Words by Erwin Davis II
When we think about what the south means to each of us, any number of visions come to mind. For some, it’s big trucks, nights at the tailgate in Dallas, and meals that would put any Italian gourmet chef into a food coma. Others think of the charm and history of Charleston mixed with a little modern buzz of Atlanta.
When author and editor, Cinelle Barnes, moved here from New York a decade ago, she also had a unique personal experience. In her latest work, ‘A Measure Of Belonging,’ she opens by revisiting the welcome dinner for her husband’s place of work in South Carolina where she sits alongside wives of his coworkers.
“So how do you like it here?” she said.
I told her I that I loved the weather, the beaches, and historic downtown. But the part of me that had pursued a degree in journalism and literature—and was determined to practice what I was taught—told her the whole truth. Remembering how insular the city felt and how I stuck out without having to try, I said, “But there are definitely things I would change.”
“Honey, nobody asked you to move here,” the woman said.
Now this kind of interaction might give you the assumption that she did what anyone might do. Leave and never return. However, Cinelle took this moment as a pathway to possibility. A nativeFilipina driven to the south by the love of a man, Cinelle embraces her newfound love for the family and life she has discovered in the south and formulates a plan craft a diamond from this moment of coal.
As she continues in her book, “I haven’t turned back around. Instead, I’ve committed myself to making this place as big as it actually is. Because small is so ten years ago. Small is that woman who called me, ‘Honey.’ […] And small are the books about this region that refuse to acknowledge and celebrate the voices and narratives of honey-me, honey-she, honey-he, honey-they, and honey-you.”
This is where ‘A Measure Of Belonging’ becomes all-encompassing. It would be easy to write a book detailing her experience as a person of foreign descent in the region. But, Cinelle chooses the route of unity and inclusion that she looks to promote with AMOB. Reaching out to former colleagues, collaborators, teachers and mentors, and upcoming voices in literature of whom she is a fan—all of color—Barnes has created an amalgamation of stories and tellings of people who are also interested in sharing their reflections on the ‘New American South.’
Stories like writer Devi Laskar’s contribution ‘Duos’ where she battles the paradox of duality-conflict and, “being a Southerner while simultaneously being a person of color,” are bookended by an amazing poetic adventure through a young Diana Cejas’ life in the tobacco farms of North Carolina where thick residues of tobacco-gum stain the memory of her past as well as her gratitude for where she currently stands in the south. Each tale in Barnes’ anthology is another opportunity for showcasing the true nature of the south. A place where home is home, and no matter where you come from or go to, you’re home here.
In an interview with Cinelle, I asked her how she’d respond if asked today, “How do you like it here?” Just like that woman had asked her a decade ago.
“I could like it here more…,” she says, “but I'm not wasting time fretting about what's not to like. I'm too preoccupied building it into the place I want it to be, for myself and for my child. Always, always, always for myself and for her.”
To read the full interview with Cinelle, click here.