would use the power of words to counteract this ridiculous study. I made up my mind that my first novel would showcase the unique qualities and healing properties of melanin and mock society’s tendency to dictate what is appealing and what isn’t. Beauty standards are subjective, and they’re changing all the time. With Where it Rains in Color, I hope readers are reminded that we do not see with our eyes. If another human is revered or rejected due to appearance alone, blame our conditioning. Blame prejudices that are being drilled into our minds.

Last but not least, I’m enthralled by Africa and would like others to understand its fascinating spirituality and profound wisdom. Where it Rains in Color digs deep into traditional African culture and calls attention to the Dogon [people] of Mali in West Africa. When I first learned about [them], I was captivated. They have a highly sophisticated awareness of the cosmos and an advanced knowledge of various star systems. Like many African ethnic groups, the Dogon have great respect for their elders and adhere to strong ancestral guidance and mores. To me, this is true civilization. I’m disappointed that so many people dismiss Africa as Third World and make no attempts to understand the richness and beauty of its culture. So, as you can see, there are quite a few messages in this book. If any of them inspires readers, moves them to love themselves more, and/or recognize that we’re all beautiful in our own way, I have achieved my goal.

Obviously, motivation and empowerment come from your own publishing story! You submitted this to Angry Robot through Black Voices Matter (for un-agented writers of color), and now this will be released right before your 70th birthday. Do you have words of wisdom for those still seeking publication?

This question makes me laugh inside because I’m still writing despite those advanced double digits, and I don’t have any intentions of stopping. With that said, I’m thrilled that Angry Robot created the Black Voices Matter initiative because it allowed them to open their arms wide and take a chance on this misty-eyed journalist who was knocking on their door without an agent. I’m awed that they embraced my vision of a vacation planet ruled by descendants of Africa, and I’m anxious to see what other determined writers and projects will be released into the world as a result of Black Voices Matter. This brings to mind another one of my favorite quotes. Renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell, once said, “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls.” That’s definitely apropos for the journey that led me to Angry Robot. It’s also a good message for me to leave with anyone who’s still seeking and doesn’t feel they’re getting anywhere. If you “follow your bliss,” you eventually will manifest your desires. But it will happen on its own timetable, not someone else’s. Do not compare your path to others. Forge a new one. My route to getting published was long and circuitous. It was years in the making, but I held on tight and didn’t let go. As Langston Hughes wrote: “Hold fast to dreams for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” In other words, never, ever, give up. If I did it on the verge of 70, then so can you.

What are you currently reading?

Currently, I’m immersed in a whimsical science fantasy adventure by fellow Angry Robot author Dan Hanks. His book, Swashbucklers, is kind of zany, and I’m enjoying every minute of it. In fact, I’m currently on a mission to read as many Angry Robot authors as I can.

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