Conception is a dynamic process of bringing the self and the other into that most intimate proximity. If books about motherhood and pregnancy constitute a literary genre, then conception—and its conceptual location between sexual reproduction and artistic production—is this genre’s most frequent trope. For English-speaking readers, Rivka Galchen’s 2016 Little Labors and Sheila Heti’s 2018 Motherhood are the best-known books of the last decade which discuss artmaking and pregnancy together. As crucial as these books have been in igniting recent discussions about literary motherhood, they, like the process of conceiving life and art, did not emerge ex nihilo. This genre stretches back further, with Adrienne Rich’s 1976 Of Woman Born dismantling motherhood as a political institution and Mary Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein examining the fantasy of sparking life without woman. What binds all of these books together is not necessarily their authorship by women who either conceived or considered conceiving a child. It is, rather, their interrogation of cultural narratives which relegate women—especially mothers—to the feminine realm of reproduction, as opposed to the masculine, superior realm of production. According to the line of thinking these books testify against, both explicitly and by virtue of their existence, mothers making art is unnatural.
The latest addition to the literary genre of motherhood, and one calling for its cohesion and proliferation, Jazmina Barrera’s Linea Nigra takes maternal creativity to surprising and rewarding places. It is a book built of ruptures: of identity, time, body, art, and earth. What is motherhood, asks Barrera, if not a continuum of ruptures which transform desire into matter and one self into multiple selves? What is artmaking if not an analogous process, as the artist dispatches versions of herself into the world, through her artworks? Thanks to Christina MacSweeney’s deft translation from the Spanish, Linea Nigra expands the scope of Anglophone cultural conversations around motherhood and allows Barrera to stand alongside Galchen and Heti as the genre’s foremost thinkers in the 21st century.
Where Barrera diverges from her predecessors is in her visceral descriptions of childbearing as a form of writing and reading. The title foregrounds how ruptures of the mother’s body can spark new, and yet timeless, modes of storytelling. Linea nigra: a dark line bisecting the mother’s belly and directing the baby’s eyes up, towards the nipples. Linea nigra: the mother’s body writing a text for her child. By way of linea nigra—the book and the line—Barrera ultimately gestures towards the poetics of writing as a mother. The demands on the maternal body and the wonders it yields in the white-milk months inform this poetics. Not only can the baby read the embodied semiotics of the linea nigra, but the mother’s nipple can read the baby’s saliva for infections. This language beyond words leads Barrera to consider what embodied knowledge is transferred from mother to daughter and, in turn, from one literary generation to the next. In the honestly rendered birth and breastfeeding scenes grounding Barrera’s essay, conceiving and bearing a child is not merely an instinctual process: a text writing itself. It is the product of communal support: a text written by multiple bodies over generations. After describing how difficult breastfeeding has made it to even write that she has no time to write, the new mother notes: “I have the sensation that I gave birth to this child for them: my mother, my aunts, my grandmother. Like an offering. I had him for them and because of them; thanks to the unconditional love, security, and a sense of community they offer, I was brave enough to have a child.” This is Barrera’s poetics of writing as a mother, her expansive approach to articulating how life and art are conceived. We are made of each other’s arms and legs, love and security, thoughts and words—we are both entirely original creations and entirely unoriginal creations.
The structure of Barrera’s “essay on pregnancy and earthquakes” reflects this enmeshment, as she intersperses her own experiences of childbirth, breastfeeding, and weaning with the experiences of other mothers who write. In “short bursts” (Valeria Luiselli) of luscious prose which nonetheless “get[s] to the point” (Zadie Smith)—a marker of Barrera’s first book translated into English, about lighthouses—she writes a series of “brief illuminations” (Susan Griffin) which, in their accretion, resemble Ursula K. Le Guin’s manuscript-eating babies “spit[ting] out the wads of them that can be taped back together.” Unlike Le Guin, however, Barrera stays with the brokenness of the manuscript. She picks up the shards of her essay, shaken apart by the pregnancy and the earthquake and the mother with cancer, the nearness of life to death. Through this acceptance of brokenness, she reflects on motherhood as “beyond any notion of beginning” (Megan O’Rourke) and a “way of being inhabited by the other” (Jacqueline Rose). How, then, to tell a story which both exceeds the limits of linear narrative and its inky forms of writing, yet is composed of lines: the linea nigra, the gradual transformation of body and singular selfhood, the life stages bringing firsts and lasts? Barrera lets the story write itself, like the child in her womb, and she points to the ways she, too, has been written by the mothers who came before her.
If writing about motherhood is, as Barrera claims, destined to be unoriginal, she has nonetheless conceived a book which pushes cultural conversations about motherhood forward. She wants to create a rupture in literature about pregnancy and motherhood, new literary genres which coalesce into an emerging canon while countering its traditions in the same swift motion. Like Le Guin, and Hélène Cixous before her, Barrera wants writing in mother’s milk. Barrera’s version of Cixous’ “white writing” is that faint line which bisects a female’s body even before she becomes pregnant. The linea nigra is, on the one hand, the “elaborate metaphor” which Zadie Smith no longer has time for and, on the other hand, the very real substantiation of a female body writing. We are beyond thinking of production and reproduction as natural opposites. Just as the Spanish term for childbirth—parto, from partir (to depart)—suggests that each moment of arrival is also a moment of departure, of partition, each moment of not writing is also a moment of writing: the lines birth each other.
By Jazmina Barrera
Two Lines Press
Published May 03, 2022
Elizabeth McNeill is a writer and editor with a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. When not working with the Chicago Review of Books' amazing contributors as a Daily Editor, she writes about female creativity, embodiment, nature, and ghosts. You can find her book musings on Twitter @eamcneill.