[Two Lines Press; 2023]
Tr. from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
At the opening of Cross-Stitch, the novel’s narrator Mila finds out that her childhood friend Citlali has drowned. Mila, now a mother and the author of a book on the feminine history of needlework, revisits old notebooks to remember the adolescence that she shared with Citlali and their other close friend, Dalia. What follows is a quilt of language—distinct fragments stitched together to form a multiplicitous whole—that juxtaposes teenage memories, adult grief, and researched explorations of sewing and embroidery.
Cross-Stitch is Jazmina Barrera’s first work of fiction, but her third book to be published by Two Lines Press in Christina MacSweeney’s translation to English. The 2020 essay collection On Lighthouses blended a writer’s memoir with travelogue and literary historical investigation; the 2022 Linea Nigra (subtitled An Essay On Pregnancy and Earthquakes) was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography. Both books established Barrera as a dexterous writer of nonfiction with a talent for making perceptive connections between her topic and a wide range of literary, artistic, and historical references.
Everything there is to admire in Barrera’s essays can be found, slightly transformed, in this first novel. It’s easy to imagine that Mila’s book on needlecraft is one that Barrera might have written—and it’s possible, too, to imagine that pieces of that book found their way into this novel, with its recurring vignettes that deliver histories and reconsiderations of the needle and thread. These interpolations don’t interrupt the book’s more straightforward storytelling, however, because embroidery is more than just its narrator’s academic interest—it’s also the pastime shared by its three central characters, the one commonality that doesn’t find itself up for renegotiation as Mila, Citlali, and Dalia weather the transition from adolescence to young adulthood: “We were always sewing,” Mila recalls, “sewing together.”
Though those observing the girls from the outside “started to refer to us using the same adjectives” and “to think of us as a single creature with two or three heads,” the three friends can easily perceive their differences in the ways they guide thread through fabric:
Citlali’s embroidery designs were very different from ours. We were obsessed with mimesis: For me, it was experimenting with different fonts for writing on clothes; for Dalia it was copying increasingly sophisticated patterns. Citlali used patterns to form an outline and then, without doing any preliminary sketch on the fabric, “drew,” employing different types of thread and stitches.
This characterization via embroidery styles—Citlali’s self-governing creativity and Dalia and Mila’s shared approach that splits into distinct interests—aligns with the characterization of the three throughout the novel. Many of the memories Cross-Stitch revisits are from a trip to Europe that Mila and Dalia, both nineteen years old, made from Mexico to visit Citlali, who was living in France at the time. Though Citlali is meant to meet them on the first leg of their trip—in London—she doesn’t come at the last moment, and Dalia and Mila are left to explore the city as a pair.
Since they first met in middle school, Dalia and Mila have grown to have much in common; they share friend groups, are both studying literature in college, and enjoy visiting art museums. But their similarities only make their differences stand out in high relief. At a historic cemetery, “Dalia headed straight for Proust’s tomb,” while Mila “went to Oscar Wilde’s,” acknowledging that “we could have visited the two graves together because they were quite close, but it was a kind of declaration of principals to make a choice between Proust and Wilde.” Dalia anxiously adheres to a planned itinerary; Mila wishes for more time to window shop and wander the city streets. The tension between the two is only an undercurrent, however: “Dalia and I never argued, and even though we sometimes felt very annoyed with one another, we never let it show. We’d unburden ourselves to Citlali and hope the feeling would pass; and it always did pass, quickly.” Fittingly, when Citlali joins them in Paris, the careful balance of their trio is restored.
Years later, Citlali’s physical absence is permanent, and Mila and Dalia—reunited by her death—must learn what their friendship is like without her sympathetic ear. When Mila sees Dalia for the first time in years, she still feels the edge of their teen friendship: “It’s remained there, intact, unchanged over all these years: the sense that she doesn’t love me as well as I deserve, the unfairness of me loving her so much more.” But now, they need each other more than ever—to help bear the weight of Citlali’s loss. “The memories we shared have been weighing on me because she’s no longer here to help me carry them all,” writes Mila.
The surviving friends say Citlali’s name “like a spell to conjure her up” and share the load of her memory. As they help each other stitch together the open wound of Citlali’s loss, it seems possible that they can heal their friendship, too. After all, needlework is reconstitutive—as destructive as it may seem to puncture a piece of torn fabric with a sharp needle, this is how mending begins. The healing power of a needle is reiterated throughout the novel; one short paragraph notes that “in a manual of home medicine there’s a description of the basic sutures used in minor surgery that sound very similar to embroidery stitches” and another explains that “in given situations, a severed body part can be sewn back on to the live flesh of its owner, or another’s body, and thus given a new lease on life.”
Mila’s attention to the history of sewing, from the “oldest known example of a surgical suture” to the works of the fiber artist and poet Cecilia Vicuña, is also a result of her two friends’ influence: “I wanted to write books that Citlali would enjoy and Dalia would approve of.” Her career as a writer—and earlier interest in embroidering words—reflects a greater connection stressed throughout the book, between written language and embroidery. “I learned to read and write at the same time as I learned how to cross-stitch,” Mila remembers; later, she writes of learning “that the words ‘text’ and ‘textile’ had the same root: the Latin texere, to weave, braid, or compose.”
Fragments scattered throughout the novel tell of women who used embroidery to share messages, whether to reassure loved ones of their well-being (prisoners in World War II camps), call for help after being silenced (Ovid’s Philomela), or protest political injustice (activists denouncing the violence of the Pinochet dictatorship). When Mila, Citlali, and Dalia pore over a stitch sampler signed with the name Encarnación Castellanos, they “invented stories about her life: that she’d been a contemporary of Sor Juana Inés,” the great seventeenth-century poet-nun of colonial Mexico, or “that she was the great-great-grandmother of Rosario Castellanos,” the trail-blazing Mexican feminist writer of the twentieth century.
It is significant that all these intertextual examples and role models are women: In accordance with its long history, embroidery is portrayed throughout Cross-Stitch as an inherited, collaborative, and, above all, feminine practice. After a paragraph-long quotation from the critic Margo Glantz, who “proposes that modernity begins with the needle,” Mila considers the task of needlework and its now-established correlate:
Transcribing Margo’s words is almost like embroidering, copying a design.
In embroidery, the designs and stitches are reproduced, shared, given as gifts, and taught. There are some still in use today that can be traced back to Ancient Egypt. Having been relegated to the category of a “handicraft,” embroidery was saved from the absurd notion of originality that dominates the masculine canon of Western art. The same process can be seen in much literature written by women; we borrow the words of other women to help us express ourselves, or for the sheer pleasure of sharing, repeating, savoring them. We do this without fear or shame, delighting in those words.
As one reads these words, translated from their original Spanish form, “the absurd notion of originality” catches the eye. The myth of the single author(ity) has long plagued literary translations and their reception, so to consider a book like this—full of shared and borrowed words—as the result of its being “saved” from this “absurd notion” is a relief, a “sheer pleasure” that gives free rein to the talents of its translator, the ever-creative Christina MacSweeney. Freed of the autographic compulsion, the texts and textiles Barrera lays out before us take full advantage of the many skills and perspectives of their many handlers.
Cecilia Weddell translates from Spanish to English. She has a PhD from the Boston University Editorial Institute and is an associate editor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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