“You might feel like you’re drowning a bit, but you’ll breathe in the end,” says Cinelle Barnes of her memoir, Monsoon Mansion. Sitting at an Avondale coffee shop, Barnes tucks a strand of hair behind her ear, assuring me that my experience with her book — which I tell her I’m halfway through — is nowhere near over. “That’s what I wanted people to experience. I want it to feel like you’re diving into water.”
Barnes’ aptly titled debut memoir, Monsoon Mansion, is saturated in pain, trauma, and, at times, pure joy. This is Barnes’ childhood in the Philippines — one she describes as both mesmerizing and horrifying. “It was hibiscus flowers one day, guns the next. And that was normal to me, I thought it was what everyone experienced.”
Barnes’ life started out on the hibiscus flower side of things. Her mother and father — Barnes describes them as “two genius parents” — met in 1985 in a commercial complex, where they worked across the hall from each other. Her mother, a doctor, and her father, a self-made businessman, had Cinelle within a year of meeting, and soon bought a mansion in Antipolo, a city east of Manila in the Philippines.
The mesmerizing fact of Barnes’ early life is apparent in the first few pages of Mansion, “My parents should have thrown me a birthday party with balloons or clowns or puppeteers, and party hats and sprinkles and a pinata. Instead, they lavished me with three ball gowns for the day, a tower of champagne glasses sparkling in the hot sun, an emcee paid to announce the arrival of VIPs, and an octagon table the size of a bed for the guests’ largesse.”
Barnes writes of her mother’s temper, her father’s tenderness, her servants’ struggles. As a child she traversed all parts of the house, seeing, and hearing, more than most children should.
“This mansion was going to be the house,” says Barnes. “The house where my father’s business investors came, the house for my mother’s elaborate parties.” The mansion is a character unto itself, serving as the backdrop to birthday parties, wicked fights, and death. And then, eventually, there’s the titular monsoon which Barnes says “washed out the house of all the good things.”
“The book is the ups and downs of the house. It was a venue for my mother’s parties then a function hall, a film set, a cock fighting arena,” says Barnes. “Eventually my stepfather turned it into a no-tell motel. It was abandoned, and it was demolished two years ago. On the site now stands a mini mall.”
When she was a teenager, Barnes was adopted by a paternal relative and moved to New York. “I thought, I’m gonna seek something normal. I’m gonna live this different life,” she says. In college she met a southern boy who brought her down south, to Charleston, no less, after the recession forced them out of job-hunting in New York City. During that transition south, Barnes and her husband found out they were unexpectedly expecting a child.
“I freaked out,” says Barnes of the pregnancy. “I never thought I wanted kids just because of what I experienced growing up. A lot of trauma survivors don’t want to have families. But I’d also always seen myself as a nurturing person.”
After giving birth to her daughter, Barnes says that all the “guck” that she’d been repressing for so many years resurfaced. “Postpartum hit me really bad. I cried all the time. It was so bad that my husand was like, ‘I don’t know what else to do, I know you’ve been writing, you need to go back to writing.'” So, she did. Slowly but surely Barnes wrote out words, then sentences, then full paragraphs on index cards — the kind that fit on the armrest of the rocking chair she sat in to nurse her daughter. “By the time my daughter was one and a half, I had three shoeboxes full,” says Barnes.
The shoeboxes were followed by an MFA program at Converse College, followed by a secret draft submitted by a mentor, followed by a nomination for a fiction award. After the award, Barnes finally acknowledged that she may have a book in her. “From there I was like, OK. If only one other person reads this, and they need to read it, I’ll write it so they can feel a little less alone.”
Barnes relied on more than her memory to write Monsoon Mansion, taking advantage of Google Earth, court cases, and birth and death records to re-trace the steps of her life. She also interviewed most of her family members, including her father, who she spoke to shortly before he had a stroke. “I put on my journalist hat and said, ‘I’m not your daughter,’ and asked him questions,” says Barnes. “When he had his stroke, I stayed with him in the ICU. He asked me to read what I had, and that was such a gift.”
The memoir is a gift — if you could call it that — to Barnes, too, who says that describing her writing experience as therapeutic would be too light of a treatment. “People use that for retail therapy, for a walk on the beach. This was not a stroll,” says Barnes of diving into her past. “It was showing up at my therapist’s office, using electronic tappers that control brain activity, re-committing to experiencing trauma. It was hardcore. It was more than therapeutic, it was psychiatric.”
And while Barnes admits that, like any work based on memory, Monsoon Mansion utilizes creative license — it’s all founded in the truth. “It was whoever had the most emotional tug,” says Barnes of the characters featured in her book. “My mother, father, brother, stepfather. It boiled down to, what brings out the emotional truth? You remember what you believe, you believe what you remember. Whatever fit in those two lines, went into the book.”
Cinelle Barnes will be at Interant Literate’s Independent Bookstore Day on Sat. April 28 at The Brew Cellar. The Monsoon Mansion book tour kicks off on May 1 at the Charleston Library Society at 6 p.m.