It’s not often you meet someone in an awkward, forced social setting and like them, much less become friends for life. But for Cinelle and I, that is exactly what happened. What started out as an awkward “get to know a stranger” moment at church, turned into a lasting friendship. While our spouses and us quickly bonded over our confusion at living in the South, love for the city and shared passion for empowering others, it’s Cinelle’s persistence in fighting for social justice and change that made me realize she is a uniquely gifted individual with whom I would be lost without in Charleston.
Cinelle challenges me. She helps me view the world from multiple perspectives. She calms me down during this stressful period in my life of being a working mom and trying to figure out my balance and flow. She is a champion of all that I do, and makes me believe in the things I could not see.
Her memoir, Monsoon Mansion, is available on early release to Prime Members and to the whole world on May 1st. I’m only a few chapters in and I’m blown away by her talent and prose. To me, her writing flows like a song, makes you stop and think as if you were reading a poem and moves you to tears with her honesty.
Without any more sappy stories, meet Cinelle. A true friend and incredibly gifted writer and mom.
Name: Cinelle Barnes
Hometown: Manila, Philippines/New York City
Occupation: Author and Educator
When did you know you wanted to write? I was seven years old when I wrote my first story. I had just learned how to write longer sentences and in paragraphs. It was a story about three homeless dogs and their mom. I guess I had always had an interest in writing stories on adversity and redemption, ha. Clearly, I was writing fiction from my own experiences. And oddly, I might have been writing prophetically. Some time between my eleventh and twelfth birthdays, my mother and I left home and lived in a van. We parked outside her friends’ houses, and sometimes outside her old aerobics studio, and kept our few belongings in the backseat: clothes, art materials, fashion magazines, and my personal library. We didn’t have a tv and limited our radio usage to save car battery life, and so I had plenty of time to read. I devoured books in the backseat. One night, I was reading Number the Stars, and heard a voice say, “You will write a book.” It remains as one of my strongest audible memories, and I believe that it was God’s voice. And I believe it still. Its prophecy has come true and keeps coming true. [Editor’s Note: Of course you wrote about homeless dogs, and can I please get a copy of this story? But seriously, what an awesome prophecy and how wonderful to see it grow in your heart and come to life.]
How did God use your time as a young mother to bring your gifts together? I had no plans of becoming a mother. I had just graduated from journalism school after having interned with an art critic and shadowed at the New York Times. I was certain that my life trajectory would involve researching and writing for a humanitarian group like the World Health Organization, or for an arts-focused institution in New York or London or even Singapore. Little did I know that God would take me to the South, where I would not only nurture a child, but also nurture a very difficult craft called creative nonfiction. Being forced into isolation and a less-than-metropolitan life has driven me to sit down and write a book about my curious, dangerous, although rather magical, childhood.
Giving in to the demands of a helpless baby made me stop, learn how to rest, replenish, prioritize, and live in the liminal places. I am one of the most efficient, organized, and methodical people I know. My husband thinks my tan skin and straight teeth are an excellent disguise—they hide my inner robot. Anouk’s birth, and her very person, melt the parts of me that are made of metal. Because she’s around, I can’t help but celebrate the other parts of me that have been dormant for years—my love of play, music, dance, colorful and shiny objects, crafts, nature, and storytelling. With these parts awakened, I’m able to have healthier relationships, healthier expectations, and healthier routines. Also, I’m more forgiving—and being forgiving is ultimately what makes me able to do my writing work. The stuff I write about are hard and heart-breaking, and it takes a lot of forgiveness, for myself and for my subjects, to be able to even approach their conceptualization or ideation. Writers, too, are very hard on themselves, partly because we are constantly asking, questioning, revising in our heads. And so without forgiveness, the writer becomes crippled. The writing could lead to death, whether literal or metaphorical. But with forgiveness, the writer can say, “I forgive myself for not writing yesterday” or “I forgive my anxiety over this subject” or “I forgive my editor for having a heavy-hand at that last round of proofreads, and for my being insecure about my work thereafter”. [Editor’s Note: Wow, what a powerful thing God can do. Bring us to an unknown place and expose things inside of us that we didn’t know we were hiding.]
When you were in the early years of motherhood, what was the waiting like? How did you cope with your life being about someone else while you waited to see what would come next? Ha. I don’t know. All I know is that some time in my 20s, I prayed that God would make me more patient. And so he gave me a highly-introverted Southern boy for a spouse, and an inquisitive, opinionated girl for a daughter. The waiting was both the process and the fruit.
And about seeing what would come next—motherhood actually taught me to stop asking for what’s next. Motherhood taught me that there is only now. Anouk will only confuse her l’s for y’s for a little while longer. She might soon stop coming to our bed in the middle of the night. There might only be six more times that she asks me to unscrew the cap on her water bottle. The bike’s training wheels will come off soon. Yesterday, she didn’t even want me to help resolve a conflict at the playground—she resolved it herself. My mother-in-law once told me, “They will always remember if you held them, played with them, listened to them, laughed at their silliness. But they never remember whether you cleaned the house, won an award, or did this other phenomenal thing at work. No parent ever says to their offspring, when they’re all grown, ‘I wish I worked more and I wish I held you or played with you less.’”
I’ve come to accept that motherhood was given to me as a gift of redemption. That I was on my way to being self-destructive in the most highly-functioning, excellently-disguised ways, and motherhood was the detour that kept me from slamming into a moving train. Actually, I was the moving train. I hadn’t stopped moving, running, accelerating since I was a little girl, first as a way to survive childhood adversity, and later on just out of habit and as some form of PTSD. Motherhood derailed me from the worn-out and rusty tracks I’d been circling for over two decades, put me on a dirt path through a meadow, and made me realize that I wasn’t a train after all. I was a buttercup-yellow bicycle with a wicker basket, meant for rides through butterfly gardens and down coastal boardwalks. And I was one of those hybrid bikes: smooth and sweet-looking like a Cruiser, but six-geared for adventurous terrain. This morning, Anouk piggy-backed on my yellow bike as we rode to school, and it was drizzling, and we purposefully biked through every puddle. We got splashed with mud and that’s just who we are—who I’ve become—we are not afraid of surprise turns and we are not afraid of getting dirty. [Editor’s Note: My momma heart needed to read every word of this. Thank you for sharing.]
You've lived all over the world and in different cultural centers of the States. What have you learned from these experiences and how have they shaped you? I’m reminded of a quote from Shakespeare’s Corolanius: “What is the city but the people?”
As a writer (and weirdo since birth), I tend to look at places anthropologically and politically, which has its ups and downs. Because I have the ability to remove myself from situations and from the strong pull of culture, I often see what could or will happen to a certain group of humans, or a human, two, five, ten years down the road. It’s this weird ability I’ve had since I was a little girl in Manila that I carried over to time in South Korea, China, Hong Kong, California, New York, Georgia, and now, South Carolina. As a kid, I described it to my dad as like having superpower goggles that allowed me to see what was truly inside a person, beneath manners, customs, rehearsed dialogue, gesture and mannerism, and training or profession. And from this observer’s stance, I’ve learned that out of all species, humans are the most fearful. Perhaps because we’ve evolved to self-preserve. Our brains are bigger (in proportion to body size) than most other species’, so we’ve evolved to become well aware of every kind of threat—relational, physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, etc. Anywhere you go, humans are trying to work out their fears. In Charleston, where I’ve now lived for six years and where it’s been the hardest to be myself, I find that what people fear the most is appearing fragile. And by that, I mean, nobody here wants to be found out—nobody wants to expose that their marriage is fragile, their motherhood is fragile, their financial state is fragile, or their professional trajectory is fragile. Everyone is constantly shielding themselves with Southern pleasantries, sunset photoshoots, and nautical style or a branded yogic lifestyle.
In New York, where I feel most like myself, its customary to show all your cracks. To show where, as Leonard Cohen once wrote, “the light gets in.” Up there, especially in the city, there’s an understanding that nothing great ever came from something immaculate. Here in Charleston, where it’s still part-emerging-city, part-small-town, we are all constantly walking on eggshell. Actually, let me correct that! Here, we are all constantly walking on oyster shell. We are all afraid that from where shiny pearls come, deep cuts do, too. Oddly enough, when Anouk was a little under two years old, we went on a boat ride around Charleston harbor. Somewhere offshore, our friends decided that it would be fun to jump into the water. I jumped in with little Anouk in my arms to teach her not to be afraid of the ocean. But there I was, trying to introduce her to deep saltwater, and landing both feet on a bed of oysters. I remember feeling the multiple strikes on both soles and kicking up with bleeding feet, trying to swim back to the boat with a toddler in my arms. I remember singing to her as I waded, trying to calm us both, and also thinking, “No sharks, please no sharks.” We got to the boat and someone helped me clean my wounds.
I guess going back to the question, whoever helped me with my wounds apologized to me for docking the boat where we did, but she also said, “It’s just a cut. We all survive cuts. You gonna try to jump in again?” Of course, she was right. It’s just a cut. It’s just an oyster. Nobody should really let a clump of shellfish keep them from jumping into the ocean.
When I mom up, I want to be like you. Your gift of patience with A and the way you educate her and empower her is truly inspiring. What drives you to take all of your energy and pour into your daughter? Apart from everything I mentioned above, there’s this quote I like to go back to:
“Be who you needed when you were younger.”
Finally, what's your favorite thing to make/eat? For Anouk, I love to make her favorite farfalle with parmesan. For Stephen, my signature chicken marsala and chicken adobo. For parties, meat lumpia, heavy on the garlic. And for myself, earl grey tea with steamed milk in the morning, a rice bowl with lots of protein and veggies in the afternoon, and a very citrusy kale salad at night. And every year, for Anouk’s birthday, I make iced sugar cookies in the shape of whatever cartoon or thing she’s into at that age: candy, the Eiffel Tower, maple leaves, hearts and diamonds, etc. Next year, when she turns seven, I hope to make my first batch of unicorn-shaped sugar cookies. [Editor’s Note: Cinelle’s meat lumpia is on point.]