I’m so thrilled to welcome Cinelle Barnes to the Debutante Ball this week! Cinelle Barnes is an essayist, memoirist, and educator from Manila, Philippines, a recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Kundiman and Voices of Our Nations Arts (VONA), and is the writer-in-residence at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art. She received an MFA from Converse College.
Her work has appeared in Catapult, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, Hyphen, The Margins, and TAYO, among others. Her debut memoir, MONSOON MANSION (May 2018, Little A), received an American Library Association Booklist Starred Review, and she is currently at work on the essay collection, MALAYA: IN PURSUIT OF FREEDOM (October 2019, Little A).
Cinelle and I are both alumnae of VONA, and I am so delighted to be able to host her on the Debutante Ball! You can contact her through Instagram: @cinellebarnesbooks and Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CinelleBarnesBooks/and her website: cinellebarnes.com
Monsoon Mansion: Cinelle Barnes was barely three years old when her family moved into Mansion Royale, a stately ten-bedroom home in the Philippines. Filled with her mother’s opulent social aspirations and the gloriously excessive evidence of her father’s self-made success, it was a girl’s storybook playland. But when a monsoon hits, her father leaves, and her mother’s terrible lover takes the reins, Cinelle’s fantastical childhood turns toward tyranny she could never have imagined. Formerly a home worthy of magazines and lavish parties, Mansion Royale becomes a dangerous shell of the splendid palace it had once been.In this remarkable ode to survival, Cinelle creates something magical out of her truth—underscored by her complicated relationship with her mother. Through a tangle of tragedy and betrayal emerges a revelatory journey of perseverance and strength, of grit and beauty, and of coming to terms with the price of family—and what it takes to grow up.
Cinelle is giving away a signed copy of MONSOON MANSION to one reader who shares this interview on FB or Twitter (details at the end of the post and button below to share)! Thank you so much for being here, Cinelle!
Devi: Talk about one book that made an impact on you:
: I’m having a hard time narrowing it down to one book because I’ve been impacted by many works and authors over the years, each in a different way. I would say that as a pre-teen, as cliche as it sounds, J.D. Salinger’s CATCHER IN THE RYE
made an impact on me. Holden Caulfield’s angsty tone taught me the importance of voice, and introduced me to first-person narrative. In college, reading Joan Didion was a crucial part of my having switched out of fashion school and
into journalism school. I signed up for literary journalism courses because of THE WHITE ALBUM
and SLOUCHING TOWARDS BETHLEHEM
. As a young mother isolated from literary circles and family, coming across THE GLASS CASTLE
by Jeanette Walls at the book and entertainment aisle at Target nudged me toward writing my own memoir–memories of a childhood with crazy intelligent yet negligent and frivolous parents, and a coming-of-age set against the backdrop of extreme poverty and danger. Halfway through writing MONSOON MANSION, I read Aimee Suzara’s poetry book, SOUVENIR
, and it taught me how to look at Philippine culture at large and at how our politics affected my family’s journey through and out of the Philippines.
Devi: The road to publication is twisty at best–tell us about some of your twists:
Cinelle: I was experiencing postpartum depression and PTSD when began writing what would become MONSOON MANSION. I cried every day after giving birth. While my body had birthed this beautiful baby, it also felt like my body was still heavy with, and trying to expel, something burdensome and dark and harmful from my past. My husband suggested that I write on 3×5 index cards to relieve myself of the sadness and anxiety I was then feeling, so every time I sat down to nurse my baby, I filled out a card. By the time the baby was 18 months, I had three shoeboxes of these cards–what I would later arrange into a synopsis and annotated table of contents. I started out not knowing that I was writing a book. And the writing of it has become a part of my healing.
Devi: When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
Cinelle: A soccer player! Who wrote on the side for glossies! I grew up playing soccer with my brother, and in high school, I was set to play for the Gothenburg Cup in Sweden, but I ended up being pin-dropped to New York and getting adopted. I had also been writing since I was seven, staying after school to get supplemental instruction from an English teacher and competing in essay contests hosted by the local paper. My mother read all the American and European fashion magazines, and my father subscribed to Time and The Atlantic, so there were daydreams of me penning nonfiction for these publications. I also wanted to open up a boutique that had a cafe and a bookstore attached to it–a dream I shared with a best friend. I still want to open up such a place. Maybe after the second and third books, I can start drafting a business plan and blueprint for the store. I’m constantly torn between my love of books, clothes, food, and architecture.
Devi: Do you have any phobias?
Yes, certainly. I don’t drive due to multiple horrific experiences in cars, mostly episodes that involved my mother and that I detail in Part Two of MONSOON MANSION.
I wrote about it in depth for Buzzfeed
Devi: Has anyone ever thought a character you wrote was based on them?
While I mainly write nonfiction, it has been a constant experience to receive Instagram, Facebook, and email messages from readers that say that they felt like I described
their childhood or their parents or the village they grew up in. I had a woman told me once that she thought she was crazy, that maybe she had made up the anomalous images of childhood she had in her mind. But she said that reading MONSOON MANSION affirmed in her that life in many parts of Southeast Asia are, indeed, a setting for a kind of real-life film-noir-meets-magical-realism. She described our parallel childhoods as “hibiscus flowers one day, gunshots the next.” I’m honored to be able to tell these stories that many people are likely dying to tell, stories that have been imprisoned in them or have held them in some kind of mental prison. What an honor, really, to be able to share in this kind of freedom with someone, simply because I’ve decided to write my truth.
GIVEAWAY DETAILS! Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter and SHARE the interview for a chance to win MONSOON MANSION! For extra entries, comment on this post by Friday, NOV. 30. We’ll choose and contact the winner shortly afterwards.
Told with a lyrical, almost-dreamlike voice as intoxicating as the moonflowers and orchids that inhabit this world, Monsoon Mansion is a harrowing yet triumphant coming-of-age memoir exploring the dark, troubled waters of a family’s rise and fall from grace in the Philippines. It would take a young warrior to survive it.
BOOKLIST, STARRED REVIEW
“Barnes’ memoir chronicles her years spent growing up in a mansion in Manila. Her mother, a doctor, came from a well-known upper-class family, and her father was an entrepreneur who made his money sending Filipino workers to Saudi Arabia. Then the monsoon comes. Between water damage to the mansion and her father’s crusade to bring all his Filipino workers back during the Gulf War, her parents’ marriage rapidly deteriorates. When Barnes’ father leaves, he’s replaced by a walking nightmare; her mother’s new boyfriend sells deeds to nonexistent property and hosts cock fights at night, filling the mansion with bird feces, drunken men, and women rented by the hour. Barnes soon struggles to survive the madness while holding tightly to the hope that someday she will escape this life. Reminiscent of both Jeanette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle (2005), and Sandra Cisneros’ seminal novel, The House on Mango Street (1984), this is a story of a tragic childhood told in a remarkably uplifting voice. Barnes imbues scenes from her interrupted childhood with an artistic touch that reads like literary fiction. Luminescent and shattering, Barnes’ first book is a triumph: a conquering of the past through the power of the written word.”
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Poet, photographer, soccer mom, VONA & TheOpEdProject alum, Columbia MFA, former reporter, debut novelist!
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