By Sara Kuhl
I clearly recall the first time I saw Cinelle Barnes at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. I was sitting in a room awaiting the start of an event at the low-residency MFA program. I glanced out the window and saw a woman walking toward the building with an adorable toddler and a tall man. I remember wondering if they were visiting campus or if one of them was a student in the program. For some reason, I wanted to know their story, to know about their lives. I never would have guessed that beneath that picture-perfect family lay a compelling and powerful true story that became Cinelle’s first published book, her memoir, Monsoon Mansion.
Monsoon Mansion has a dream-like quality that takes the reader from an affluent life filled with opulence and power to one of darkness and hunger and street-smart living for a wisp of a girl child.
Reviewers have compared Monsoon Mansion to Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle; I drew the comparison as well. Yet, there is an enchanting and lyrical quality to Monsoon Mansion that led me to feel at times as if I were reading a strangely twisted fairy tale filled with characters who could be warm and wonderful and cruel and conniving at the same time. And through it all, I pulled for Cinelle. I hoped and prayed Cinelle would be the hero in the end.
As I read her memoir, I found myself thinking back to that moment when I saw Cinelle walk up to Zimmerli Common and wonderedhow she survived and flourished. You’ll need to read Monsoon Mansion yourself to discover that truth. I promise you, it isa memoir that will linger long after you’ve finished it.
Writers who have the courage and grace to share their own stories with brutal honesty fascinate me. In Monsoon Mansion you don’t give yourself or your reader an easy way out of the trauma of your childhood. What was the process like for you to re-examine, and I imagine, uncover some of those memories that were so visceral?
I wrote about this process in detail for South 85. The essay recounts years of writing from a rocking chair in my daughter’s nursery, from my therapist’s couch, and from under the sheets when it got really bad and I couldn’t or wouldn’t get out of bed.
I also wrote about half of MONSOON MANSION while completing my MFA through the Converse College Low-Residency program. The structure and community that the program provided for me gave me the discipline and the safe space I needed to write a book and write it well. I needed the friends, the co-writers, the co-survivors of trauma, the mentors to help me through what this process really was—emotional labor and an absolute test of will and mental rigor.
The process of writing this book was everything the reader imagines it to be, plus more, because I wanted to make art. I wasn’t just making peace with my past. I was making art. And for that, I had to keep learning my craft. So after the MFA, I applied for fellowships with Kundiman and VONA, where I found teachers and chosen family who carried me through rounds of revisions.
Writing, whatever it’s about, is difficult and solitary. And so I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to find your tribe and to believe that despite that frequent isolation, creating is a communal act. I couldn’t have done any of this without my patient, steadfast husband, my bright and happy child, and my cuddly, sensitive, supportive dog. And this truth is my triumph—if you’ve read the book, you know that I was left alone for far too long.
I had a writing teacher who once told me that writing was not a way to work through your private issues. I disagreed then and now. Did writing your own story help bring clarity to your early life? And what was your process for examining those intimate details of your life?
Yes, to bringing clarity to my early life. It brought clarity to my present life, too. When I started writing what would become MONSOON MANSION, I didn’t know I was writing a book. I was writing on 3x5 notecards to help myself feel better. The baby blues never really went away for me until after I had written three shoeboxes full of notecards and had gone to therapy.
Writing was a reckoning, whether or not I knew it would amount to a manuscript, to publication, or to a career. I was writing out of necessity. And so, to the teacher who told you that the page is not a place to work out your private issues, I would tell that person that while the art itself is not a place for emotional diarrhea or psychotherapy porn, they are not in any place to tell anyone what they need.
We’ve all broken differently. We will all heal differently. For this same reason, I’ve stopped judging people for the books they read. We’re all trying to learn something or get somewhere or pinpoint that thing that keeps coming back like driftwood.
As an immigrant, trauma survivor, and person of color, I can AND will use anything available to me that might aid me in finding a place for myself or some sense of equilibrium. And again, I did not diagnose my PTSD nor did I prescribe clinical methods or medicine to myself. I did those with a professional. And this professional knew what she was doing. And I’d like to think that I, too, am a professional—that I know what I’m doing. It just so happens that along the way, I confronted my demons, too. And somewhere farther along the way, I hope someone picks up my book and comes to a place of hope and healing for themselves.
Many of your readers will have little knowledge or understanding of the Philippines in the post-Marcos era you write about. I found myself looking into the history of the island nation, and the times you described in your memoir. Your writing expertly weaves in the history of the country, the political upheaval, the socioeconomic disparity, and the chaos that existed not only in your life, but also in the life of that nation. When you began to write, how important was it to you to educate your readers about the Philippines beyond the cliché regarding Imelda Marcos’ shoes?
As I mention in the chapter “Library,” I had always been a lover of history, so weaving it into the narrative was natural to me. And because my family had political ties, and because names and faces included in later chapters of Philippine history books were household names to me, it really was a non-decision on my part to include these events and lesser-known information.
By default, or at least according to my mother, the country’s history was our family’s history. The two are not separate. And so when I started writing the book and started getting comments from early readers about how to “educate the reader,” I would just tell them that in the age that we live in, with the Internet and all, it’s not so much my job to educate the reader, but to prompt them to educate themselves. It’s like I read books that mention croquet or tennis or Olympic curling or fox hunting, and they’re usually written by someone with Anglo or Germanic roots, and I’m expected to use context clues or to delve into the context, like I have the time and resources for it. And often, I oblige. I do the research. It only ever takes less than two minutes on Google. In short, I trust that I have an informed readership, or at least a readership that’s willing to learn, like I’m willing to learn.
The chapter “The Season of the Sun” brings the reader to current times. And many readers will be relieved that you have a beautiful life. I suspect there are many who would like to know about your life in the gap. Are you working on another memoir? I guess this is a long way of asking what is next for you in terms of writing?
I guess there is no evading this question now, since it seems to be asked at least once a week. So I’ll answer, though nothing is solidified on paper or even in my mind. I do want to keep writing creative nonfiction, and in that vein, use the epistolary form to free me from the emotional undertaking that the first book required.
I’ve been writing letters for publication the past few months, and I’ve found success not just in the reception of it but from the very process. There is just something about the letter form that allows me to tread lightly while not dodging the hard questions or topics. It is such an approachable form, and anyone can do it. I would like to write a series of letters to my younger self (or my older self, or my daughter) about the aftermath of surviving childhood adversity.
Like you said, I think I have a beautiful life, but it is not without its challenges. I’ve been reading about the psychology, neuroscience, and physiology of trauma, and it’s helped me understand who I am and why I am that way, and why I started breaking when I did, and how memoir or narrative helped to piece me back together. In some way, this new project is altogether a roadmap, a collection of prose and poetry, and an investigation into my circuitry and the circuitry of human relations.
Was there ever a time you considered telling this story as a work of fiction?
I never considered writing fiction, although it was sometimes suggested. An agent who liked my story but believed it difficult, even impossible, to pitch a memoir to publishing houses, suggested that I tweaked certain details and call it a novel. I remember telling my favorite local bookseller this, to which she said, “Girl, this is your story. It’s powerful because it’s true. Find yourself another agent to pitch to.” And I did and I’m so glad.
Ordering information via Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Monsoon-Mansion-Memoir-Cinelle-Barnes/dp/1542046130
Ordering information via an independent bookstore: https://www.politics-prose.com/search/site/monsoon%20mansion
ABOUT SARA KUHL
Sara Kuhl is the assistant vice chancellor for University Marketing and Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. She is a 2015 graduate of the Converse College Low-Residency MFA Program. She finds herself wondering about other peoples’ stories all the time, and sometimes asking questions that are probably better off left alone.