I’m not a fan of generalisations, but when it comes to writing about pregnancy and childrearing in the anglophone world, texts tend to fall into one of two camps. There are the saccharine, prescriptive tomes typified historically by works such as Emma’s Diary, a fictional account of one woman’s pregnancy that used to be given to expectant mothers in the UK to help share information and encourage best practice. Then there are the furious polemics and tongue-in-cheek swipes at the status quo. Books in this category include works such as Naomi Wolf’s Misconceptions, Emily Oster’s Expecting Better and Katie Kirby’s Hurrah for Gin.
Although exceptions exist – one of my favourites being Rivka Galchen’s brilliant and moving Little Labours – and although many of these other books contain valuable material, the vast majority of works written in English carry a clear message: parenting is a fraught business, and parents, especially mothers, become infantilised in the process, whether they are diligently following instructions or stamping their feet and running amok in the face of authority figures.
Thankfully, beyond the anglosphere, things are a little different. For all that many birth-related books written in English carry illuminating and necessary information, during my pregnancies, I found literature in translation frequently offered me the most interesting perspectives on the subject. My favourite is my latest Book of the month: Christina MacSweeney’s translation of Linea Nigra by Mexican writer Jazmina Barrera.
The summary given in the publisher’s information bills the book as ‘personal essays about pregnancy interwoven with references to pregnancy in art and literature’. Don’t let this put you off: Linea Nigra is far more fascinating and accessible than this makes it sound. Indeed, although the book is grouped into four sections that might be termed ‘essays’, the structure is far freer than the elevator pitch implies.
Instead, much like Galchen (who warmly endorses the book on the cover), Barrera writes in little snatches, capturing the ‘brief illuminations’ that, as she observes, writer Susan Griffin identifies as being the main intellectual achievements possible between the myriad interruptions of the fourth trimester. Sometimes only lasting a sentence or two, these snippets mimic the rhythm of new motherhood. They mirror the fragmented, attention-scattered state of those first few months, where thinking is conducted in little gasps – a mode of being that contrasts sharply with the ‘sustained breath’ that, as Barrera points out, fellow Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli claims novel writing requires in Faces in the Crowd, a Book of the month of mine back in 2018.
Yet, though often fleeting, Barrera’s pensées are far from superficial. Gasps though they may be, they are often breathtakingly precise, skewering universal truths in a handful of words:
‘Pregnancy is a fruit bowl. The apps tell you which fruit your fetus resembles each week as it grows. But none of the apps are written in Mexico, so they don’t take into account the wide variety of fruit we have here’;
‘Everything I do, but principally everything I write during these months, the two of us do and write together. As together as it’s possible to be: one in the center of the other’;
‘Breastfeeding is an act of faith. We don’t see the milk the way we would water in a glass. We, the mothers, see the residue on the mouth of our children; we sometimes watch them devour it, but we never know how much they are drinking.’
The range of references is striking. Mary Shelley, Gustave Courbet, Ursula K. Le Guin, Rachel Cusk, Anna Prushinskaya, Shirley Jackson and Marlene Dumas are just a handful of the artists and writers whose names throng these pages. And, as so often happens when I read literature in translation, Barrera taught me something I didn’t know about my own country – in this case, the story of the St Ives-based artist Monica Sjöö, whose painting God Giving Birth so scandalised her home town in 1970 that the mayor ordered that all her work be removed from every venue in the area.
Eclecticism rather than pretension is the order of the day: Vogue and Friends both get mentions, and there is a list of breastfeeding resources at the back. A huge amount of personal experience is woven in too, both in terms of mothering and in terms of the earthquakes that provide parallels to the author’s altered state throughout the book. This is done with disarming openness. Barrera, I came to feel as I moved through the pages, places how she appears and how people may judge her far behind her desire to communicate precisely and capture the truth of what she means to say. Whatever material will help her do this is fair game.
Similarly, there is an emotionally eclectic feel to the book too. Eschewing the tendency of many anglophone pregnancy and birth books to skew either starkly positive or negative, Barrera’s text encompasses a vast spectrum of often conflicting emotions, from dark to light. Parents, seen through her lens, are not infantilised zombies either beholden to the dictates of the authorities or railing against the system but full, rounded human beings grappling with a simultaneously restricting and enlarging experience.
The result is an intellectually rigorous, beautiful, intriguing and funny work. Holistic in the best possible sense, it takes in the full gamut of emotional, mental and embodied experience, without the separation of body and brain that so often characterises Anglo-American texts. It is rare for a book to be both comforting and challenging, but Barrera and MacSweeney manage this. Illuminating, joyful and inspiring.
Linea Nigra: An Essay on Pregnancy and Earthquakes by Jazmina Barrera, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney (Two Lines Press, 2022)