Lines, Lineage, and Light in Jazmina Barrera’s “Linea Nigra”
By Nichole LeFebvreMay 21, 2022
Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera
Reading Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra feels like walking a desire line. Linea Nigra isn’t constrained by the anticipated rise and fall of its plot: Barerra documents her first pregnancy, in all of its joy and terror, during the 2017 Puebla earthquake. Yet the path forward into first-time parenting is familiar, almost fated. I read breathlessly, feeling the magnetic pull of an author who allows deep thinking and a hunger for connection — with art, with the earth, with our mothers and our mother’s mothers — to guide the way.
The book-length essay takes its name from the linea nigra, or black line, that commonly appears on pregnant bellies due to an uptick in melatonin production. Though nearly 75 percent of women experience some indication of linea nigra, its purpose remains contested in Western medicine. In natural birth circles, the linea nigra is understood as a guiding path for newborns, who can only see in high contrast, as they instinctively crawl up the darkened, vertical line to find and suckle their mother’s breast.
First published in Spanish by Editorial Almadía in Barrera’s native Mexico, Linea Nigra is the author’s second book to appear in English, again published by (the aptly named) Two Lines Press. Like parenthood, a translated text is often a co-creation. Through Christina MacSweeney’s translation, Barrera’s prose is clear-eyed and poetic. As Barrera confronts the physical and emotional aspects of her pregnancy, she collects insights from artists and literature — “Books with advice, books written by psychoanalysts, novels, poems, or essays by pregnant women” — creating a text that’s part-memoir, part-commonplace book. She calls her friend Laura, who is a few weeks further along into pregnancy, her Virgil. Barrera, in turn, becomes the reader’s Virgil, investigating the link between artmaking and creating life itself.
A book is not a baby. A book does not breathe, think. But, like a baby, a book requires gestation, attention, and care. Barrera knows this is well-trod territory: “It’s impossible to be original when you write about being a mother.” Over the past five or six years, critics have noted — and, too soon, lamented — the rising popularity of literature on motherhood. Rather than apologize, Barrera revels in the overlaps between the book she is writing and those she is reading. Of Mary Shelley, who was pregnant while drafting Frankenstein, she writes: “It’s obvious but, for all the times I’ve read the novel, it never occurred to me before: Frankenstein is a story about the creation of life.” Frankenstein’s fear and horror is especially poignant when considering, as Barrera does, that Shelley, whose mother –– the feminist thinker and writer Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman –– died just days after giving birth to her, had previously suffered a miscarriage. Barrera learns of Wollstonecraft’s death while translating Rivka Galchen’s novel Little Labors into Spanish (a collaboration with her husband, the Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra). Later, she again hears the story of Wollstonecraft’s death while watching an Australian television show, suggesting the urgent universality of these retold stories, which echo across borders, languages, and time.
Literature about pregnancy and early parenthood is often written in short fragments, Barrera’s chosen mode for Linea Nigra. The late Lucille Clifton would often joke that her poems were so short because she had six kids. Other texts that share in this tradition include Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, a genre- and gender-blending narrative of queer family-making; Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, a nimble confrontation of anxiety, amnesia, birth, and death; Galchen’s witty Little Labors, which, in turn, was modeled on Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book (c. 1002). Krys Malcolm Belc, in his memoir The Natural Mother of the Child, pairs short reflections on his pregnancy with photographs and scanned documents. He expresses fear and frustration — the threat of violence, the binary language on government forms — alongside the daily joys and repetition of parenting small children. There are exceptions, certainly: Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s meditative A Ghost in the Throat opens with six fragments, introducing her refrain: “This is a female text,” and then expands into lengthier, echoing chapters. Rachel Cusk was lambasted by critics in 2002, who wondered how she had time to write the long, heady sentences in A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother. Of her book’s structure, Barrera explains she is “[w]riting while he sleeps. Reading while he feeds.” Form follows necessity.
Despite the minimalist form that the brain fog of pregnancy might necessitate, Barrera’s effect is expansive, foregrounding her identity as a person of color among predominantly white and middle-class narratives. In an early passage, Barrera discusses the ubiquitous pregnancy apps that compare the size of your fetus to ever-larger fruit, apps that do not account for “the many different sizes of mangos and avocados,” because, she writes: “None are made in Mexico.” Nor do they make space for subtle differentiations in language throughout Spanish-speaking Latin America, where “Mexican mandarins are the same size as Chilean oranges and Chilean mandarins are the size of Mexican limes.”
The imagery of indigenous culture that Barrera weaves through her essay is also hypnotic. She describes pre-Hispanic representations of pregnant Mexican women “carrying pots in their arms or on their heads,” and the way tamales stick to the inside of the pot, like “the child clinging to the womb.” Two black-and-white photographs of Nahua model Luz Jiménez breastfeeding her infant daughter bookend the essay. Barrera writes of taking up more space — physically, intellectually, and culturally — through her dialogue with art, literature, and her community of pregnant peers: “It was our moment for swelling the world. We were making people.”
I began writing this review the same day my IUD was removed. Ten years of copper repelling 10 years of sperm. As my doctor extracted it from my uterus, I felt a deep cramping, a minor birth. She then held up the IUD, so I could see that nothing was left inside of me, broken off and floating. Perhaps it’s standard practice, but I found this to be a generous act for a person like me, who would otherwise wonder. Barrera’s book is a likewise generous, openhearted project inviting readers to discover what is often hidden away, unseen. “When I think about what the world is like from the perspective of the uterus,” Barrera begins, in a curious, glorious sentence that places her back inside her mother’s womb, “I remember those paintings and the lessons [my mother] gave me on seeing in the dark.”
Barrera writes with a deep reverence for the matrilineal, for the body and mind that bore her. Barrera’s mother is an abstract painter who, over the years, taught her how to distinguish the colors and subtleties of her medium. Barerra describes one lesson on Rothko’s black-on-blacks:
She patiently taught me the technique for training one’s vision to see the black within the black: the opaque blacks, the brilliant blacks, the reddish, purplish, and almost gray blacks. Some years after her black series, during an art class I took as a teenager, I began to understand the expertise needed to distinguish, mix, and balance the various tones of black; the difficulty of painting them as she did, without visible brushwork, making those matte blacks absorbent, the black of emptiness.
But “seeing in the dark” takes on a different meaning when the 2017 earthquake strikes Puebla and Mexico City. Living through this devastating ruin — over 200 people died, many of her mother’s paintings were destroyed — Barrera finds a connection between pregnancy and the earth, understanding the reality of nature’s cycles of life and decay. She relates the earthquake to her own body after childbirth — the fear, the rupture, the scars: “From the neck down, my body is a disaster area: tears, stitches, seeping blood. […] It’s as if I’d exploded.” Barrera also questions the English phrase “to give birth,” which is passive and rather calm, conjuring “no sense of departure or splitting.” Whereas the Spanish word for childbirth, parto, comes from the verb partir, “to depart.” Barrera hopes to retain her linea nigra, a marker of before and after the “moment of splitting in two.”
A few years ago, I met a botanist and forester named Rose. We were talking in my then-office in the Oakland hills, on a school campus that had recently reopened after a series of wildfire smoke closures. Rose told me that forests know how to manage themselves, citing the Monterey pine, a tree indigenous to California and Baja California, Mexico, as an example. The Monterey pine procreates under duress. Their serotinous pinecones, glued shut with strong resin, only open in response to extreme heat.
The Bay Area, where I live, has often felt like it’s shouting at me to leave — wildfires that turn the sky orange, the ever-present threat of the Big One — and as my partner and I plan to start a family, I question how we can create and celebrate life throughout, and in spite of, this time of widespread environmental destruction. In Linea Nigra, Barrera veers toward optimism in the face of crushing darkness — a stance that I find refreshing and admirable. And, toward the book’s conclusion, she arrives at her true task as a parent: “He didn’t ask to be born: we asked him. It’s up to us, at least in the beginning, to make living worth the effort. To make it better than nothingness.” I keep coming back to the Monterey pine, offering hopeful solace, akin to Barrera’s earthquake, that life on earth is cyclical, regenerative. We walk the steps of those who came before us, be they artists, writers, mothers, or Monterey pines. Wildfires make way for the next generation.
Nichole LeFebvre is a writer and editor currently living in San Francisco.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Nathan Scott McNamara explores “Rabbit Island,” the new short story collection by Elvira Navarro and translated by Christina MacSweeney.
Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado reviews "On Lighthouses," the new essay collection by Jazmina Barrera translated by Christina MacSweeney.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!