5 questions with Cinelle Barnes

Cinelle Barnes is an essayist and memoirist from Manila, Philippines. She has received fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman and Voices of the Nations Arts, and is the incoming writer-in-residence at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. Her work has appeared in Catapult, Buzzfeed, and Literary Hub, among others. Her debut memoir, MONSOON MANSION (May 2018, Little A), has been an Amazon Bestseller and Amazon First Reads Editor’s Pick, and a Booklist Starred Review. Her forthcoming essay collection, ORACLE, will be out in fall 2019.

JW: Your recently published memoir Monsoon Mansion tells the story of your painful and traumatic childhood. Why is it important for us that you not forget your childhood and even to share it with the world?

CB: In her collection, Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor says, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” I first read this quote when I was a first-semester MFA student, when I was figuring out why exactly I had wanted to get a master’s degree in creative nonfiction — the “I” form, the form that allows for personal history to be enmeshed with the political. I had previously been trained in journalism, had attended workshops and day-internships at the New York Times, and had done research for documentary filmmakers and historians. I thought my life’s work would be about the story of the world — the characters that peopled it and the events that shaped it. I was looking out, not in, but the story of my childhood kept pressing forth. I had buried the story of my childhood deep in the recesses of memory, but motherhood unspooled whatever I had wrapped around it, and it was then that I asked myself this very same question: Why is it important for me to tell my story, why should others care? And the answer came clear when I was nursing my baby one day and trying to do some journaling while feeding her. I was asking myself why I felt the need to commit my thoughts to the page, why I felt the need to release all this information from childhood. Having a child in your arms reminds you that you are holding, quite literally, the next generation — the next set of characters to people this world, and you, along with your DNA, values, and habits, are passing on, most of all, generational memory. I thought that perhaps if I released all this information, this trauma, onto the page, transformed it into something physical (like a book), even something beautiful, I wouldn’t have to transfer it to or into my daughter. Instead, I could create something that could serve as a roadmap for her, and coincidentally, for other people, so that we do not repeat history — personal and political at that. As Stephi Wagner says, “Pain travels through families until someone is ready to feel it.” I feel like by having written and published my memoir, I have done the work of feeling the pain on my family’s behalf, my daughter’s behalf, and therefore have spared them and their world, and consequentially, have made room for more good and positive work.

JW: What’s one thing that you wish more people — especially teachers, doctors, and other child-serving professionals — understood about childhood trauma?

CB: An essayist I admire and had the chance to learn from last year at Penn, Vanessa Mártir, emphasizes in her workshops that there are two types of people in the world: People who say, “What is wrong with you?” and people who ask “What happened to you?” The former sees the child, or the adult, as a nuisance, a cause for blame, and in severe instances, a pariah. The latter expresses sympathy, empathy, and the willingness to understand. The latter is open to the emotional, relational, logistical labor it takes to figure out the root of the problem. The former removes the person from their context and sees the child, or adult, as the problem. Not that history excuses behavior, but that history explains it, finds the source of the issue — the pain — and treats it there rather than at the symptomatic level.

JW: Now that you are a parent, what stories do you most enjoy telling your child?

CB: Oh, there are so many stories I love to tell my daughter! But the ones I enjoy the most, the ones that make my voice and mannerisms become more animated, are the ones that my father passed on to me. He told me so many tales from his own penurious childhood, stories that show how you can make something out of nothing, stories that show magic can be born out of misfortune. I feel like if I can instill in my child that she can do hard, painstaking work, she can activate her most far-fetched ideas and make them a part of her contribution to the world. With how easily everything comes now with the kind of technology available to us, it is really important for me to instill in her that even when things aren’t immediate, it doesn’t mean that they are impossible. I want her to have that kind of grit to go along the grace and softness with which she was naturally born.

JW: What is one book we should read, podcast we should listen to, or piece of art we should encounter to better understand the contemporary experience of childhood?

CB: Hmm, I think this is a tough question to answer because I can break down this sentence word-per-word: Who is “we”? What is “contemporary” and how much of a stretch in time and space are we considering? And whose experience of childhood are we wanting to explore? These are questions that I think are important for all of us to ask. On the other hand, I can’t help but think of what my friend, a pediatrician, recently said: Children are so present, they are only so involved with the now. This involvement with the present can be both empowering and paralyzing. My friend was referring to her daughter who had been asking about my daughter, despite their not having seen each other in months. As a pediatrician, she was considering why my daughter was constantly on the forefront of her daughter’s mind. And we came up with sort of an answer: it is because they have shared experiences, both of laughter and of struggle. They’ve had to strive together toward something before, they are aware of each other’s circumstances (both our families have had miraculous outcomes after some health scares), that a common geography, socioeconomic background, and culture is immaterial to them. So, thinking about the question above, the only suggestion I have is for parents to expose their children to relationships and ways of life that are not like their own. Contemporary art is so prolific and accessible, there’s no reason not to discover a work that is representative of the “other”. Children learn biases from fear, and fear cannot survive proximity. And the sooner we can make another’s life familiar to them, the less likely will they involve themselves later on with choices that may prohibit someone else’s prosperity or joy.

JW: What’s a project you dream about, but haven’t started yet?

CB: My daughter loves to draw and I love to write. I would love to start an illustrated children’s book with her one day soon. The protagonist has been visiting my thoughts and dreams for a while now, and she says that her name is “Malaya.” In my language, Malaya means “to be free.” And I think that is exactly how we will begin and end the story.