After Cinelle Barnes stormed onto the publishing scene with her 2018 memoir, Monsoon Mansion, the West Ashley resident was relieved and grateful her book was so well received. No book is easy to write, but this one, her first, was emotionally grueling on many levels.
Monsoon Mansion tells Barnes’ riveting story of “magic and trauma,” of growing up in a lavish mansion that in reality is a hall of mirrors, a survivor’s tale of family disintegration, abuse, and mental illness amid political upheaval. Its gorgeous cover is a good foil for the harrowing subject matter. Barnes wrote it while battling post-partum depression — “not uncommon for women struggling with PTSD from traumatic childhoods,” Barnes explains — and did so by filling an index card every time she nursed her infant daughter, wrangling tidbits of evasive memories from her turbulent, painful years growing up in the Philippines.
In the wake of Monsoon, while on book tour or in interviews with media and bloggers, Barnes often felt as if she was on a tripod, a stool, exposed. As if she’d “opened a time in my life to be examined, to answer so many questions, to reach into and feel so many wounds, to defend my narrative and justify my telling of it,” she writes in the opening essay to her new book, Malaya, a work not of memoir but of creative nonfiction. It was an interesting role reversal for someone who spent her teen years and young adulthood more or less in the shadows as an undocumented immigrant, an orphan, trying not to be discovered.
But today, that tripod feels steadier — Barnes, 31, is happily married, documented, published. She even finally got a U.S. passport days before Monsoon was released. Her daughter is now a healthy 8 year old who happens to be a dynamite freestyle swimmer. And mom is diving in too, with her own freestyle, exploring through lyrical, sometimes experimental essays what it means to have found this sense of freedom. Thus the title of her book: “Malaya” means to be free in Barnes’ native Tagalog.
Over an afternoon glass of prosecco at Avondale Wine and Cheese (fitting, as this, she tells me, is where she wrote many of these essays), Barnes shares how this book came to be, and how it, and the writing of it, differs from Monsoon. “Everyone wanted to know, ‘how I got here,’ but I didn’t know what ‘here’ meant. Did they mean Charleston, how I married a white Southerner and live in Avondale? Did they mean here professionally — how did I get to be a published author on tour, this sense that I’d achieved the American dream?” she says.
The essay form allowed her to explore this new, uncharted terrain, this elusive “here.” After all, the meaning of essay is “to try,” Barnes recalled a professor from her MFA program at Converse College saying. “Writing essays was really my first love,” says Barnes. “Memoir is about looking back. Essay entails looking within and looking out.”
“I needed to write Monsoon Mansion to heal,” she adds. “And I wanted to write Malaya to document what could come out of that healing.”
As we in Charleston well know, a hurricane or big storm (i.e. monsoon) leaves the air rinsed clean, with treasures washed up on the shore. Barnes emerges in her post-storm wake as a writer energized by this newness, this fresh bounty to explore. And as she did in Monsoon, she tackles her subject matter — timely, urgent issues of belonging, identity, dislocation, racism, modern parenting — with her unique blend of gentle bravery and gracious honesty. Barnes’ life experiences as an orphan, adoptee, undocumented immigrant, and person of color growing up first in privilege then in poverty may be foreign to many of her readers, but she bridges that gap with tenderness, not bitterness. She also calls herself out on her own prejudices and biases. The epigraph she chose for the book, by Hala Alyan, echoes this self-critical lens: “We cannot talk about our oppressors without talking about those whom we oppress.”
Malaya is Barnes’ literary path forward, and for the reader, it is literary delight. The essays reflect interwoven threads but each sings with a unique, and effective, style — there’s a playfulness of form and chronology that keeps the reader engaged. We are with Barnes when she’s scrubbing toilets and working in a laundromat; when she’s nannying for a Wall Street family; when she’s dodging INS at a hipster cafe in Harlem; when she’s navigating white privilege and racism with her in-laws in the Upstate. And in each setting, each essay, through each beautifully crafted line and deftly chosen image, we not only begin to understand her experience better, but our own.
“Some of these essays started out as poems,” says Barnes, a past-winner of the Piccolo Spoleto poetry contest, and the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art writer-in-residence for 2018-19. Some were previously published by Catapult and Buzzfeed, but the collection is a tight package of short, potent reads that stay with you. Malaya also made me want to revisit Monsoon Mansion (tip: if you listen to the audio version, you get to hear Barnes’ soft-spoken, lovely narration).
Far from self-indulgent navel gazing, Barnes’ work is generous. She’s discovered the powerful magic of the well-written personal essay. Through her willingness to expose, examine, and share her own experiences, she invites and allows the reader to see glimpses of our own reflection. We are all here — looking for what it means to be free, for how we might accept our selves and our complicated pasts, for what it means to embrace difference and diversity, or not to.
Her new book, launched recently at Blue Bicycle Books, is an important work for this particular moment in time, when a cry for border walls and genderless pronouns share the same airspace. “Charleston is changing, so the stories we tell about it should change as well,” Barnes says. “There is a growing immigrant community here, including a large Filipino community in Goose Creek. We should be telling these stories, demand these stories — not just the packaged pretty stories we are told about Charleston, but these layered ones. We need to take these loose ends and braid them in our storytelling.”
With Malaya, she’s done just that.