For this Filipino writer, the best story is the hardest one to write

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In her first book, "Monsoon Mansion," Cinelle Barnes recounted her childhood memories in their family mansion and the trauma that ensued after the Gulf War, when it was a struggle to keep things afloat. Photo courtesy of CINELLE BARNES

London, United Kingdom (CNN Philippines Life) — “I never thought I would write that book,” Cinelle Barnes says. A Filipina author, who has been in the United States since her late teens, Barnes released “Monsoon Mansion” in 2018, a memoir of her early life in the Philippines, and then very quickly after, “Malaya: Essays on Freedom” in 2019. This year, she edited the anthology “A Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South,” which comes out October.

“It was really hard to write,” Barnes says of “Monsoon Mansion,” which took her six years to complete. In contrast, she worked on “Malaya” for about six months after the positive reception of her “Monsoon,” which is a collection of essays about what came after her escape from a tumultuous childhood life. Living in a mansion with servants, her family fell into hard times from a series of events both natural and man made: the Gulf War impairs her father’s petrochemical business, a monsoon destroys the house, and her mother takes a relationship with an opportunistic lover, who turns their house into dangerous place that involves cockfighting and prostitutes. Between having to confront all the trauma these events have caused her and giving birth to her first child, Barnes was in constant negotiation between her past with her mother and her present as one.

Before she started writing it, she was a nightlife correspondent for a small paper, and her beat was on lifestyle and enjoyment. She was also in grad school, for creative writing at Converse College. Barnes was told that, despite writing about fairly innocuous things, “There’s always an edge to everything you write.”

One of her MFA assignments was to write about something she’d never told anyone about. For Barnes, it was her childhood. “And if it helps,” she was told by her professor, “I want you to draw a map of this place. Mark an ‘X’.” And so, she wrote about her childhood, and the story she’d long suppressed, whether consciously or not, began to take shape.

“Monsoon Mansion” takes into account how meaningful a place can be, especially one as sprawling as the house that Barnes grew up in in Antipolo, with her father, her mother, her half brother, and a whole cast and crew of helpers and strangers. Tied to this place are memories of neglect, abandonment, family (for better and worse), and survival.

Barnes talks about memory as a tangible thing. “It’s literally DNA,” she says of memory cells, recounting how these pass through you, from one generation to the next, especially through motherhood. “It’s you literally birthing memories.”

The writing process for her memoir awakened a dormant volcano of deep-seated energy. “You’re not going to write your best story unless you write about this,” her husband told her. “I don’t know how to help you other than to tell you to write.” In between nursing and caring for their newborn baby, Barnes wrote on 3” x 5” index cards and recorded voice notes on an iPhone 4. At the end of it, she had three shoeboxes full of cards, and an oral history that was waiting to be put together like a puzzle. Barnes calls this a gift to herself and her daughter.

I tell her that, despite the many horrendous things that had happened in her memoir, and so in her own life, it’s uplifting how this story gives way to something beautiful. The story in “Monsoon Mansion” isn’t complete, but it gives way for relief and escape; the next chapter of her life is about rebuilding a new one away from the home she’s come to know intimately.

Barnes moved to the United States in 2003, after being adopted by an aunt. She went to an arts honors high school and described her uprooting to be really hard.

“It was hard to explain to an insular community that we Filipinos weren’t ‘backwards,’” she says. “Nothing registers.” She talks about how little her schoolmates knew about the world beyond theirs, how they were surprised to know that she knew what McDonald’s was. Between 16 and 17, Barnes, who left the life she had rebuilt after escaping her traumatic one, isolated herself in the library and “read everything.”

Barnes considers her memoir as a reaching out to Southeast Asia, sort of like a channel for themselves. “I had books for me growing up,” she says, and so “Monsoon Mansion” and “Malaya” are extensions of stories of something internal. For her, the publication of these books was a sign that someone out there needed to read them, an affirmation of them not being alone, and so, in effect, of her not being alone either.

Although Barnes’ story seems, at turns, really quite out of this world and in some ways cinematic, in the first week of the publication of “Monsoon Mansion,” she received correspondence from people saying things like, “This was my childhood, too. My family lost everything, too.”

“It’s not something I talk about because I don’t think anyone would believe me,” she says.

Since moving abroad, she hasn’t been back to the Philippines, and was hoping to go home in May of this year, for festival season, when the pandemic struck. Aside from research for her next book — largely circulating around the water crisis in Manila, how it is commercialized and how social stratification in the metropolis surrounds and is surrounded by water — she wanted for her daughter to have an impression of the place where she was born before she turns 10 years old.

It’s been a heavy, anxious few months, resulting in really bad back pain. Barnes is a writer and a mother, but she thinks about other Filipinos who live away from home and from their families, separated by miles and miles of water and nothing, and she wonders, “How much pain does the Filipino body carry?”

The National Anthem comes up, and we both get emotional, with her tearing up as she says, “duyan ka ng magiting.” She says that the Philippines is your cradle, wherever you go. She says that she talks to her daughter about martial law, or about the work her father did in the Middle East, because things as such were parts of their family histories and they naturally come up. She tells her about her Lolo Ding and his tent in the desert sand.

“Filipinos can be chameleons, to their detriment,” she says. Many immigrants employ survival tactics, where they work towards assimilating into a new culture. This often leads to an erasure of identity, especially if there isn’t a particularly strong hold over you in the first place. Barnes mentions cultures like that of Nigerians and Latinx, for example, where they are so engulfed in their own identities and histories, and mostly evade the trap of white-aspiring narratives that Filipinos are prone to falling into. She talks in awe about Ruby Ibarra, a Filipino-American rapper who is upfront about her identity as a Filipino, whatever that may mean to her.

“It’s possible to long after something you’ve never experienced,” she says. Many first generation Filipino immigrants are estranged from the Filipino side of their makeup, longing for a home they’ve never even been to. Barnes talks about DNA again, the passing on of something intangible, tangibly, physically, viscerally, to someone else through your body. It might be why the pull is strong, especially for these first generation Filipino immigrants, because aside from their family lives, there may be no physical markers of identity within their reach.

Technology helps us a lot to connect now, even from her ensconced home in an affluent part of South Carolina, but it’s still not the same as being able to breathe the air, touch the earth, see a different sunset, eat a mango and have it taste the way you remember it.

“The wind blows differently back home,” she tells me.