The Pillow Book was written a more or less unrecognizable thousand years ago by Sei Shonagon, a Japanese court lady to Empress Teishi and a writer with very little personal time. It’s a short book, made up of very personal and very wide-ranging episodes. The fragmented segments are insights, lists, things she’s heard in passing, all the swirling inputs that make up a writer’s synapsing brain. But without the opportunity to shape the thoughts into something like a poem or a novel or even an essay, what’s left is the brilliant honesty and bareness of an unedited mind. This is the style that new mothers and writers like Rivka Galchen and Jazmina Barrera use, though perhaps not with direct intention, until the work was already done—without form, but complete.
Linea Nigra takes its title from the dark line that appears up and down the belly of a pregnant woman, a hormonal darkening meant to help lead a baby with still-developing vision towards the breasts, or so it is said. It’s a line that can feel like a splitting point too, in more fevered and sleepless pregnancy-induced states of panic: A fault line where the abdominal muscles below the surface separate and shift, making room for the expanding womb. Splitting permeates the book. “Even when I’m decidedly sad or angry, a part of me is deliciously, ridiculously happy,” Barrera writes. “There are moments like that, when I’m completely split in two.”
This sparse book, “an essay on pregnancy and earthquakes,” deals with the author’s dueling fears of recent and future earthquakes and her impending childbirth. Short segments detail doctors’ visits, her mother’s artwork destroyed or salvaged from ruin, baby names, and the compulsion to capture self-portraits of a pregnant body and the disgust and dismissal they inspire. (Barrera discusses Frida Kahlo’s terrifying bloody imagined birth, and French writer Marie Darrieussecq, who, whenever she “is asked for an author photograph . . . sends one of her pregnant and in the nude. The response is almost always a request for a ‘normal’ photo”). Barrera researches the iconic Nahua model Luz Jiménez and Tina Modotti’s photographs of her, two of which flank the book’s inside covers, and how these artists tackled pregnancy. There are sections on scientific minutiae, including how a child’s saliva changes the composition of their mother’s breastmilk, or that hormones active in breastfeeding amplify the sound of a baby’s cry to the mother.
The 2016 book Little Labors, by essayist, short story and novel writer Rivka Galchen, makes several appearances in Linea Nigra. Barrera and her husband translate the work into Spanish, and there’s a pretty clear love-fest occurring between the two women out of time. Galchen blurbed Barrera’s book, writing, “I only wish it were a few thousand pages longer, so I could have the company of its intelligence and poetry for all the phases of my life.” As Barrera and her husband work on their translation, she returns repeatedly to her favorite passages: “it’s true what they say about a baby giving you a reason to live,” she quotes Galchen. “But also, a baby is a reason that it is not permissible to die. There are days when this does not feel good.” The two writers are up to very similar things in their work and careers, yet despite the opportunity for obvious overlap, there is very little. It’s the very personal requirement of this type of book that leaves room for everyone, and Barrera calls for more examples of the genre. “I love this new mode of writing and hope that it will become much more than a fashion,” she writes. “That there will be more of us. Many more . . . and for them to be good, bad, or indifferent books. I want a canon and a tradition,” and with that all of the inevitable fallout that trails any conspicuous spike in popularity, “ . . . a rupture, counter-canon books. New literary genres.”
I read Galchen’s Little Labors while pregnant with my first child, and I read Linea Nigra while pregnant with my second. (I would not have been able to read Linea Nigra before my first: Barrera is sick from the pregnancy, torn apart by the delivery, and made ill again in the breastfeeding phase. Though she loves her baby, she does nothing to assuage fear or downplay a chronically downplayed experience.) Each time, in a sea of mixed emotions and nervous energy, I was looking for something to relate to, to make sense of my experiences and hopefully not scare me out of the birth process too much. But I was also looking for something to help me feel human again and less like an animal, a baby-producing body that was increasingly being used by someone else and becoming less and less my own. Motherhood creates so many unexpected changes in our bodies and in our behavior, and I found myself, particularly when nursing my second child and with my toddler looking on, revealing my nipples more often, even in public, becoming fully milk source and functional. It all happened so seamlessly, so gradually, until eventually I didn’t fit into any of my old clothes, a small indication of the transformation I hadn’t been able to see coming but that was complete and impossible to reverse.
I don’t make my living as a writer, the way that Galchen and Barrera do, so there was no urgency for me to write during either of my pregnancies. I’m grateful for that. I never had the energy, and while I’d feel a slight pang of regret that I was not documenting my experiences, as so many women seem to do, it also felt like something I had no obligation to. I don’t think either Galchen or Barrera felt the same way. Both had the idea that they’d still write, that they needed to in some way, though the reality of the task in both cases resulted in something less than a traditional cohesive whole. “Today I forgot to have breakfast,” Barrera writes. And:
I try to set myself one task each day. Just one: cut my nails or send an email. But I don’t manage it. There’s no time.
I write here: There’s no time, and I think those words are true in two senses: when you have a baby, there’s very little time, and when you have a baby time is annulled.
I’ve been trying to write for two hours. My mother has come to look after Silvestre for a while. She’ll only call me if he’s hungry. I’m transcribing these notes when she appears in the doorway saying that it must be reflux. Silvestre spat up a little milk while he was sleeping, and that means reflux is the cause of his grouchiness. She tells me to continue working but I’ve forgotten what I was doing.
But rather than a simple, strictly personal diary, as Barrera’s husband suggests she keeps, as Anne Lamott wrote during her son’s birth and first year, and as so many others have done in varying ways, both Barrera and Galchen mete out the intellectual stimulants and influences that they’re steeped in and can’t seem to avoid, no matter how sleep-deprived and unable to function they are. Barrera includes “breastfeeding resources” at the end of the book, which I assumed would be links to La Leche League Facebook groups. Instead these resources consist of a four page list of books that include Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Novels and Stories by Shirley Jackson, and The Luminous Novel by Mario Levrero. It’s a list of breastfeeding resources I actually need, a list of what to read at 3 a.m. to bring you in, out of, and around the experience in equal measure.
Writers like Galchen and Barrera write widely and prolifically, fluidly moving from one form to another. As Galchen admits, she needs to write while she’s interested in a topic, before she becomes bored with the project or distracted by another tangential idea or brand-new topic. And these “pillow books” reveal those minds in a way that other art necessarily conceals. Without the cohesive whole of a theme or the editing that comes with driving home a thesis, these works lay each influence, each passing thought or revelation, bare on the page, written in a way that surely only the writers’ spouses, if anyone, are ever party to.
These are glimpses that the best interviews wouldn’t be able to reveal. You can’t ask enough questions to get these moment-by-moment thoughts or long digressions into an influential painter or photographer or model that might otherwise get a passing reference in a work or be disguised entirely. Even with their well-researched facts and threads tied, it is this window into their brains and the intimacy of their raw thoughts that makes these books fascinating, a self-induced literary tell-all so rarely accessed in any other form.