Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir

Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir

Cinelle Barnes

She did not know that this was the best thing she could have done, and she did not know that, when she began to walk quickly or even run along the paths and down the avenue, she was stirring her slow blood and making herself stronger by fighting with the wind which swept down from the moor.

—Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden


Five years ago, I told my husband, “That child was a warrior and that warrior was me. That warrior child twirled and sang and drew and danced her way to freedom, and I now must tell her story.” And so I decided to write a book—a work of creative nonfiction. I wanted to create beauty out of my truth. I wanted to explore the idea of hybridity in identity and in creativity. I wanted to honor the authors and characters that kept me company as a child and employ the same literary techniques I learned from these works. I wanted to craft a book of childhood trauma and of childhood magic, of grit and of beauty. What I could not remember myself, I searched through research and interviews, and confirmed details through a wide exploration of photos, videos, newspaper articles, vital records, court cases, affidavits, maps, and Google Earth.

I have changed the names of certain people, places, and businesses in order to protect those mentioned in the book and to safeguard my privacy and that of my family. On occasion, composite characters enter and exit the page, mainly because at times when I do remember faces or voices, I cannot remember names, or vice versa. In some chapters, time lapses serve the purpose of evading the superfluous. What I meant to do here was to create a mix of memory, research, and reporting told in a lyrical register reminiscent of other art forms I had previously studied: music, art history, architecture, and dance.

Reader, here is Monsoon Mansion, my otherworld.



My parents named the house “Mansion Royale,” a stately home in a post-Spanish, post-American, and newly post-Marcos democracy. They bought it together with my mother’s inherited wealth and my father’s new money. It was the eighties, when bigger was better, and better meant glitter, gold, and glam. Our family moved in when I was two and a half years old, in 1988, when my first narrative memories were forming. The house became the setting for the first moments of mundaneness, celebration, and terror that my developing brain could retain.

The original owners of the house had their marriage legally annulled halfway through construction and put the mansion up for sale. They left some good bones for my parents to work with. My parents paid cash for a short sale and tipped big bucks to the real estate agent, and the mansion was theirs—ours: a palace that housed Mama’s social aspirations and Papa’s business success and the miscellanies that were the staff, my half brother Paolo, and myself. The mansion also housed many conversations—some in English, some in Taglish (a fusion of Tagalog and English, the upper class’s preferred tongue), some in straight Tagalog (the help’s lingua), and a few borrowed throw-ins from Old World Spanish and island dialects.

Our family entered through wrought-iron gates that were guarded by armed security staff. Flattened metal bars curved to golden swirls sprawled from one hinge of each gate door to the other, and although outsiders could look through the gaps between the swirls, the half-ton gates kept us separate from lookers and passersby.

Past the gates, our driveway stretched from the entrance, around the front lawn, through the shaded drop-off, down to the basement parking lot, then around the back to the basketball court. When my mother threw parties, the driveway turned into a meandering buffet of shrimp cocktail, fondue, roasted whole pig, beef Wellington—and barrels, bottles, and goblets of alcohol. The winding shape of the driveway was perfect for the zigzagging drunks who sauntered through.

Twenty marble steps welcomed us into the main floor, which was a story above the lawn. I learned how to count to twenty on those steps. “One, two, three, four, five, I can do it. Don’t hold me, Yaya, I can do it. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten.”

A woodworker carved on the main double doors a gold-plated relief of sinewy, thorny florae: plant carvings on the doors resembling the offerings in our gardens—birds-of-paradise, tropical orchids, bamboo, Indian mangoes—but spinier and barbed, as if they were about to hiss. The real plants, on the other hand, smelled fresh like a waterfall and didn’t look so much like snakes. The mansion was like that—it housed many contradictions: my aristocratic mother and self-made father, our family’s dependence on wealth and our helpers’ faith, and many adults’ agendas and my childhood dreams.

Inside the main doors, a gold-framed mirror the size of a small car hung over a console, where guests adjusted their ties and posture. My mother retouched her lipstick in front of it before leaving the house each morning.

In the grand ballroom, I played princess. It was the most spacious part of the mansion, a gold-plated square the same size and opulence as the historic Manila Hotel Centennial Hall. The walls sparkled in sand-colored stone, and the floor gleamed in an expanse of pearl-and-oyster marble, a mermaid’s castle.

Stone terraces extended from the ballroom and the top floor. Bare of furniture and décor, the terrace was the ideal place for pondering the world outside. The terrace overlooked a fishpond and a rice paddy, where a farmer, along with his wife and sons, grew and harvested the Philippines’ staple foods. I watched them from the terraces, wondering how and why they withstood the sun’s heat.

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