[Two Lines Press; 2022]
Tr. from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
I gave birth to a healthy baby boy in July 2021, a year into a global pandemic, and while I knew that my world would change, I was not prepared for the cleaving in two that would start happening even while I was still pregnant. I believed that after a year of living in near total isolation holed up in a Brooklyn apartment with my husband and our dog, that nothing could shake me at this point. Dear reader, I was wrong. Nine months after my son was born, I sat alone in my living room while the rest of the house slept, and read Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy & Earthquakes in one sitting. Written in fragments starting from Barrera’s early pregnancy and going through her son’s infancy, it felt like reading the most thoughtful diary or commiserating with a very eloquent friend.
At the time of writing Linea Nigra, Barrera is living in Mexico City, a place that is no stranger to literal earth-shattering. It’s in this context that Barrera writes about becoming a mother. She writes:
In the street, on the narrow sidewalk by the underpass, we wait for the tremors to stop, but they don’t. They feel strong, but we can’t imagine, have no way of knowing the magnitude of the earthquake. A little later, we see the photographs and watch news bulletins showing the collapsed buildings with people still trapped inside. We’re beginning to understand just how serious it is.
Half the city is practically in ruins. There are still many people under the rubble. In the birth class, the women cry. They feel guilty for being afraid or sad. Repressing emotions is a crazy form of torture. People ask me if the baby is all right. Of course he’s all right, maybe just a little shaken.
Barrera is writing about the tragedy that befell her city but this passage can also stand in for what it feels to be on the precipice of bringing a new life into the world. One knows that something is coming and it feels strong but there’s no real way of knowing “just how serious it is.” When Barrera writes that in birthing class “the women feel guilty for being afraid or sad,” she’s writing about their fear from the earthquake fallout yet it’s also how one feels as childbirth approaches. I was miserable for the entirety of my pregnancy. My body morphed, my mind seemed to no longer completely belong to me. I felt sad and scared that I would never be me again. And I felt guilty for feeling these things. As for the baby? “Of course he’s all right, maybe just a little shaken.”
Throughout the book, Barrera provides an excellent syllabus of other artists and writers who have become mothers, including her own, who is diagnosed with cancer soon after Barrera gives birth to her son. Another earthquake type event, reckoning with the fear of losing one’s own mother just as she has become one herself. Barrera walks us through her own exploration of being a mother and being an artist—how have others managed it when it feels like the birth of a child is a cleaving of the self. One of the artists Barrera reflects on is the painter Marlene Dumas and her work Pregnant Image, a painting that she made based on several photographs of pregnant women, including one of herself. Barrera writes “. . . but it’s as if the head doesn’t belong to the body. That’s how I sometimes feel now; as if my head doesn’t belong on my body.” Barrera is talking about the way that the self begins to split before a baby is even born. I distinctly remember in my own pregnancy feeling like my head didn’t belong on my body. On a good day, my head was still my own, filled with my own aspirations and daydreams and motivations, but it was in stark contrast to the rest of my body which felt alien to me, round and heavy, my skin stretching and my belly bulging with kicks from my son as he responded to my world as heard in utero.
The fragmented nature of the essay evokes the days of pregnancy and caring for a newborn. Your brain is working hazily, piecing together thoughts when there’s time in between feedings. Reading only what promises not to further shatter your world (Barrera mentions frequently that she is unable to bear reading anything that involves infant or child death, always a sad subject, but unbearable once your own heart has been ripped from your body and formed into a little person). Writing is another difficulty. When can one write? When can one think? Barrera writes, “There’s no time, and I think those words are true in two senses: when you have a baby, there’s very little time, and when you have a baby time is annulled.” The fragments on the page show the reader what it is to try and create time in the newborn days. The longest fragments are a few pages but some are only a few lines, as if Barrera has managed to take a few moments in between what seems like the endless cycle of sleep, change, feed, repeat. Christina MacSweeney’s translation from the Spanish is reminiscent of poetry, capturing a dreamy ruminative mood.
Linea Nigra belongs among the few beautiful books that exist these days about motherhood and the self—one that should be added to your list with Rivka Galchen, Carmen Giménez Smith, Sheila Heti, Sarah Manguso and Kate Zambreno. I hope that one day there will be even more to join the stack.
Kaycie Hall is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn, NY by way of Jackson, MS. She is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Bennington College. Her work has appeared in Autofocus, Neutral Spaces and Triangle House Review among other places.
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