I met Cinelle in Portland, OR during the AWP 2019 annual conference where we spoke briefly about the intersection of immigration and the writing life. Her work faces head on questions of place and memory as an immigrant person of color in the US South.
STEPHANIE MALAK: Tell us about the journey of this book, Malaya. How did you approach writing creative nonfiction essays and separating them from your memoir, Monsoon Mansion?
CINELLE BARNES: The idea for this collection of essays was conceived soon after my first book, Monsoon Mansion, a memoir set in the Philippines, was released. Readers of Monsoon Mansion, it seemed, were hungry to know more, more, more — my life suddenly felt like an American product, subject to want and supply-and-demand. I guess that’s part of what you sign up for when you write nonfiction. But I didn’t expect the magnitude of the inertia that I was to face. Well-meaning strangers, acquaintances, distant relatives, and friends would text, call, stop me on the street, message me on Instagram, asking things like, “You didn’t tell us how you got here! How did you get here?” Every time, that word would get me. Here. Did they mean the US? Or South Carolina? Or authorship or marriage or motherhood, or maybe what they’re perceiving as the American Dream or sanity or soundness? So, I started asking myself the question by way of the essay. How did I end up here?
I decided to write a book that detailed my international adoption, life as an undocumented minor, and evolving womanhood as a person of color, mother, and artist in the American South. Not yet at a distance from these circumstances, I wrote a non-linear but not unrelated series of essays, a symbol not only of the crisscrossed, cyclical, and unpackageable life of the immigrant, but of the discomfort that I’ve accepted for myself, now that I’ve entered the realm of writing the personal as political, the political as personal, and the personal as art, as craft, as leverage or protection, as citizenship.
You say “cleaning resuscitated what becoming undocumented killed.” There’s a through line of “writing for health” that very closely — though not linearly — ties the book together. Telling your story was your way to remember, to forgive, to be/come well. Can you talk about how you managed this process? How aware, from childhood on, were you of the power of writing? How has it evolved for you, and now, that you’re a parent?
Much of my writing is not done in isolation. I’ve always had a workshop, a writing mentor, a beta reader, and a therapist. They’ve all been safe spaces for writing and truth-telling. So that was step one: safe spaces.
Then there’s this personal understanding that writing can be therapeutic, but it does not replace therapy. Unless, like I say in the book, the writing is administered by a therapist or medical professional trained in narrative medicine, EMDR, or other types of trauma interventions.
But of course, as a child parenting herself through abuse and poverty, I did not have access to these very expensive (and perhaps, as some in my culture would say, very Western) resources. On a good day, I might have had access to a pen and paper. At the time, that was enough, or the writing made itself enough. I remember frantically writing at night by candlelight (we didn’t have electric power at home) or doodling in the margins of my textbooks throughout the school day. Writing helped me align my thoughts with my feelings, and my inner world with my outer world, whether I knew it or not. I remember writing my first short story when I was seven. It was about three puppies who kept disappearing because their mother kept vanishing. Around that time, my mother was really spiraling out. She would disappear at night and come back a few hours or days later. I don’t mean to go all Freudian on my child self but there’s an obvious connection there between what I was experiencing as a child and what I was imagining.
I see the same for my daughter now. When our dog’s health started to decline, she started writing poems about him. At times her poems were straightforward stories. Other times, they were more like incantations or prayers she was speaking over the dog. Days before our dog passed away, she wrote a note that said, “I will love you forever and always,” and kept the note under her pillow. I didn’t find the note until he had been gone for a week. But it was like my daughter knew all along and she had had the premonition, and she wrote it down. This note has assisted us in our grieving. I riff off it in my head or journal, something like, “I will love you forever and always… and I still hear the clacking of your toenails against the floor.”
Children are such experiential learners. Writing is experiencing. It has allowed my daughter’s brain to learn what her heart and body already knew. It’s done the same for me, too.
I felt a productive tension between the way you write about yourself and the way you write yourself in response to others. Because you shaped and had to defend your identity – to people like your father, your coworkers at the restaurant, K.L. — how do you see yourself to them now? How does all this coalesce for you?
In the introduction to Best American Essays 2013, Cheryl Strayed wrote that she selected the 26 essays in the anthology because each one left her saying “Ah” in the end, with joy or sorrow or recognition. She also said that the mix of emotions and experiences within each essay, and within the collection, left her with the feeling that nothing would ever be the same again.
Now that “Ah” can be followed by a period, an exclamation or question mark, ellipses, or another word. I believe my job is to write the “Ah” and I’m happy to be left unaware of what might follow it. Not that there is zero anxiety about how others might react to or digest or return what I’ve written, or about how they might punctuate my words, but that I’m aware of where my responsibility ends. Also, we underestimate people. People actually want to be written about. People are dying for some part of their story to be told. This was the case with my father who said, after I read my manuscript to him, “You’re too nice.”
There’s also this invisible contract I’ve signed: that nothing will ever be the same again. I know that and I accept that as a nonfiction writer. I know my allegiance is to history. I have a responsibility to history. That’s something I’ve learned from reading and listening to the greats. What we write is often bigger than us and we must not manage every part of it.
Also, early in my workshopping life, a mentor told me that you write for an audience of six. I’ve learned that while I write about my relationships with more than a dozen human beings plus my dog, I really only write for an audience of four: God, myself, my husband, and my daughter. If what I write is intelligible, honest, and edifying to these four, I’m good.
Consider your confession to the reader: “I don’t tell anybody — not even people of color — that before I was I was an author, I was a cleaning lady, a laundromat worker, a nanny.” Why? Tell me more. How does race figure into your work, your life?
Hm. I think the secrecy was rooted in fear and shame. When you’re young, you’re just insecure. When you’re a trauma survivor and undocumented, you’re doubly insecure and understandably so. There are many threats to your safety and sanity. When you’re a new immigrant, you don’t want the more established immigrants or the generations after them to look down on you or shun you. There’s a lot of racism within classicism, and a lot of classism within racism. There are immigrant hierarchies that exist.
It’s hiding as self-preservation. But then the year 2016 rolls around and it’s suddenly welcome, important, marketable, and trendy to talk about the burdens of trauma, race, and class, so you allow yourself to show a little more — but certainly not all. Again, self-preservation. But then you realize that trauma, race, and class performing as social currency will one day lose its capitalist value, so you expose everything and up the supply to decrease this valuation that you realize you didn’t agree with in the first place. It’s this way of, or at least I imagine it to be, making the market of ideas crash so that true value comes forth. I guess, in short, I used to withhold information as a way of playing this game that was designed by a certain group of people. Now I want out of their game. So, I tell all.
How does remembering help you become new? (Through CBT or writing or anything else.) How does a past shape newness in a person?
The practice of keeping personal and collective memories alive — remembering — is a way to decide what’s important, what’s true. The practice of remembering is a practice of acknowledging. Our bodies and the places we move in have memory, and we can choose to acknowledge what our bodies and these places are telling us, or we can choose to not remember, be in denial and in constant conflict with what is. I think of old houses. You can walk through an old house and have a sense of what’s happened there. Same for old cities. You can walk through and acknowledge its past and say, “Oh, yes, that’s why this place feels eerie.” Or you can walk through and play dumb, and always be haunted by that eeriness. Our bodies are the same way. They want to tell us things — the thalamus and amygdala, the spine, the spleen, the bowels. You can live in your body and acknowledge what lives in it and travels through it, or you can let your own body haunt you, kill you.
Malaya, your Malaya, the you+oracle in your dreams, represents freedom. Freedom by way of writing. Has this vision, this oracle, changed over time? What do you and she do together now in your dreams?
Oh gosh. I love to write. Writing itself is freeing. It’s the writing life that can be constraining, limiting, enslaving, or deathly. The oracle in my dreams is free when she is writing, so I try not to mention the P word (publishing) around her. I don’t want her to worry about all that stuff. There’s no dream book nor dream gig nor dream job. Writing is the work, so we get to it every day. And as you can see, I’m very protective of the oracle in my dreams, so I have to set boundaries around her. Boundaries, healthy ones, are actually a means to freedom. They’re a way to ensure that she/I/we will never stop creating. Longevity is a manifestation of freedom.
The oracle and I have been writing for others’ freedom, too. We’ve been writing about the global water crisis and how it’s a barrier to education, health, and livelihood, how it kills millions every year, and what we can do to end it. This kind of writing is productive in ways that cannot be measured by sales, popularity, accolades, or SEO performance. It’s productive because it is freedom shared. It is embodied hope freely given.