Cinelle Barnes sat poised yet comfortably when I arrived for our lunch interview. She’d never been to this café, but immediately struck me as a woman at home wherever she is. This is a trait all of us strive for, but rarely achieve.
Author, Southeast Asian immigrant and trauma survivor, Cinelle Barnes is the author of the newly published memoir, Monsoon Mansion (Little A Publishing). In this novel Cinelle delves into a myriad of taboo subjects; these subjects are not easy to digest — sudden poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, parental abandonment—the list goes on. However, this book is not one of mere trauma, but of redemption.
The novel opens with a simple, beautiful statement: That child was a warrior and that warrior was me. That warrior child twirled and sang and drew and danced her way to freedom, and I now must tell her story.
With such emotional weight in these opening lines, Cinelle balances the roughness of her childhood with pockets of beauty she finds within even the most mundane of things. Strength in a cardboard gun belt; beauty in the mirrored ceiling tiles of a mansion’s disco room; even softness in the Anaïs Anaïs perfume that drenches her emotionally abusive mother.
As Cinelle delves into her “version of the dark world, [she] in [her] imaginative little head,” yet still voices the resounding beauty of her Filipino culture, thus creating ripples in ethnic communities across America.
“Just today,” she said, “I received three messages from Filipino women aged 13 to 35.” Why are these women reaching out to connect with her? Cinelle continues, “There are at least four million Filipinos in America, and only four novels published this year represented us.”
In Charleston alone, Cinelle has shifted the tides of this “us.” The last chapter of Monsoon Mansion is entitled “The Season of the Sun” in which Cinelle describes her current life, one that shines with a radiance like the sun which she so vigorously chases. “I’m breaking,” she tells her husband. He replies, “You’re becoming a new kind of beautiful.”
In this debut work, she has opened the floodgates for women and men of color whose voices went previously unheard, whose stories no one cared to hear. “Charleston is very image-driven,” (a theme constant throughout her novel which expounds upon the materialism of her Filipino childhood home), “and people are realizing how exhausting that is.”
It is indeed refreshing to see an unfamiliar face in the growing Charleston literary and arts scene. With her lyricism and unconventionality, personifies the very orchids of which she writes in her novel. For lack of better words, she is eye-catchingly new.
Cinelle recently wrapped up her debut book tour. She traveled from the historic rooms of our own Charleston Library Society to the famed Kweli Journal + International Literary Festival at the New York Times Building in Manhattan. Published only last this May, Monsoon Mansion has influenced thousands, and this has not gone unnoticed in Charleston.
With a grin bordering on the giddy, she confirms she is the upcoming writer-in-residence at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston. During this stint, she will be teaching children from various local public schools about art, writing, and the brilliant juxtaposition of the two.
The role seems perfectly suited for her, as Cinelle is not just a literary catalyst for change, but a catalyst for change in the way she lives her life..