Southern Festival of Books Preview: Cinelle Barnes, Editor of A Measure of Belonging

If you happened to attend the Southern Festival of Books author reveal party — which, like the festival itself and almost everything this year, was held online — you got to hear Tiana Clark, better known as a poet, read from a powerful essay called “Treacherous Joy: An Epistle to the South.”

“Dear Tennessee,” the essay begins, “I thought I hated you — I didn’t love you until I left you.”

That’s the kind of reckoning at work in the forthcoming collection where that essay appears: A Measure of Belonging: Twenty-One Writers of Color on the New American South. Expertly curated by editor Cinelle Barnes — who is also author of the memoir Monsoon Mansion and the essay collection MalayaA Measure of Belonging looks at our region and all its attendant baggage with love and skepticism, fondness and disappointment, exasperation and hope. And in so doing, it also brings together a diverse, thoughtful cadre of gifted writers whose parts create an unmistakable whole. Barnes spoke to Musing editor Steve Haruch recently, and their conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, appears below.

A Measure of Belonging will be published on Oct. 6, and Cinelle Barnes will be appearing virtually at the Southern Festival of Books on Sunday, Oct. 4 at 1pm Central. So read the interview, pre-order the book — a portion of sales go to support the festival — make plans to attend!

Parnassus Musing: Congratulations on the book! Just to start out, I was curious if you could talk about how the idea for the book came up and the genesis of it.

Cinelle Barnes: Yeah, I talked a little bit about it in the intro, how long I’d been thinking about this book and not realizing it was going to be a book. When we first moved to Charleston, I just started finding myself in situations where I felt like I couldn’t go against what was, or break the mold. And really one of those first interactions was at my husband’s new place of work, at a welcome dinner, where someone asked me, “Well, how do you like it here?” I cannot hold a poker face. I cannot bite my tongue. I’m terrible at small talk. But I basically said, you know, “I love the beach, I love historic downtown and it’s so beautiful here — you’ve got the marsh, and the architecture — but there are some things I would definitely change.” And I kind of went on a little bit, about how I moved from Harlem so this seems really strange to me that the — I might have even said, “Charleston seems a little bit like the Disneyland for plantation life” — and I remember the woman saying, “Well honey, no one asked you to move here.”

And so I thought, “Oh, OK, so my resistance is now coming up against her resistance.” And I just thought, I can’t not tell the truth, ever, and that kind of scared me when we first had that encounter. I thought, “Oh gosh, this is the world I live in now.” For a while, maybe up until the pandemic, we thought publishing only happens in New York, and here I was throwing myself into the Disneyland of plantation life — how would I ever publish books or essays that I wanted to write, that I wanted to read? And I thought, “Well, I’ll just make it happen.”

I think for many of us, the past four years have been excruciating. Last year, I remember thinking back to our motto at Voices of the Nations Arts — which is a workshop and residency that happens every year and is only for writers of color — and that’s where I met some of the writers that are in the anthology. Some of them were faculty members, some were students like myself or writers in residence. Something we said a lot was “writing is resistance,” and “the personal is political.” I thought, if writing is resistance, then why keep doing it in such a solitary way? Why not bring people together? Particularly as a Filipino woman, right?

I’m Asian but my history is so deeply tied to American history — and social psychologists will tell you that Filipinos have the same decision-making patterns and buying patterns and consumption patterns as Americans, and are basically the Americans of the Pacific. We’re also the Latinos of Asia; we share history with other former colonies of Spain. We also — comedians joke about —Filipinos are the Black people of Asia: You guys are somewhat of an outcast, you give so much to the culture, culture has been taken from you repeatedly, it’s been appropriated out of your hands. That all just comes through the reality of who I am as a Filipina, as an Asian American woman.

For my MFA at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, my thesis is about the role of not just race, particularly as Asian Americans in literature. One of the things I studied was the concept of racial triangulation, where Asians and Asian Americans are that one point on the triangle where we’re either white-aspiring or white-presenting, or we uplift our brown and Black brothers and sisters. And very early on, I understood that everything I was going to do in publishing or literature was going to be one or the other. Whether it was a conscious or not conscious choice. So this book, it was really one way of looking at who really makes up the South, and who is often neglected, not just in representation but in the diversity within the diversity of that representation, right? And so I looked at the demographics of the South, and I was like, the book has to look like that.

Cinelle Barnes. Photo by Joshua Garcia.

When I started pitching to agents, I remember at one of my in-person pitches, someone said, “This is your year to pitch, because they’re really looking for a woman of color.” And I was like, “Oh, so it’s this year?” All of the other years, I’m not sellable? I was like, that’s really sad. That’s great, that this is the year I’m pitching, but this has worked against people who look like me in the past, and it’s going to work against people who look like me in the future.

I think at the time, not even four percent of authors were authors of color, or Black or indigenous. I thought, “I can change that.” I can leverage what I know, which is writing and editing and essays in particular, and what I’m capable of — organizing, strategizing, getting people together. I can do everything from line editing to developmental editing and fast-forward to publicity. And I wanted to use everything that I had and that I was capable of just to tip that percentage — at once, 21 writers of color were published.

PM: Speaking of the contributor list, there are definitely some names I knew and some I wasn’t familiar with, You said you were very conscious about who you wanted to include, could you talk a little bit about that?

CB: Some of them were people I just enjoyed reading, or had learned from, like Evelina Galang and of course Kiese Laymon. Jennifer Hope Choi was editing and writing food essays here in Charleston, and we met at a happy hour here. Some of them I’d gone to workshops with or shared an editor with, like Natalia Sylvester, Devi Laskar. Some are professors I know taught at colleges where either I had spoken, or my husband might have gone to school, like Aruni Kashyap is at UGA. My husband was a grad student there almost a decade ago and I remember hearing such great things about their faculty. Other people are writers and editors for Southern-based publications I enjoy — like Osayi Endolyn was writing for Gravy. And Latria Graham, she reports a lot on the South, and Nichole Perkins I thought was great, and Regina Bradley, her connection to Southern hip-hop. Toni Jensen — my husband and I came across one of her essays on Catapult.

The writing community is a really generous community. A lot of us are really engaged online on social media, and I put out a call on Instagram. Kali Farjado Anstine, who wrote Sabrina & Corina — we met in Spartanburg maybe eight years ago, she was a writer in residence at Hub City, and I was finishing my MFA at Congress College and she hosted a community event — and she saw this Instagram call. I said, “Hey, I’m looking for my POC writers who want to contribute to an anthology about the South,” and she introduced me to Ivelisse Rodriguez, who asked me, “Have you talked to this person? Have you talked to this person?”

It really was this amalgamation of things I liked, and writers I loved and places that I’ve lived in, and people that I love, love. Crystal Wilkinson and I did an event at the New York Times building two summers ago and have just kept in touch and she also recommended a few people. It was actually really fun. I would say it worked more seamlessly than what other anthology editors might report to you!

PM: There are several themes that go through the book, but one of them is very much this idea of movement. In your introduction you talk about arriving in the South from New York, and then you have Nichole Perkins going from the South to New York and you have Tiana Clark leaving and coming back. Then that piece of the South stays with you or that latches on to you. Is that something you were thinking about consciously or did that just kind of arise out the submissions?

CB: That arose on its own. What I really just wanted — it was a really loose assignment, so to speak. I remember just asking essayists, “Hey do you have something already written, or can you write something about your sense of place here in this region?” And however they took that, they ran away with it. So some people took it as it’s a place that I’ve arrived at, or it’s a place left, or it’s a place I keep coming back to, or it’s a place family lives. For Natalia, it’s a sense of displacement. For Nichole and, I would say, Regina, it’s a place that never leaves you. It’s replicated elsewhere. Or people see this place in you wherever you go.

With that, it just reinforced the idea that places are not static. And places are not just structures. Places are not just negative space. Places breathe, places have memory. Places have intuition. Places have beat and pulse, and all those things are a type of movement. Even in Soniah Kamal’s essay — it’s called “Face” — place is her womb, and place is her heart, and place is that cemetery in the end. And then for her, her essay starts with, “Should I kiss his face?” Should I make this move? Should I give in to this action? Or should I not?

PM: The wonderful thing that can happen in these kinds of collections is that there are these self-contained pieces but they speak to each other in ways that people didn’t plan, and as the editor you get to see it as it’s happening. And everyone else gets to see it at the end. I felt like there’s a real feeling of continuity throughout the pieces even though they’re very different from each other, and that’s the mark of a really good collection. I think the book is engaging with visibility, right? Like, who do we think of as Southern, how do we make that picture bigger and more inclusive. And there’s this other conversation going on in the broader culture that visibility in itself is not the ultimate goal. How do you see those things speaking to each other and working together?

CB: I think the opposite of visibility — I’m hesitant to say invisibility, because that makes it sounds so natural. The opposite of visibility is erasure. And what I hope Meg Reid and Kate McMullen and Betsy Teter and I have done here is undo that erasure. Or at least a part of it. And the stories that were selected for this anthology go beyond just visibility because the stories are so nuanced, and each voice is so nuanced. There’s not a single writer here that writes like someone else in the collection. I feel like we’ve already done the work of the census, you know? [laughs] I just saw an ad from someone who works for the Census Bureau saying, “I really really need you all to take this survey. This survey dictates X, Y, Z.” And I hope that these life experiences here show that yeah, these are the lives you touch and change without ever knowing or without ever meaning to.

I hope that the fact that this is even coming out this year — in the midst of all that’s going on, right before the election — I hope it shows these are the people that you’re voting with. These are the people you live with that you might not know you live with. These are the people that teach you at your school that maybe you have neglected to see. Or whose erasure you might have found negligible or that you’ve accepted. I think every essay here truly is unforgettable, and hopefully these scenes and these voices and these experiences will live in people enough that it activates them to do X, Y, Z.


This is part of our Southern Festival of Books preview series. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks, and don’t forget to check out the festival schedule!