The Help Desk: Under the cover of white

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

I'm in a writing group and I'm trying to perfect my story which is about my neighbors growing up, who were immigrants from Guatemala. I've fictionalized a lot of it, but I can't get a hold of them to confirm some important details. All of this guff about American Dirt is making me think maybe this isn't a good idea. What do you think?

Miranda, Maplewood

Dear Miranda,

If you really want people to hate you, write a story about an off-white-to-really-brown-hued child who is found in the street by a compassionate white Mary Kay saleswoman, who also happens to need her pink caddy washed. (Tiny brown fingers are the Lord's Detailers.)

In exchange for his work, the generous Mary Kay saleswoman teaches the small boy to read from the labels of makeup samples. She names her new pet Malcomb K and slowly introduces him into her successful business empire. When gangbangers appear and try to tempt him to do drugs, the boy – with the help of his white savior and a little nudge from Jesus – is able to show the ruffians a better skin care regime and ultimately banishes the confused but freshly rouged bad boys back to their slums. Malcomb K then pledges to spend his life learning how to contour the crepe paper cheeks of ungracefully aging white women. In the process, he cures everyone he meets of their racism AND premature lines. The story shall be titled, "Thanks, White Lady!"

That is perhaps the only story that could be more offensive than co-opting the life story of your immigrant neighbors and passing it off as your own work, for which you could be monetarily compensated. (You mention that you fictionalized parts of it, which sounds to me like a weak justification that is undermined by your efforts to get in touch with them to corroborate their story. The key word is "theirs." As in, not yours.)

Yes, people are frothing about American Dirt right now, for (among other reasons) a white author being paid seven figures for obscenely bad writing. Many writers have been covering this issue, with better prose, for decades. And authors of color certainly are not extended seven-figure book deals to write about border issues and immigration. Much of the outrage stems from what feels like a shoddy attempt to capitalize on an issue that touches a raw nerve with many Americans who have been affected by, or witnessed firsthand, the damage that America's border policies have had on families.

But you're not talking about bad fiction, you are talking about badly fictionalizing someone's very personal struggles, which in my view is worse. In fact, on the grand scale of bad ideas, that one rates right around grabbing women by the pussy. Don't co-opt other people's stories – especially the stories of brown people you once knew tangentially. Just don't. You're a writer. Use your imagination and come up with new stories. Or if imagination isn't your strong suit, write about issues nearer to home, like how hard it is for a healthy ambulatory white woman to get good parking ("Yards to Go Before I Shop") or perhaps your personal struggle growing up with Too Much ("The Color Muave - One Woman’s Struggle to Wear Pastels"). Most American women can relate to both and you'll exploit fewer people in the process.


PS. Since it is Black History Month, here's some homework for you: research and read a few #ownvoices stories. I'll even suggest one: The Hate U Give.