In 2013, Cinelle Barnes was challenged by her Converse MFA mentor to write a letter revealing a secret or something she hadn’t shared with many people. Below is an excerpt of that letter. Cinelle believes this piece helped get her on track to write her memoir, Monsoon Mansion.
Dear American Citizen:
I’m undocumented, or as you might say, an illegal. I don’t know how much you know about me or what you think that word means.
Illegal. The dictionary defines it as “contrary to or forbidden by law, esp. criminal law.” In my case, that means that contrary to the requirements for residency, I am forbidden to stay – study, work, live – in the United States. And because I have disobeyed immigration rules, I am, therefore, a criminal. A seventeen-year-old criminal. I wasn’t always so. I had documents – school records, health records, birth records – you name it. I had a jersey number, class number, phone number, and bank accounts. I was the child of so-and-so, lived permanently in such-and-such address. As the feds would say, I had an identity: the citizen of a country.
I fell through the cracks right as our world was being redefined by 9/11. The doom and gloom of terrorism birthed a new understanding for the phrase, “Enemy of the State.” Anybody whose profile, physical appearance, familial history, immigrant status, or culture that resembled that of the hijackers’ became of terrorist.
Meanwhile, I had been forced out of my country, the Philippines, by death threats from my family’s political and professional rivals. The only way to not get kidnapped or killed was to leave Asia, and so I was sent to America. At San Francisco International Airport, I clutched my passport close to my chest and pinned the duffel bag between my legs. I stood frozen in my jeans and shirt, underdressed for the late-winter Bay Area weather. Every time I felt like crying, I clutched my passport tighter and prayed. I prayed for a familiar face to walk or drive by, for my shivering self not to call attention from security. I prayed that no one would recognize me, unless, of course, they were family. I prayed that I wouldn’t get into trouble. I prayed that my quivering in the cold, alone, was the beginning of a better, safer life.
When my Aunt Franca offered to adopt me so I could legally stay, I thought that my problems had been solved—and for that I had to repay her. I lived in her house as best as I knew how—I did my chores and schoolwork without being told to, and kept quiet. I was seen, but never heard. Never. In fact, I became so quiet my senior year that kids at my upper-middle-class Long Island school thought I didn’t speak English.
“Hey, newbie. Hey.” I ignored them.
“Hey, whuzza matter? You not speak English? Huh. Ha.” I ignored them still.
“You from China? You speak Chinese? Ni Hao. Neeee howwww. Hahaha.”
“You get here by boat? You’re so smart. You come here on the smart boat, newbie? You have McDonald’s where you’re from, huh, newbie?”
I just walked on each time, mouth shut and eyes blank, swallowing my spit every time I felt like crying. The words of retort that streamed through my mind never came out.
I ate lunch at the library and read until the bell rang. I signed up for classes that the other “weirdos” and “mute-mouths” were in: Culture of the Sixties, Illustrating for Ads and Fashion, Speech Writing, and my favorite, A.P. English in Creative Writing with a very kind woman named Ms. Oriani. She had a gift – she got me to journal. It was in journaling for her class that I found my voice, the one that I had lost along with other parts of my identity when I left Manila.
By the third week in Ms. Oriani’s class, I had filled four marble composition notebooks with stories: the time my baby brother died, that semester I played in two soccer teams, the ice cream dates I used to have with my dad. I wrote: Papa bought me the biggest cone so I could top it with as many flavors as I wanted. He held me up against the freezer glass so I could see all the different flavors. He always said that I have to explore my options to know exactly what I want and who I am.
My first New York spring started well. I passed the N.Y. Regents Exam, aced my physics and U.S. History classes, and finished writing my final assignment for Speech class. It was called “English As A Second Language: The Immigrants’ Powertool in America.” The course required that we read our final speeches in front of the graduating class. I almost missed the bus on purpose the morning of the speeches, but something told me that what I wrote needed to be heard. So I stepped up behind the podium in sixth period and read.
The first paragraph of my speech was completely in Tagalog, my native tongue. Speaking in a different language made the crowd shush. They stared at me, then at each other, then at me again. To put them out of their misery, I proceeded to the next paragraph. It said:
That is exactly what I mean. Language barriers are far more complex than you think. Language barriers keep a person – an immigrant – isolated. The inability to speak and be heard thwart the foreigner socially, and therefore thwart her educationally, economically, and relationally. The inability to communicate in a new country leaves the individual, for lack of a better term, person-less.
That same week, my Aunt Franca – my new mother – and I were called to the United States Citizenship and Immigration office in Lower Manhattan. My adoption had been finalized and we were waiting on approval of my becoming an American.
We were welcomed into the building with a quick, “Good morning,” that was immediately followed by, “You were denied citizenship and therefore denied permission to stay.”
The balding agent at Federal Plaza pushed my file from his side of the steel table to mine.
He said, “Sorry, ma’am.”
Then more softly, he said, “You must leave within seven days.”
Then even more quietly, as if a sigh, he said, “It will be okay.”
So there I was, adopted but excluded. Not a person of my birth-country, nor a person in my new home.
About the Author
Cinelle Barnes is a creative non-fiction writer and educator from Manila, Philippines. She writes memoirs and personal essays on trauma, growing up in Southeast Asia, and on being a mother and immigrant in America.
In 2014, she was nominated for the AWP Journal Intro Award for Creative Non-Fiction, and in 2015 received an MFA from Converse College. She was part of the inaugural Kundiman Creative Non-Fiction Intensive in New York City and is an alum of the VONA/Voices workshop for political content writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Barnes was a presenter and panelist on Diversity in Literature at the Creative Writing Studies Organization Conference in 2016 (Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC).
Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Hub, South 85 Journal, Skirt!, West Of, Your Life Is a Trip, the Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Series, Itinerant Literate’s StorySlam, and Hub City Press’s online anthology, and Multicultural Spartanburg.
Featured Image Photo Credit: Photo by Kristina Flour on UnsplashRead More »
https://youtu.be/aw2WvKWNoq4I RitualMy expectation is to rise
with a Texas dawn ripping my eyes
open like a sweaty Sunday shirt.
I expect the complaints of abused bones
creaking in marriage
I expect the ache of every hour ago.
But then –
The burden of the day unfolds
There are rings of dried coffee
in your abandoned mug
like those of a newly fallen tree
I know how many sips you took this morning
how many steps through the door
before kicking off your shoes
whether you went for the mail
or finger-raked your hair
or if you rushed out –
forgetful and frantic.
I know which thing you forgot.
These are sacred pieces of a story
I’ve loved in re-telling
Each time I grow younger.
You starting your day, in ways
RemainsHow old is the oldest thing we own?
Is it something we’ve collected
Something made by our overlaying hands
an heirloom tucked away, coveted
knick-knack on a bottom shelf
something made of clay or glass?
Is it the memory of a friend – we’ve loved and lost
Is it that ancient between us?
Is it lasting?
What is our dusty relic
which calls to us
Come inside – home.
Whatever it is – left when you’ve gone
a scroll, a scar, a microchip, a pile of dust and ash
leave that to me
Mel Sherrer completed her MFA at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She uses her Southern roots and knowledge of sonic aesthetic to create poems which have personal reverence for place, time, and societal evolution. Mel has been performing poetry for more than ten years. She is currently the Managing Poetry Editor for South 85 Journal, and she regularly interviews writers for our blog. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she is an avid performer, angler, and Nerf collector.
Liz Valvano, bassoon, is beginning her Doctorate of Musical Arts in double reed performance at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She completed her Masters in Music at Texas State University, woodwind performance under the tutelage of Daris Hale and Dr. Ian Davidson May 2017, and her BA in music and chemistry at Hollins University in May 2015, studying under Danny Felty of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra. Currently, she performs with the UNLV Symphony Orchestra and Honors Graduate Wind Quintet.
South 85 Journal is launching a YouTube Channel to help us promote contemporary literature. Starting October 9, we will release one video poetry reading a month. To get everyone excited (and to test some features), I created this video announcement:
Now that I have thoroughly embarrassed myself, I’ll return to hiding behind my computer – as long as you will take a moment to make sure you don’t miss any of our readings. You can subscribe to our YouTube Channel or blog or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
Also, don’t forget to submit poetry, creative non-fiction, fiction, and visual art before November 1 to be considered for our next issue, which comes out December 15, 2017. For more info, visit https://south85.submittable.com/submit.
I look forward to seeing you online!Read More »
Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s short story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, was released by Fomite in August. We sat down to talk to her about the writer/promo balance, novels vs. short stories, and the importance of place. Read on!
S85: How do you navigate being both a writer and a promoter?
CH: I have to fit my own writing in to my days, as I always have had to do, whether as a student or a publicist. I make time at night, on weekends, on a lunch hour.
Also, I don’t discuss my writing with my clients, unless they bring it up. Once or twice, I shared an experience I had. But when I’m working, I’m focused on promoting their work, and I keep a division in my mind. That is their time, for their work.
S85: Given your career as a publicist, how does the commercial or critical success of a particular piece impact your personal opinion of the piece and your writing as whole?
CH: Every year, there are beautiful books, small press or big house, which never receive the notice they deserve. It has been that way since the beginning of my career, and it will be that way long after I stop working. There are simply too many books. I am heartened by the wonderful critical reception my own writing has received, and I am glad it has received notice, given the tough fight small press titles have to get any attention. I love my book, and I would love it even if no one had noticed it. I’d have been disappointed in the market and book world if there had been no coverage for it, but I would not have been disappointed in my book.
But having it recognized is wonderful.
S85: In terms of fiction, what would you say are the fundamental differences between a fiction novel and a short story? What makes a great short story?
CH: That’s an interesting question for me because so many of my stories involve decades, whole histories, so for me, short stories don’t have to be a slice of life experience. They can be their own whole worlds. In my writing, it really comes down to length (some of my stories are long) and to finishing the rest of the story. For instance, I write some stories that link, so a novel will allow me to finish these characters’ stories. I am in fact one draft in on a novel-in-stories that includes three stories from my collection.
S85: What encouraged you to delve into writing and compiling your collection of stories To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts; what was the book’s genesis?
CH: The book began 25 years ago, when I was pursuing my MFA. Eight of the ten stories were written back in 1992-1995, then taken out, dusted off, and submitted with some minor edits. The last two stories were started after the program ended but took a long time to write.
Fomite editor Marc Estrin asked in 2015 if I had a collection. I told him thank you but no. It was so cool to be asked, but I didn’t think I had anything. But in June 2016, I submitted a story called SONS that was accepted for publication. After that, I thought, “Why not look?” I pulled out my stories, saw I had ten, and contacted Marc. Ten seemed a solid number of stories to have in a book.
S85: Your stories have a very strong conveyance of location. Do you have any devices or methods for creating that intense rendering of geography and landscape?
CH: Well, I guess the answer is no. I think I am just particularly attuned to weather and landscape, to place, so they become part of how I see things.
S85: Are there books, short story collections in particular, which you are currently reading or have read that inspire you to write?
CH: No, though there are lots of writers in lots of genres I admire. I write because I feel compelled. That is always the way it has been, from when I was very, very little. My mom tells me that I used to bring her scribbles before I knew how to write letters. I would want her to read my stories. So I have been eager to tell stories since the beginning.
S85: Would you say your approach to writing is practical or purely artistic? Under which circumstance do you find your writing most fruitful or closest to your personal vision for your work?
CH: I write when I can, not on a schedule, so I consider myself a Carpe Diem writer. I find a moment or an hour or a few hours, and I go for it. I write whatever I want. Stories, novel, picture book, poems. I recently had a poem published, which was quite exciting. I hadn’t had poetry published since college. But I also give myself time in terms of years. I work, I have kids, I have volunteer responsibilities. It is a delicate balance—pursuing my writing career. I’m not sure when I best achieve my goals, but I believe it is when I trust my instincts and don’t overthink things.
About the Author
Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University, and her short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Puerto del Sol, Mud Season Review, and Long Story, Short. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003.
About the Interviewer
Mel Sherrer is a performance poet and teacher living in San Marcos, Texas. She is the Managing Poetry Editor for South 85 Journal.
Featured Image Photo: A crop of the cover of To Lay to Rest Our GhostsRead More »
Associate Director of the Converse College Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing is a title that sounds far grander than the position it actually entails. The truth is, come residency time my goal is to stay invisible because invisibility means everything is running smoothly. Sometimes clichés stick for a reason, and in this case it holds true. No news is good news.
But before we get to the residency and all the work that goes on behind the scenes, we need to answer questions from prospective students. Lots and lots of questions. And that’s good. We always have a smart group of applicants who ask intelligent and necessary questions to make sure that our program is right for them (which, of course, it totally is).
In the past, we’ve had information sessions on campus for prospective applicants to check out the place, meet some faculty, alumni, current students, and just generally get a feel for the program. Unfortunately, this limited our info sessions to locals and people within driving distance. So this year, we’re thinking bigger. We hope you will join us.
Saturday, September 16, at 11 am, we will be holding our very first Facebook Live Event. Part information session, part AMA, this is your chance to hear about the program and ask any questions you may have, no matter how big or small. Our event will be hosted by me, Sarah Gray (Associate Director and a fiction alumna), Rick Mulkey (Director of the program), and Travis Burnham (fiction alumnus). So if you’re doing the math, that’s two fiction writers and a poet. We want to represent everyone that might be watching, so we can answer YA and nonfiction inquiries as well.
During this session, we also plan to discuss the amazing online literary journal that is affiliated with our program, South 85 Journal. Prospective students are always asking about writing and publication opportunities within the program, and South 85 is our shining star in that department. Students who work on the journal learn editing, publishing, and marketing skills. There are even possibilities for those who have interest/experience in graphic design. And best of all, Editor-in-Chief Debby DeRosa is a joy to work with and is passionate about the journal and its high standards.
If you’re still reading, go right now and “Like” our Facebook page. Once you do, you’ll automatically get notified on your smart device when we go live. Get your questions ready, and maybe set up a drinking game for every time I say “Um.” On second thought, don’t do that. You’ll be too drunk to make it through the session. Either way, tune in to our Facebook Live on Saturday, September 16, at 11 am. We can’t wait to meet you.
Sarah Gray graduated from Converse with a BFA in Creative and Professional Writing in 2009 through the Converse II program and stayed around to earn her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) at Converse as a member of the program’s very first graduating class in 2011. She founded the MFA program’s literary journal, South 85, directed the Converse Young Writers’ Workshop for two years, and served as an adjunct for three years before stepping into her current position as Associate Director of the MFA in Creative Writing program.Read More »