Living in a mansion might sound like heaven, but it quickly turned into hell for Monsoon Mansion author Cinelle Barnes. She moved into "Mansion Royale" in the Philippines with her family at age three, but they lost their luxurious lifestyle and so much more when the Gulf War plunged the family into poverty. After her father left and her mother's cruel and domineering lover moved in, things only got worse.
“I didn’t plan on writing my story; it was out of necessity,” Barnes tells Bustle. “I needed to confront my past, so I could mother well. I had to do it.”
Her memoir, Monsoon Mansion, is the result of that personal reckoning.
The novel didn't begin to take shape until after Barnes' daughter was born. In her late teens, the author left the Philippines and moved to the United States. She attended college in New York, met the man that would become her husband, and moved to the American South with him after graduation. But just a few months after they got married, Barnes discovered she was pregnant. After her daughter's birth, Barnes found herself burdened with an overwhelming feeling of loneliness and baby blues that just wouldn't go away. Her husband bought her 3x5 note cards and encouraged her to start writing.
"I needed to confront my past, so I could mother well."
The cards fit right on her rocking chair’s armrest, so she would write as she rocked and nursed her baby. Sometimes, she would just scribble down one word or a phrase. Sometimes, she would jot down an image. She began to get down entire sentences. Then paragraphs. “By the time the baby was a year and a half old, I had about three shoe boxes full [of note cards],” she says.
She eventually enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts program at Converse College, where she transformed those note cards into a novel. She was challenged by a mentor to write something down that she had never told anyone before, so she decided to write about her nightmarish childhood. Her workshop members were among her first readers — and their reactions to portions of what would become Monsoon Mansion inspired her to keep writing.
“I read something to the class and literally everyone cried," she says. "The professor and everyone said, 'Me too, me too, me too.' I remember thinking, ‘I will go through hell and back to write this book if it means people know they’re not alone.'"
In 2016, she sent her memoir to publishers, but the same week, her daughter, then four years old, was hospitalized. Worried she might be living at the hospital for an indefinite period of time, Barnes deliberated pulling the manuscript from consideration. Her literary agent persuaded her otherwise.
‘I will go through hell and back to write this book if it means people know they’re not alone.'"
“It was right after the election. The manuscript went out, I think Nov. 7, and then Nov. 9 happened,” she says. "I remember my agent saying, ‘You cannot quit now. People need this kind of hope. People need something to tell them even when the world’s caving in, we’re going to be okay."
Her story isn’t an easy one to read, but she infuses a painful story with a shocking amount of hope. She credits her love of poetry for inspiring the novel's lyrical and redeeming prose, and says poetry allows her to "distill all the pain into memorable moments."
"As a reader I like when something’s given to me in a way so that I can digest, accept, and receive it," she says. "Those are the books I like to read, so that’s how I wanted to write."
As she wrote her memoir, Barnes also worked with a therapist, who asked her to read her writing aloud as she held onto tappers stimulating different sides of her brain. She was diagnosed with PTSD, and her therapist worked to connect Barnes's writing with her emotional healing process.
"As a reader I like when something’s given to me in a way so that I can digest, accept, and receive it."
"Writing in itself was not the professional route I took to heal mentally and emotionally, but it became a part of it,” she says. She does believe, however, that writing can be a powerful therapeutic tool.
"There’s actually functions of the brain that are awakened when you write, or functions of the brain that are neutralized or brought back to equilibrium," she says. "It’s not just writing, it can be painting or equine therapy, but there is something about telling yourself stories, also knowing how to tell that story, that makes you more aware of who you are. When you know who you are, you are less afraid."
Barnes hopes that Monsoon Mansion will provide some comfort to other survivors of childhood trauma. But she also hopes that the book builds empathy in people who don't have experience with abuse, poverty, or war. “I think it’s very, very important to take ourselves out of ourselves sometimes," she says.