Motherhood is an Earthquake

Review of Linea Nigra

by Helen Zuckerman


Linea Nigra is an act of will, of love, and of artistic determination.


Linea Nigra: An Essay on Motherhood & Earthquakes by Jazmina Barrera, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, Two Lines Press, 184 pages, May 2022, $21.95, ISBN: 978-1-949641-30-1


In 1962, the Guatemalan poet Alaíde Foppa published a poem written to her son entitled “Who Are You?” She addresses him as “unexpected,” and wonders how he will ever make it to “this enemy world” if even she doesn’t recognize him. She asks his forgiveness, describing herself as tired and her heart as “an open, bleeding pomegranate,” punning on the word “granada” which in Spanish can signify both the fruit and a hand grenade. “You’ll have to help me meet you,” she writes, “and it must be your life, so vigorous and strong, which cheerfully devours mine, while I, distant from myself and distracted, scarcely regret it.”[1] Jazmina Barrera’s newest book, Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes, expertly translated by Christina MacSweeney, is itself somewhere between the delight of a fresh fruit and the detonation of a bomb, and I have tried and failed to review it objectively. I read it in a day, just weeks past my 32nd birthday, while in Guatemala for a Spanish course, in translation, with reproductive rights at home being burned to the ground as I read, on Mother’s Day. When I was done, I didn’t know whether to call my mother, my partner, or the primordial gods. 

Linea Nigra is dedicated but not addressed to Barrera’s newborn son. By the end, Barrera declares that it’s directly addressed to the literature of motherhood, and is a small but weighty entry into that slow-growing canon. Barrera calls it a “microchimeric book” (167), describing her essay with the scientific term for the presence of one person’s cells in another person entirely, a transference which occurs during pregnancy and even during breastfeeding, sometimes leading to the cells of a grandmother existing in the body of their grandchild. Fragmentary in form, alternating personal reflections and intimate physical descriptions with quotations, references, and abstractions on the experience of motherhood from a very personal pantheon of Barrera’s chosen women writers and artists, it is an apt description. Instead of the “pregnancy diary” recommended by all the parenting books Barrera reads, she has created a pregnancy commonplace book, that lost art of collaging the written and visual world around you into an entirely idiosyncratic personal work of art.

Linea Nigra is an act of will, of love, and of artistic determination. Barrera resists not just the pregnancy diary but all temptations of more predictable forms for her book—she declares at the outset that she wants to write this book as an essay, and she does. She asserts her intentions as an artist, and innovates a form that flourishes under the restrictions and opportunities of her new routines as a parent. “Like it or not, pregnancy has a plot, a story” (43), and yet the book is chronological only in the vaguest sense—it begins with a pregnant woman and ends when she is a new mother—and is mostly dominated by Barrera’s grappling with some of the essential dualities that define her changed life. The center of the earth and the weightless universe of space; the mother and the child; life and death; husbands and wives, turning into mothers and fathers. Most importantly, with the excruciating dynamic between women’s artistic work as being necessary for life, and the giving of life as threatened decimation of women’s artistic work. This paradox is, of course, like most paradoxes about whatever womanhood is, a false flag. “Motherhood is an earthquake” (47), she writes; an elemental force of nature and an intimate personal transformation all at once.

From the outset, Barrera understands pregnancy as an experience that defies linear time (despite the book’s linear title). She begins with vivid reminiscences of her mother, who is a painter, and her mother’s emphasis on art in the young Jazmina’s early education. She recalls the feeling of being guided through a Rothko exhibit as a child; remembering the black-on-black of Rothko’s paintings makes the adult Barrera reflect on “what the world is like from the perspective of the uterus,” and “the lessons [her mother] gave on seeing in the dark” (10). Maternal guidance is contrasted with her memories of being kept in the dark about the grimmer realities of pregnancy by the older women in her life, particularly her grandmother who often acted as an unofficial midwife for neighbors and relatives in her close-knit Mexico City community. Barrera then jumps forward to present discussions of baby names and physical symptoms like seasickness, then jumps further to the terrible threat to the future manifested by the domestic arrangements of a desk in the nursery—“Where are we going to write?”(12) she and her husband, the writer Alejandro Zambra, ponder somewhat desperately. All these times intermingle with each other—even past, present, and future are no longer discrete categories for a pregnant person.

On the subject of names, Barrera reflects that her mother “told me that if I’d been a boy, she’d have called me Silvestre…I used to imagine what my life would have been like if I’d been a man and named Silvestre…I thought that Silvestre would have been braver, less controlling, more cheerful than Jazmina” (17). Silvestre means “wild,” like wildflowers or jungle cats, and derives from the Latin “silvestris,” pertaining to woods and forests. She and Zambra like the name immediately and choose it for their own child, an as-yet-unknown person who she dreams of as a little boy in overalls inside her who doesn’t look at all like her or Alejandro. Sick as hell in the early months of her pregnancy, she spares a joke, laden with compassion, for Alejandro, who quit smoking when they found out she was pregnant—despite all the transformation and discomfort and the use of her body, “he has come off worse” (27), she muses wryly and tenderly. “How difficult it is for a man, who will never experience pregnancy, to imagine that state. How difficult it will be for the man in the process of construction inside me to ever understand it” (32), she continues. But mothers and fathers are not discrete categories any more than time is, really, and a few pages—and a few months of pregnancy—later, she reflects on “I envy…men’s power to be part of it all without actually having to go through the experience, to be bystanders and witnesses without becoming mutants” (58).

She grapples with the different roles played by mothers and fathers of a future-and-present child, but the chorus to whom Barrera turns for lived and artistic experience is mostly made up of women. Her own mother and grandmother figure prominently in her present and her reminiscences, and even as she decries an evident lack of famous “motherhood” art, she draws on a surprisingly rich canon of predecessors. Frida Kahlo, Sylvia Plath, Ursula K. Le Guin, Virginia Woolf, Tina Modotti, Marie Darrieussecq, Rachel Cusk, and Rivka Galchen all contribute to the framework of her essay, offering different opportunities to consider how to be an artist and a mother. She describes a friend, just a few months ahead of her in her own pregnancy, as “[her] Virgil—I urgently need a Virgil” (35). So yes, pregnancy may be a descent into hell, into the depths, but Barrera is turning a joke into a claim to a masculinized literary tradition of journeys, and a claim to a narrator’s poetic expression of those journeys. In their very different ways and media, the women in the artist’s pantheon she draws on all did the same. In particular, one essay of Le Guin’s, published in the New York Times in 1989 entitled “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle Writes the Book,” becomes “the most important thing [she’s] read” (163) during her pregnancy. More on that extraordinary essay later.            

In the second half of the book, she gives birth to a healthy boy, baby Silvestre. The section before his birth is mostly one long digression describing someone else’s memory: her mother’s, of the loss of years of her paintings in the destruction of September 11, 2001 in New York. This seemingly disconnected musing comes in the timeline of the last weeks of pregnancy, the last weeks before birth—calamity, loss of labor, loss of creations, haunts the air. An inescapable feeling of foreshadowing haunts the book, and as a reader you quickly push past the bewildering distance Barrera has suddenly shoved between herself and you. Mothers and their labor, both artistic and obstetric, are the subject of the essay, and Barrera gives you this glimpse into both her state of mind before giving birth and the more universal experience of losing something that you have made and cherished to the calamitous randomness of the world outside you. Motherhood is an earthquake, after all.

Birth, when she comes to it, “was like walking in the dark and hurt like hell” (78). “They say that you forget the pain of childbirth, and I have already forgotten it, but … I remember those words related to that pain” (83). The words themselves are an assertion of reality, of the truth of an experience that her embodied memories have already denied, and an assertion of the primal importance of words for her as a writer, even when they must be “found from some unknown source” (83), almost in spite of herself. She remembers the mystifying scene in Woolf’s Orlando, when the protagonist, who changes gender in many ways over the course of the book, leans out of the window and observes the world around them as it changes centuries and settings and then “(here the barrel-organ stops playing abruptly) … ‘It’s a very fine boy, M’Lady,’ said Mrs Banting, the midwife, putting her first-born child into Orlando’s arms. In other words Orlando was safely delivered of a son.”[2] The obscurity and the exquisite detachment of Woolf’s passage preceding childbirth sounds like an echo of Barrera’s own preceding chapter. This book may have soft and curious skin, but its spine is pure steel, and as disconnected and immediate as each fragment feels, close reading reveals the meticulous skill of an artist in complete control of her work. She writes that what she actually remembers from the birth are “events punctuated by a series of blank screens” (83), breaks in the visual narrative that are mirrored by the very structure of the book.

Barrera’s first book, On Lighthouses, also translated by Christina MacSweeney, had a similar structure. Living alone and lonely in New York, a younger Jazmina meditates on isolation and connection by seeking out lighthouses around the world as the perfect material manifestation of an isolated existence that nonetheless is a monument to interdependence; lighthouses stand alone but they are built to keep ships off the rocks. In that first book, she sought to make a connected, linear narrative out of dissociated objects and places and events, her disconnected postcards tenuously strung together. But Linea Nigra is far more sophisticated, and more subtle; in this second book, she separates out a linear narrative—pregnancy to motherhood—into dissociated scenes and moments. The Jazmina who narrates Linea Nigra is much more vital and visceral and focused than the alienated observer of On Lighthouses, an artist who has found her form and narrative and matched them together perfectly. “It’s impossible to be original when you write about being a mother” (100), she says, and yet she’s done it, through her use of form and through her own specificity. I recognize myself, a non-mother, so intimately in some of what she writes that the recognition is eerie. Perhaps it’s impossible to be original when writing, and the recognition of readers in the works of writers is essential. She recognizes herself too in a pantheon of women writers and artists, and yet, in this book, is triumphantly original and all the more particular in the reach for her own mother, and her own pantheon.

There is a falloff in tension in the book after the birth of her son—the strange suspense and mystery which powered the first half dissipates into the monotony, the exhaustion, of life with a newborn, and into the specificity of her love for her child in the aftermath. Then, just when you’re beginning to feel some fatigue yourself, enter Luz Jimenez, “the woman with long braids, large breasts, strong arms, and wide shoulders,” seen a thousand times without any specific recognition of her personhood, besides her maternity and her archetypal indigeneity, used in the art of so many famous Mexican modernists. Two photographs of Jimenez breastfeeding her newborn daughter are used as endpapers for Linea Nigra, and Barrera only reveals this context at the midpoint of the book, when she has mastitis from breastfeeding her own son. The pictures are by Tina Modotti, and Barrera is moved by the intimacy of them. “There’s a long, long list of adjectives that can be used to describe breastfeeding,” she says. “Painful, delicious, exhausting, invigorating, awful, strange, and marvelous. Modotti captures all that in her photograph” (98). Barrera doesn’t know whether Modotti’s own gaze is “rooted in yearning or relief, but there is definitely curiosity there” (123), a curiosity reciprocated by Barrera’s interest in both of these women, artist and model. Jimenez was used generally as an archetype for the great narrative of Mexican nationalism in the early 20th century, but through Modotti’s photos and her own research, Barrera illuminates the individual in the artwork, returning to Jimenez many times in the second half of the book. Visiting a museum to do archival research about Luz Jimenez, she is thwarted by a loudly upset Silvestre’s hunger and discomfort, and by the uncompromising and judgmental limitations placed on her and his presence by the institution—no strollers allowed, and where will she breastfeed? Her own work as a writer entangles with her work as a mother. Later, Jazmina and Alejandro are awoken by an earthquake in Mexico City; they run out into the cold street, panicked, but Silvestre sleeps through the whole thing. “Normal” life, the author’s working life, is made excruciatingly difficult by the baby and by the institutional treatment of motherhood; yet calamity and crisis are slept straight through.

Drawn always to these kinds of dualities, the juxtaposition of intimacy and enormity gives the book much of its poignancy and most of its humor. Tiny, evocative details that emphasize absurdity—and vulnerability—like when a nurse at the gynecologist’s office asks her to “strip from the waist down, except for my socks, and sit in the exam chair” (106). What an excruciatingly relatable physical description, delicate but undeniable. Or when she describes the extraordinary, glorious magic of breastmilk and saliva which allows mothers and infants to communicate their needs and offer solutions on a molecular level, followed by a fragment that reads simply, “Today I forgot breakfast” (94). And just when readers are reassured that Silvestre is born and healthy, that Jazmina is working on her art again, that Silvestre can sleep through an earthquake, a masterclass in micro suspense and body horror comes to finish the chapter and blast the reader back into full alertness. Right at the end of the slow, slightly anticlimactic section after birth, three short paragraphs spread out over a day reveal that Barrera’s mother has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “Babies need happy parents” (121), she quotes, and suddenly all the generic parenting book advice crashes up against the realities of what parenting can be, what life is.

“There is no time in the realm of the mothers” (149), she repeats often, a Mexican indigenous cosmovision and a new-parent mantra. But by this point in the book, and in her motherhood, she and the book itself both have a relationship to time again, as they did at the beginning. Past, present, and future may bleed into and out of each other, but once again, they exist—contrasted with the time-nullifying present immediately after birth. Now she exists again in “verbal tenses and moods,” in approaching deadlines, in lingering and looming fears for Silvestre. “I fear Silvestre suffering in every verbal tense and mood” (125). This is almost a little bit cutesy, but again, Barrera the author asserts language itself as a means of control, of connection to reality, of imagining and naming what is or was or could have been possible—and demonstrates the subtle awareness at the same moment of its insufficiency. While she struggles to make headway on other projects, she finds that “this book writes itself. I write it but it writes itself, like Silvestre in my womb” (146). The most difficult thing to write about, she feels, is “the happiness,” the thousand moments of joy in her new child, in her husband as a new father and a partner. I’ll admit to wishing she had managed to get a few more of those moments into the book with the same crystalline precision as the agonies and dualities, but some things are private and perhaps too personal to be made recognizable to readers.

The book ends with extensive quotations from that breathtaking Le Guin essay of 1989, and sometimes the lines blur and you could mistake Le Guin’s words for Barrera’s own. “Babies eat manuscripts,” writes Le Guin. “The poem not written because the baby cried, the novel put aside because of a pregnancy, and so on. Babies eat books. But they spit out wads of them that can be taped back together; and they are only babies for a couple of years, while writers live for decades; and it is terrible, but not very terrible. And that’s part of the point too—that the supreme value of art depends on other equally supreme values … Nobody lives in a great isolation, nobody sacrifices human claims, nobody even scolds the baby. Nobody is going to put their head, or anybody else’s head, into an oven: not the mother, not the writer, not the daughter—these three and one who, being women, do not separate creation and destruction into I create/You are destroyed, or vice versa. Who are responsible, take responsibility, for both the baby and the book” (Le Guin, NYTimes).

Earlier in the book Barrera ponders whose childbirth it really was, hers or her son’s. Whose book is it, then? Silvestre’s maybe, eaten and then spit out to be taped back together? Jazmina’s certainly, who has taken responsibility for book and baby. “Our childbirth” (81), she declares, resolving the duality by acknowledging it, celebrating it, and naming it.


NOTES:

[1] Translation is my own. I read it shortly after finishing Linea Nigra, and it is widely available to read in Spanish online. It can also be found in the ebook Alaide Foppa, edited by Elisa Díaz Castelo and published in February 2021 by UNAM, Dirección General de Publicaciones y Fomento Editorial.

[2] Woolf, 129.


WORKS CITED:

Barrera, Jazmina. Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes. (Christina MacSweeney, Trans.). Two Lines Press, 2022.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Writes the Book.” The New York Times, January 22, 1989, Section 7, p. 1.

Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Signet Classics, 1969


Helen Zuckerman is an independent scholar from Philadelphia. A graduate of the American University of Beirut and Kenyon College, she translates from French and is currently working on the autobiography of a Paris Commune survivor. 


Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, June 21, 2022


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