JULY 2, 2022
“THE PLACE OF women,” according to Mexico beliefs, is in the west, the evening sky. Mothers who died during childbirth were revered as “a mochihuaquetzea courageous woman, or a cihuateteo, a divine woman.” Their body parts were coveted by warriors, carried into battle offering strength, offering life. In her new book, Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and EarthquakesJazmina Barrera offers a beautiful homage to the bodies of mothers and the corporeal conversations that have been carried on for millennia.
An ancient Greek monster of multifarious body parts, the chimera is in utero a baby of matrilineal fetal cells. Cells from the mother and even the grandmother form the baby’s substrate. A compendium of observations about other writers, Barrera’s book (beautifully translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney) is in many ways a multi-mothered collaboration. While breastfeeding her son Silvestre, she reads works by Rivka Galchen, Isabel Zapata, Ursula K. Le Guin, Whitney Chadwick, Margaret Atwood, Jenny Offill, even Dostoyevsky and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Each author passes on their genes at Barrera’s invitation. “This is a microchimeric book,” she says. But its monstrousness is a face that more than a mother can love — including a not-yet mother, like me.
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015), a genre-bending scholarly-study-cum-critical-memoir, taught us what being a queer mom can look like from the inside. Though tightly wound up with numerous cultural theorists, the book still broke with academic convention in its complexity and monolithic intensity. Barrera’s essay offers a similar exploration of the body, in all its ambulation, but delivered in a gentler package, one with less autotheory and more auto-connection. It’s an orphic connection with the body and a lineage of feminist artists, among them Barrera’s own mother, whose many paintings, held in a vault belonging to her patron and collector, were destroyed in the 2017 Mexico City earthquake.
Luz and Conchita Jiménez, the indigenous mother and daughter made famous by Diego Rivera’s paintings and Tina Modotti’s photographs, are one of Barrera’s many looking glasses — scaffolded by generations of artists who eternalized Jiménez through paint, film, her own translations, and beyond. With this exquisite book, Barrera joins this legacy. Modotti, afflicted by a uterine condition and unable to have children, photographed mothers and their nursing babies, excluding their faces, something Barrera supposes reveals the artist’s interest in “body language, the physical contact, the strength, ease, and assurance, the tenderness and the weariness in the physical bond between mother […] and child.” Modotti privileges motherhood as an ongoing epilogue to pregnancy, rather than the product of it. Likewise for Barrera, “[b]restfeeding is an act of faith.”
I don’t have children, though I’d like to, and Barrera helps me feel equally mother-possible because she imagined herself as one well before the moment arrived. “I wish I’d been born from myself,” Barrera as a child had told her own mother, who recorded it in her journal. There’s something sublime about simultaneous childhood and motherhood, a kind of lineage without the line, just a series of timeless points. The duality of impending motherhood — the doubleness of pregnant daughter/nearly mother — culminates in Barrera’s tracing of death after motherhood begins. Where once death might have been a finality, it now becomes a part of the genomic sequencing of an eternal motherhood. Its the inluctable act introduce of never not being a mother. In Linea Nigra, Barrera squares off with death, maybe for the first time, maybe for the rest of her life. Fifty years earlier, the uncle of Barrera’s aunt died tragically as a child, hit by a drunk driver — an event the author herself did not witness but whose fear she inherited through her aunt, her mother, perhaps even through women in her family she never met. Her great-grandmother, devastated after the loss of the child, had considered taking her own life but decided not to for the sake of the surviving younger sibling. This motherhood thing is eternal.
A baby’s first hour of life involves learning to connect with gravity, Barrera tells us, since “the uterus is an inner outer space, a contained universe.” That paradox — the way a body contains and expands space, the way birth is proximal to death — makes motherhood’s doubleness all the more infinite. Barrera quotes Rivka Galchen’s take on this duality: “[A] baby give[s] you a reason to live. But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die.” It’s perhaps another Nelsonesque binary transcended, where a transition collapses time and forces new meaning. Barrera, though, offers a reflection on always becoming that newness, which waxes eternal too.
This newness meets paradox in mercurial ways. Barrera admires the Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos, who described death as a playmate. In many Mexican nursery rhymes, death is given a face, a personality, Barrera observes. A mother-to-be must grow life and a mother-post-birth must prevent death. An ever-twofold process, where a playmate might be a more agreeable consort. Barrera wonders about Zadie Smith, who in an interview said, “my daughter is on the way in and I am unavoidably on the way out.” This art of childbearing and childrearing aligns the mother-child chronology in a cosmos of bodies that never stop meeting one another. Maybe it’s some kind of matrix, a flux of metaphysical and physiological gemini — birth and death — that administers an amaranthine ordering of things. Barrera guides the reader to the potentialities of these twins in her daily commutes, while she waits for her gynecologist, when she tells us about Mayan rituals practiced to avoid anguish during eclipses. A mother can’t recognize birth without the presence of this new company. Nelson agrees: “Nonetheless, you will have touched death along the way.”
The strength of Barrera’s approach is in her conception of motherhood as practice, never as achievement. It’s instantaneous in its onset and abiding in its duration. She describes the discrete elements of motherhood with the charms and aches of this process in mind: “Milk is an action rather than a substance,” she says. “A bond,” she goes on, “like electricity or magnetism.” She builds on Hélène Cixous’s concept of “white writing,” in which women write their psychology of self through the experiences of their own bodies. A mother’s creation, corporeal or textual, is nourished by the whitest of gold standards: breast milk. A milk that is produced by a mother’s body comprises its own kind of eternity, for as long as lactation is desired. What if something is never tangible but always conceivable? Barrera bestows possibility on existence, on childhood, and motherhood alike.
Linea Nigra closes with a curiously sweet bibliography entitled “breastfeeding resources,” which includes texts Barrera sought out while nursing, phone in one hand, son in the other. Many are felicitous, others are Faust. “Not all of them have to do with motherhood,” she says, “but I’m pretty certain they were all written by someone born of a woman.” Her motherhood is everywhere, all at once.
Stephanie Malak is a writer and editor working between scholarly texts and higher ed research. Currently she is a contributing editor at The Common and a developmental editor with Ideas on Fire. She lives in Brooklyn.