She talks to herself in the kitchen. Guilty, undoubtedly, your honor!
debt lawyer called be a good daughter
But yes, it is from him, or the loss of him, that we—my father, my mother, my older brother—continue to evolve and devolve. He, or the loss of him, is our inciting incident. Or at least one of them. The seed of cause from which all effect would spur. He hangs above the little lights of our votives, drops sap then topples and shatters the stones of the separate altars we keep trying to build. His premature death is the loss that manifests as longing, the desire we each chase but each in our different way. He is what we all want, but how we want—that’s each its own story within the story. Shared motivations, different goals. Or shared goals, different motivations. Is this not the work of drama? Is it also not the most revelatory aspect of being human—our reactions as opposed to our actions?
Right there, in my first memory and in the first chapter, his death unravels and reveals us—and then we meet ourselves again and again, at the turn of every page. He is not always named, but every line is his shadow, his soft but sustained coo. In my memoir, I may be the protagonist, but it is my baby brother who is the center. Centrifugal: invisible but forceful.
Like any force—wind, water, gravity—his death pushed and pulled, drove surrounding people and things to the edge, which is to say, to a choice. This is what I tell my writing students about organizing memoir: each family member, or character, when it is time for their supporting role or shining moment, must make a choice by the end of a passage, a scene, a section, or a chapter. We play our parts. We reveal who we are by the decisions we make. Papa left the house. Mama left her body. My older brother left our childhood before he was ready. Should we edit that most maddening of lines to “The unfathered, unmothered, and twice unbrothered woman lives in her mind”?
They left me. And—aha!—this too is the work of memoir: discovering a self that is awakened, stimulated, agitated by a particular place. This self also crystallizes (as in assumes a pattern or takes on form) in a particular time. My baby brother may be the cause and center, but what his death triggered and what centered around him happened to me. Above, I say, “My father left me for good at the top of our staircase.” He, the center. I, the circumference—the string that lassos it all in, shapes it into story, gives it the contours of literary convention and unconvention, draws the borders that defined our oft-noxious biome. If it happened to me, it went in the book. My brothers are my brothers, my mother is my mother, my father is my father. I am Monsoon Mansion. Or at least while I was writing that book. I made choices. Writing is decision-making. And memoir, too, is the self rousing and crystallizing place and time. Things not only happen to us; we happen.
But not everything that happened or happened to me actually went in the story. This is where interviewing my family—including myself—came in. This is when I had to negotiate with that woman stuck in her mind: It’s important because it happened to you. But it only goes in the book if it answers the central question we’re trying to answer.
Things not only happen to us; we happen.
This, too, is something I teach writing students. I tell them, as I’ve learned in journalism school and from reporting for an NGO, it’s best to ask all subjects the same open-ended question and to listen hard for their divergent answers. I asked us all—my older brother, my father, my now-estranged mother, myself—the same question: What does it mean to you to fix the past? Some of us heard fix, some past. But we all definitely heard you. Even our answers betrayed each other. Say it with me: competing character motivations.
Beyond the ecosystem that was our family was the even-larger ecosystem that were persons who entered our house, our lives. These people were my parents’ employees, my nanny, our laundrywoman and her children, my mother’s lover, my father’s business partners. Each of them had their own lives to lead and stories to tell; I wrote scenes in which interactions displayed our class dynamics to acknowledge our subject positions in relation to each other, and to demonstrate our disintegrating family unit, to unmask my parents’ long-held, decaying values. These people were each interleaved into the plot (as in plan of story) and a plot (as in a measured piece of planted ground) to mirror our fractures, or dead branches, and expose our so-called betrayals of each other. For example, upon news of the baby’s death, as written in the memoir’s first chapter, I turned to my nanny—and not my Mama—and buried my face in her stomach to muffle my cries. This was, at age three, a choice I made. And it was the earliest of choices to reveal a lifelong rift, severance really, between my mother and me.
And with regards to rifts, within the ecosystem that was our family were mini ecosystems, microbiomes: duos, trios. Intimate partnerships that nurtured or threatened one or some parts of whoever was involved. With my older brother, I was annoying and sassy because I felt the safest. With Papa, I was darling, seen, bigger than anything in the room, but never heard. With Mama, I was like one of her many accessories—a tortoise-shell bangle or a diamond-encrusted belt buckle. I was, at my expense, to make her shine. And what were they to me? I guess you’ll have to read the book to find out. When I am my only company, like right now, I can be clever like that. See? Duos, trios. Sometimes the other person in the room is also me. My own self as my own literary foil.
And with my baby brother, whose ghost I grew up with, who, as we say in the language of our family, was the mind I lived in, the consciousness that continued to form, I may have been my kindest, most responsible self. Crucial to coming-of-age memoir is not merely a sense of being but a sense of becoming. With him, I became an older sister, courageous because she needed to be, caring because there was someone else to care for. The “I” of the story matured.
After I built the world of my familial ecosystem, I had to show this world to someone. Tell it to someone. This someone, standing in for the reader, needed to be told what the remembered, recreated world was about. I chose this: to be the older sister talking to the omnipresence of a dead baby brother. By this way and by this choice, I introduced our world to the reader. For such a little guy, my sweet baby brother played so many roles. I’m glad he liked my jokes.
With him, I was playful. Still am. And, lordhavemercy, family stories of trauma are particularly in need of light and levity. And that might be one of the best things my baby brother has ever given me in this air we share. Cluck, smile, play. In life and on the page. If memoir is about remembering, consider the word: re-membering—an unsevering, a suturing together of delight and despair.
And maybe, if you bring these all together, you’ll live in the now. You’ll say hello to your plates and cups and the saltshaker, and, while it’s tempting to live in your head and to only make friends with inanimate objects that might never actually hurt or betray you, you’ll step outside of your mind, your studio, once in a while . . . and actively participate in the making of a new environment, a new earth or a personal heaven that may not quite fix the past but that makes you possible. And that is, in essence, what family or coming-of-age memoir might be: the now and the then saying, You are here.
Cinelle is a formerly undocumented memoirist, essayist & educator from the Philippines, and is the author of MONSOON MANSION: A MEMOIR and MALAYA: ESSAYS ON FREEDOM, and the editor of the New York Times New & Noteworthy book A MEASURE OF BELONGING: 21 WRITERS OF COLOR ON THE NEW AMERICAN SOUTH. She has an MFA from Converse College. Her writing has appeared or been featured in the NYT, Longreads, Electric Literature, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, Hyphen & CNN Philippines, among others. Her work is anthologized in A MAP IS ONLY ONE STORY. She’s a contributing editor, instructor & writer at Catapult.