Watch Out World: Cinelle Barnes, Essayist Empowered by Endurance

Cinelle Barnes, Memoirist, Essayist, Educator and Author of Malaya: Essays On Freedom (Photo credit: Joshua Garcia).

Cinelle Barnes, Memoirist, Essayist, Educator and Author of Malaya: Essays On Freedom (Photo credit: Joshua Garcia).

After I read Monsoon Mansion, the memoir and first book by Filipino American author Cinelle Barnes, I was deeply affected by the profound pain of this young woman and her harrowing childhood in the Philippines. Her experiences were unfathomable – falling from wealth to the pit of extreme poverty, her father’s leaving, an abusive mother, the cruelty of her mother’s boyfriend – until she was able to live with her stepsister. I was relieved that Barnes’ moved to her older siblings and hoped that life would be good to her. But, that was only the beginning.

Then I got hold of an early copy of Cinelle Barnes’ second book, Malaya: Essays on Freedom (October 2019). This is a continuation of Barnes’ life after she had written Monsoon Mansion. In this collection of essays, Cinelle Barnes recounts how she found a way to move to America, hoping to be adopted by a family. But time ran out for her while waiting for the judge’s ruling -- Cinelle had outgrown the age of eligibility for adoption in the States. As an undocumented teenager in New York, Cinelle could not get a driver’s license. So, the essays describe her effort to survive -- as a cleaning lady, a nanny, a laundromat worker, and working numerous odd jobs, scraps that undocumented immigrants settle for, jobs most Americans don’t want.

Cinelle Barnes is now a memoirist, essayist, and educator. Born and raised in the Philippines, her first book, Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir, was listed as a Best Nonfiction Book of 2018 by Bustle and nominated for the 2018 Reading Women Nonfiction Award.

Through her candor and lyrical prose, the author makes you feel her weariness, hunger, disgust, and fear of being caught as she looks over her shoulder. Her sheer desire to survive leads to opportunities to go to college and graduate school, to become a journalist and eventually a best-selling author.

Along the way, she falls in love, has a baby and moves to the south where her husband is from. The road to freedom for Cinelle has been wrought with challenges, but she documents her experiences and manages to stand above them all. She inspires courage in all of us.    

In the book Malaya, “being free” in Filipino, Barnes’ stories are harsh, often unbearable, and seem hopeless. But Barnes is not discouraged. As her 11 stories flow in nearly 200 pages, her resilience shines through. Her strength and faith in humanity are tested in many ways. Yet she remains determined.

Malaya: Essays On Freedom  by Cinelle Barnes (Little A, New York, October 2019) - Cinelle Barnes returns to readers with a potent collection of stories filled with hope for a better future, perseverance in the face of discrimination, and a mandate to never give up a fight. [Cover design: Faceout Studio, Lindy Martin; Cover illustration: Monica Ramos].

Malaya: Essays On Freedom by Cinelle Barnes (Little A, New York, October 2019) - Cinelle Barnes returns to readers with a potent collection of stories filled with hope for a better future, perseverance in the face of discrimination, and a mandate to never give up a fight. [Cover design: Faceout Studio, Lindy Martin; Cover illustration: Monica Ramos].

With an MFA degree in creative nonfiction from Converse College, Cinelle has written for Buzzfeed, Catapult, Literary Hub, Hyphen, Panorama: A Journal of Intelligent Travel, and South 85. She has received fellowships and grants from VONA, Kundiman, the National Endowment for the Arts, the North Charleston Arts Festival, and the Lowcountry Quarterly Arts Grant.

“I write because I am the last to remember. My mother, father, and brother lead lives of forgetting while I have made a living out of remembering.” Barnes wrote.

She recalls that when she moved to New York City in her late teens, as she stepped off the train at Penn Station, she thought, “This is my new life.”

About college: “I transferred out of fashion school and into a journalism program; I learned how to tell stories. Still, I evaded my own truth.”

She meets a guy who hands her a moleskin notebook, a pen and urges her, “Go write.”

She dates the guy. She marries him. They move to the south. They have a baby. She writes on index cards while she nurses her baby. She writes as much as she can remember about childhood.

 Her therapist advises: “Write your memories; take the ugly and make something beautiful.”

Malaya, is a book on the uncompromising, unrelenting pursuit of a better life – to be free of fear and worries. These desires are universal. We are all immigrants in constant quest for freedom.

Cinelle Barnes, Filipino American author, inspires with her endurance. But, like all stories, freedom is merely the beginning. For Barnes, life continues. This time, Barnes is ready. Her freedom empowers her.

MALAYA: Essays on Freedom   By Cinelle Barnes (Little A, New York) will be available where most books are sold on October 29, 2019.


Elizabeth Ann Quirino

Elizabeth Ann Quirino

Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey is a journalist and author of the “Instant Filipino Recipes: My Mother’s Philippine Food In a Multicooker Pot” Cookbook. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and blogs about Filipino home cooking on her site AsianInAmericaMag.com.


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