RAISING MOTHERS: What inspired you to tell this story?
CINELLE BARNES: My debut memoir came about while I was in the throes of postpartum depression and needing a repository for all the memories that started to well up when my daughter was born. I was in individual and group therapy, and in both, writing was recommended as a healing practice. I first tried writing for and to myself, with no intention of making the work public, let alone profitable. I began by writing on index cards every time I sat down to nurse my baby…a word, a line, a paragraph at a time… and by the time she was walking, I had three shoeboxes full of these index cards–what would become the synopsis and annotated table of contents for Monsoon Mansion.
RAISING MOTHERS: What did you edit out of this book?`
CINELLE BARNES: After I signed with an agent, it took me another year or so to complete the manuscript. When the first round was done, my agent believed that there were several early chapters that belonged in a different book or as standalone essays… so I edited out ⅓ of it, mostly scenes about the interiority of my birth family and my parents’ marriage, and were less narrative or propulsive than they were atmospheric. They became openers or prompts for future essays, which would then be compiled into my second book, Malaya: Essays on Freedom.
RAISING MOTHERS: How did you know you were done? What did you discover about yourself upon completion?
CINELLE BARNES: I kept my audience and my original intention in mind. When I felt like I had affirmed my child self, described the things she had to endure and overcome, and had written them in a way that honored her magic and humor and hope, it was done. There were still light copy edits and legal reads ahead, but the whole of it was set in place for these smaller edits when I felt like I had hit a balance between narrating the tragedies I endured in a long-abandoned mansion versus narrating the light and wonder that surrounded me and buoyed me through those times. I was set on NOT writing a “trauma memoir” but on recounting the tragedies that befell me and my family, but against a backdrop that was sparkling, delicious, and full of style. Memoir to me was both narrative and portraiture, and it wouldn’t have been either had I not included the truly divine and incantatory aspects of my Philippine upbringing and the surreal world that my parents built.
RAISING MOTHERS: What was your agenting process like?
CINELLE BARNES: All three agents who were interested in my debut book were introduced to me by my MFA program or by a friend. I pitched to each one in person, which I still think is the most direct and productive way to get an agent’s attention. It’s not always accessible or affordable or convenient, but if possible, I recommend writers to try to pitch in person, or at least on Zoom. You can schedule these through writing conferences or literary festivals, or through community-based organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, and VONA.
In the end, it was the second of the three agents whose vision, portfolio, and personality most aligned with my hopes and plans. I’ve been with this agent for eight years and counting, and we’ve worked on four books together!
A writing practice and written pieces, whether essays, books, lectures, or screenplays, that show me time and time again that my best work is still ahead of me–and that there’s a joyful, sustaining way to get there.
RAISING MOTHERS: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
CINELLE BARNES: Going on an international trip that I’m now writing a book about, will be writing a travel essay about, and have been interviewed for by a big podcast. Gaining an experience and feeding my senses through this trip has made my writing richer, more textured, more complex, and just more fun–which we all need! Without fun, there’s no way to move on. Our work needs to be more than just generative. There has to be a regenerative aspect to it.
RAISING MOTHERS: How many hours a day do you write? Break down your typical writing day.
CINELLE BARNES: I reserve about two to three days a week for writing when I’m on assignment or on a book deadline. I tend to schedule these days for the earlier part of my week, before my brain is tired from editing, consulting, or teaching. Each of these days starts with a shower and a coffee or matcha latte. When it’s doable, I try to get out of the house for these writing days, so I’m not tempted to do chores or something administrative, like my P&L sheet. I can write for about four to five hours max, and anything beyond that is just too long for me. I don’t like to fatigue myself. I also almost always start by reading a passage or excerpt that’s caught my attention and has brought to light the inquiry I’m trying to pursue in my work, and when I can, I end my four- to five-hour writing session in the middle of sentence, making it easier to come back to the flow or the thought the next time I sit down to write.
Writing is hard, publishing can be frustrating. Friends remind us of our true vision and true purpose, and they give us the confidence and levity we need to get to the next step, and the next.
RAISING MOTHERS: What are your top three tips to help develop your writing muscle?
CINELLE BARNES: Read widely, be playful and let other artforms feed your writing, and know your faithful audience.
RAISING MOTHERS: What does literary success look like to you?
CINELLE BARNES: A writing practice and written pieces, whether essays, books, lectures, or screenplays, that show me time and time again that my best work is still ahead of me–and that there’s a joyful, sustaining way to get there.
RAISING MOTHERS: What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
CINELLE BARNES: Several of my author friends are editors I’ve worked with, such as Nicole Chung and Matt Ortile, or are fellow VONA and Kundiman alumni, such as Zeyn Joukhadar, Devi Laskar, and Natalia Sylvester. They all help me become a better writer by reading my work and offering feedback when they have the time, or by simply having published work out in the world and in my library for me to mine and glean from. I’ve also had the pleasure of working with and learning from the essayists I edited for an anthology, A Measure of Belonging: 21 Writers of Color on the New American South. These 21 writers have defied the monolithic Southern narrative and have also stretched my understanding of what makes an essay or how an essay could be shaped. They each have such a distinct voice and style, and their stylistic and linguistic choices have inspired me to dig deeper for mine. Perhaps most recently though, what I’ve needed from writer friends is just that… friendship. Writing is hard, publishing can be frustrating. Friends remind us of our true vision and true purpose, and they give us the confidence and levity we need to get to the next step, and the next.
RAISING MOTHERS: Who are you writing for?
CINELLE BARNES: The answer to this has gotten more specific or more central for every book I’ve written. I wrote Monsoon Mansion for my child self and anyone who has survived a childhood; Malaya: Essays on Freedom for my teen self, my daughter, and Filipino/a/x GenZers, millennials, GenXers in diaspora; and my work-in-progress for my adult self recovering from the quadruple burdens placed on women — childcare, culture care, work, and home care, along with the violences of immigration, post-colonialism, and capitalism.
Cinelle Barnes (she/her/hers) is a formerly undocumented memoirist, essayist, and educator from Manila, Philippines, and is the author of MONSOON MANSION: A MEMOIR (Little A, 2018, Booklist starred review) and MALAYA: ESSAYS ON FREEDOM (Little A, 2019), and the editor of the New York Times New & Noteworthy book, A MEASURE OF BELONGING: 21 WRITERS OF COLOR ON THE NEW AMERICAN SOUTH (Hub City Press, 2020). She is currently at work on an immigrant travel memoir.
Cinelle earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Converse College. Her writing has appeared or been featured in the New York Times, Longreads, Garden & Gun, Electric Literature, Buzzfeed Reader, Literary Hub, Hyphen, Coastal Living, and CNN Philippines, among others. Her essay, “Carefree White Girls, Careful Brown Girls”, is anthologized in A Map Is Only One Story: Twenty Writers on Immigration, Family, and the Meaning of Home (Catapult, 2020). Cinelle was a contributing editor, instructor, and writer at Catapult, and a juror for the inaugural Pulitzer Prize in Memoir.