Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera
translated by Christina MacSweeney
I’m finally here with a newsletter right before I take another longish break to — hopefully! — go to Rome for three weeks. My husband is teaching a class in food writing, and Cormac and I will accompany him. I say “hopefully” because I won’t believe I’m actually going to another country until I step foot in it. It feels like so many things could go wrong. But our plans are in place, and here’s hoping we make it.
A podcast update: our episode on Yuko Tsushima’s Woman Running in the Mountains is out (translated by Geraldine Harcourt). Frances, Dorian, and I discuss the book in depth and then chat about recent reading. We have already recorded our next episode on Abdulrazak’s Gravel Heart, with a lot of discussion on his novel The Last Gift as well. That episode will be out May 25th. Next up for June is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. Both Dorian and I have struggled with other Townsend Warner novels (Summer Will Show in my case), so it will be fun seeing what we make of this one. We discuss all our books in depth, so if you want to read with us and share your thoughts (on Twitter or at our website), please do!
Linea Nigra by Jazmina Barrera, translated by Christina MacSweeney
This meditation on pregnancy, breastfeeding, and early motherhood is written in fragments, or perhaps short, juxtaposed sections is a better way to describe them. It’s a kind of journal or diary, an in-the-moment record of what Barrera experienced, what she read, and what she thought about.
Barrera weaves her pregnancy and motherhood story with contemplations of art that depicts mothers and babies, and also with her own mother’s history as an artist and her experience in a bad earthquake that hit while she was pregnant and damaged the hospital she wanted to give birth in. As in many fragmented works, the themes that give the book unity emerge slowly: motherhood of course, but also the creative impulse, bodily transformation, natural disasters, the struggle to write, and the interconnectedness of humans.
So many of the stories she includes are about loss: years of her mother’s paintings were damaged in the earthquake, paintings that hardly anyone saw because she painted them for a patron who kept them for himself. She recovers some of them and makes something new out of the damage. Barrera is haunted by learning that the gynecologist she used made a major mistake that led to a baby’s death around the time she gave birth herself. During the course of the book she also learns of her mother’s ovarian cancer diagnosis. A sense of precarity underlies everything: pregnancy is dangerous, childbirth is dangerous, caring for an infant is terrifying — everything is terrifying.
And yet joy comes through as well: Barrera revels in the time with her infant, as exhausted and worried as she is. Her sense of family is strong: she is taking her place in a female lineage of creation, both artistic and biological, and even though her mother is ill and can’t help her care for her baby as much as she would like, it’s clear Barrera relies on her for comfort and support.
She also relies on and finds comfort in other people’s writing. I love how literary this book is. Barrera constantly evokes writings on pregnancy and childbirth by other women and also other books that aren’t about that subject directly but speak to her in some way about what she’s going through. Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors is a central text for her. We read about Shirley Jackson, Virginia Woolf, Mary Shelley, Adrienne Rich, Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti, Jacqueline Rose…so many writers make appearances here. Barrera helpfully collects authors and titles in the back of the book in a section called “Breastfeeding Resources,” meaning resources Barrera consulted while she was breastfeeding.
Some of these books she read all the way through and some she only dipped into; all of them she read on her phone or in very light physical copies she could hold with one hand while holding her baby with the other. Linea Nigra was written in a similar manner, using the notes app on her phone or in moments of time she could snatch while her husband or mother watched the baby. She describes trying again and again to make time for herself but caretaking eats into it: the baby won’t stop crying or needs another feeding, or she can’t contain her curiosity about what the baby is up to. Writing as a new mother requires resourcefulness and determination and also the willingness to do it in short bursts, to grab whatever time is available. Of course this book is written in short sections — how else could it come into being? Barrera is consciously entering the canon of motherhood literature, a (mostly) new canon that needs more and more entries:
I know of other female authors who are also writing about pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. More fragmented texts that quote from The Pillow Book. I love this new mode of writing and hope that it will become much more than a fashion. That there will be more of us. Many more. In my opinion, there will never be enough of us. I think of newspapers, lists, letters, herbals, textbooks, pregnancy journals and diaries, homemade cookbooks: all these forms of writing are, or can be, literature. The same thing is true of baby diaries. I want there to be more than enough of them, and for them to be good, bad, or indifferent books. I want a canon and a tradition. And also a rupture, counter-canon books. New literary genres.
This is the time we need this canon, right? A time when women’s status as anything more than baby-producers is threatened — and of course in some places it’s always been threatened. I love this call for women to write themselves more deeply into literature, women who want to be mothers and those who don’t or can’t, and nonbinary and trans people who want to live openly as who they are and decide if they do or don’t want to be parents. I agree with Barrera — more of this, please!
A final note: check out this conversation with Jazmina Barrera and Kate Zambreno — very worth a listen.
New small-press books out in the last couple months that I haven’t yet read and am adding to my TBR. All quotations below are from the publisher:
Never Did the Fire by Diamela Eltit, translated by Daniel Hahn, and Catching Fire: A Translation Diary by Daniel Hahn (Charco Press): These books come as a pair: a novel and then a diary by the translator about the translation process. I plan on reading both books and then listening to Season 17 of the Two Month Review, where the hosts are reading them together. I love this project!
Violets by Kyung-Sook Shin, translated by Anton Hur (Feminist Press): “Shin explores misogyny, erasure, and repressed desire, as [the protagonist] desperately searches for both autonomy and attachment in the unforgiving reality of contemporary Korean society.”
Revenge of the Scapegoat by Caren Beilin (Dorothy Project): “Caren Beilin offers a tale of familial trauma that is also a broadly inclusive skewering of academia, the medical industry, and the contemporary art scene.” I loved this interview David Naimon did with Caren Beilin on the Between the Covers podcast.
On Not Knowing: How to Love and Other Essays by Emily Ogden (University of Chicago Press): “Rather than the defensiveness of willful ignorance, On Not Knowing celebrates the defenselessness of not knowing yet--possibly of not knowing ever.”
The Trees Witness Everything by Victoria Chang (Copper Canyon Press): I loved Chang’s hybrid-genre book Dear Memory. In this new poetry collection, “best-selling poet Victoria Chang turns to compact Japanese waka, powerfully innovating on tradition while continuing her pursuit of one of life's hardest questions: how to let go.”
All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Europa Editions): “Fuyuko Irie is a freelance copy editor in her mid-thirties. Working and living alone in a city where it is not easy to form new relationships, she has little regular contact with anyone other than her editor.” I thought Kawakami’s novel Breasts and Eggs was great.
The Longcut by Emily Hall (Dalkey Archive Press): “The narrator of The Longcut is an artist who doesn’t know what her art is. As she gets lost on her way to a meeting in an art gallery, walking around in circles in a city she knows perfectly well, she finds herself endlessly sidetracked and distracted by the question of what her work is and how she’ll know it when she sees it.”
New on the TBR
I’ve acquired so many new books since I last sent a newsletter! Here is a very small sampling of them:
Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated by Tiffany Tsao (Tilted Axis Press, 2022): I bought this book and the next because it was longlisted for the Booker International Prize. “Playful, shape-shifting and emotionally charged, Happy Stories, Mostly is a collection of twelve stories that queer the norm.”
Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated by Daisy Rockwell (Tilted Axis Press, 2022): This one went on to be shortlisted for the Booker International Prize. “In northern India, an eighty-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life.”
Not to Read by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Meghan McDowell (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018): Fitzcarraldo nonfiction is the absolute best! “In Not to Read, Alejandro Zambra outlines his own particular theory of reading that also offers a kind of blurry self-portrait, or literary autobiography.”
Another Love Discourse by Edie Meidav (Terra Nova Press, 2022): A book about obsession with Roland Barthes! “Caught in the cross-currents of a fraught divorce and a new love, the death of her mother, and a global pandemic, a writer plunges into an obsession with the work of 1960s French philosopher Roland Barthes.”
Plans for Sentences by Renee Gladman (Wave Books, 2022): Gladman does such interesting work! “Gladman's book blurs the distinctions between text and image, recognizing that drawing can be a form of writing, and vice versa: a generative act in which the two practices not only inform each other but propel each other into futures.”
The Unwritten Book: An Investigation by Samantha Hunt (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022): “A genre-bending work of nonfiction, Samantha Hunt's The Unwritten Book explores ghosts, ghost stories, and haunting, in the broadest sense of each.”
The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness by Meghan O’Rourke (Riverhead Books, 2022): “Meghan O'Rourke delivers a revelatory investigation into this elusive category of ‘invisible’ illness that encompasses autoimmune diseases, post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome, and now long COVID, synthesizing the personal and the universal to help all of us through this new frontier.”
Green Girl by Kate Zambreno (Harper Perennial, 2014; originally published in 2011): If you know me, you know Zambreno is a favorite. I’m rereading this as part of a slow rereading of all her books.
Free Love by Tessa Hadley (Harper, 2022): My current audiobook. I listened to Hadley’s novel Late in the Day and loved it, so I was ready for another one. Her books are perfect for audio, I think: character-driven, with a plot but not one that’s too complex, good writing but not the kind that’s hard to follow while listening.
Between Friends: The Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy, 1949-1975 (Harcourt Brace, 1995): I’m reading this collection of letters slowly, maybe one or two a day and loving it. Arendt and McCarthy write about philosophy and literature and also gossip and relationships and mundane life. It’s great.
The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Harper Perennial, 2022): I’m reading this a part of a group read on Twitter. We’re reading it very slowly, aiming to finish up in June.
The Cormac Report
Based on Cormac’s reaction to Witches of Brooklyn and Witches of Brooklyn: What the Hex?!, graphic novels by Sophie Escabasse, I can highly recommend them! Rick came across the books somewhere online, probably on Twitter, and bought them on impulse, and Cormac devoured them. It looks like the third one comes out this September, and we will snatch it up.
As I plan for our trip to Rome, I’ve been thinking about what books I will bring, and also what books we will bring for Cormac. This is a problem! He likes to read around in this and that, which requires a big stack to choose from. And he loves graphic novels, which are bulky but quick to read. He doesn’t have any kind of e-reader. We will buy books on our travels, but that requires bringing the new books home. He’s just going to have to make some tough choices. As will I.
Have a good week everyone!