Interweaving Threads: a conversation with Jazmina Barrera

Micaela Brinsley

One of the engines of this book was something that happened a few years ago. There was a sort of MeToo Movement denouncing a very difficult process in my high school; at the same time as it was happening in the department of literature where I studied. A lot of the teachers who taught me were involved in this.

I was reading about [it], completely shocked, and started thinking about how many things I went through in high school and in college that were normalised at the time, hurt me in [various] ways. I saw them in a completely different light. I started this process of rewriting my own history—trying it out in writing. Doing that exercise that feminism has been doing on a broader scale for a very long time regarding the history of the world, of literature, of science, of everything; also at a very individual level.

When I was doing that, I felt a lot of compassion for the girl I was at the time, who didn’t have all of the tools I have now to understand, to denounce what was happening back then.

This was a difficult book to write. It was one of those times I went into a project thinking it was going to be a healing process. I hammered the nail a little further, opened the wound… I came to a lot of understanding, but it was also painful.

MB: Where does your curiosity about embroidery come from?

JB: I share this story with the narrator of Cross-Stitch, that my grandmother taught me to embroider. The idea that this practice was something so extended in geography and time. It was something I enjoyed and loved. I realised when I was doing research that it connected me with women from all of these communities in time and space.

Stitching has so long been part of feminist activist communities.

Yes, it’s so inspiring. Of course there’s [also] an ambivalence to embroidery. It’s very interesting because embroidery and many other practices were part of a culture that oppressed women and separated women from the labour force, forced them to be in a domestic environment and attached to all these connotations of femininity.

I’ve had the fortune of having this book published in different countries and talking about it with women from different ages and communities. I’ve realised in many cases, there are generations of women who were forced to embroider and they didn’t necessarily enjoy it. Some of them did, some of them didn’t. They still had to do it. That was the case with my grandmother. Then there’s usually a generation that hates embroidery and doesn’t want to have anything to do with it, who feel it’s a conservative practice for women. Then there’s a new generation of young women that’s recuperating this practice. Not just embroidery but also cooking, even motherhood.

From a different perspective, from a place of freedom, a place of choice.

Embroidery was for a very long time a set of practices that oppressed women. But you can find examples in almost every culture of women who found in embroidery itself, a way of subverting that oppression. Who found a way of escape, of creating, of protesting, a way of sharing, of collectively creating, of even having an economic advantage through embroidery.

How do you know when an idea's going to become the anchor of a book you write and how did Cross-Stitch begin?

I write whenever I can. My notes, which used to be mostly in notebooks, are now in the notes app on my phone. I change my mind all the time. I think passion and persistence about a certain idea is very important. I have my ideas—many are bad, many are good—but the ones that stick, the ones I keep in my mind, are the ones that usually become a book or a part of a book.

Cross-Stitch had two different beginnings. Someone invited me a few years ago to read an essay. I wrote about sewing and embroidery, it was a very small fragmentary essay. I really enjoyed writing it and I thought, this can be something else. But it just stayed there.

After, I started writing a novel about three friends, beginning very close to my own experience. I was reading every document I had from my adolescence: letters, notebooks, little papers I exchanged with my friends. From all of that, I remembered the importance embroidery had for my community of friends at that age.

I didn’t know they were going [to] parallel.

I went back to that essay. I remember I re-read it and started re-writing it. First I thought maybe the essay was going to be an epilogue. Then I thought it was going to be the middle. I knew they were going to be integrated, to go together—but I didn’t know how.

I then decided to embroider the fragments of the essay with the fragments of the novel and make something like a quilt out of all of this.

You strike me as someone who’s built their life around writing. Was there a moment you remember, when you decided to do this?

It was a part of my life, something very natural. It didn’t feel like something out of the ordinary.

I don’t know why, but I do remember a time when I thought that all authors of books were dead. I remember a moment when I realised: a living person wrote this, living people can do it. I remember that moment and thinking: ah ha!

When I was a teenager, my private writing was very different. I just felt really insecure about what I wrote and ashamed. I hid it. Then, when I got to college, I majored in English literature. It got worse because my teachers from day one were telling us: I know many of you want to be writers, but that’s not going to happen. You have to forget that, you have to learn how to read. The whole discourse around it was to critically appraise genius and admire other people’s talent.

They never told you that writing critical essays is also a creative genre. Realising that was so eye-opening. I don’t know why it’s [considered] so separate from those other genres.

For a long time, I wrote in secret, in silence. It wasn’t until I left college and got a grant from an institution in Mexico that gives grants to aspiring writers, where you get to write for two years. It’s sort of an MFA, but it doesn’t have that academic stance. They pay you to write, give you workshops, teach you things.

It wasn’t until I met other people my age who also wrote and weren’t ashamed to write and talk about it, that I started to come out of that.

Once you started meeting other people your age who wrote too, when did you decide what kind of work you wanted to write?

In college, I became very interested in the essay form, in liminal forms. Very unclassifiable texts classified as essays because it was the easiest thing to do.

The word essay is so beautiful and open.

I wrote about that in college, studied texts by Virginia Woolf and Chesterton and Argentinian writers that also play a lot with that: Sylvia Molloy, María Gainza, María Negroni.

When I started writing, it was what came most naturally to me.

You mention in Cross-Stitch how embroidery can become a sort of code, a way for women to pass secret messages to each other, through clothing or objects.

I’ve always been attracted to this. For such a long time, women weren’t encouraged to write. Sometimes even to read. But they had these liminal practices in [the] borders of literature. They’re fascinating to me. For example, the writing of recipes. Or writing in musical sheets or diaries. The writing of diaries, letters, in embroidery—the way they can sometimes be literature is beautiful to me.

Could one of your future projects involve extensive diary sequences or recipes?

Yes, definitely! The novel I’m writing right now started as a vegetable garden journal.

During the pandemic I started a vegetable garden on my rooftop. It was such a huge escape for me, very relaxing. It was like learning a different language, how these plants talk to me in a way. What they needed, how they talked to each other. It was so amazing. I started this journal, which is something they recommend when you start a vegetable garden—so you know when you planted, what you planted, what’s happening with the plants.

I love the idea of that as a form for writing.

Well, I’m excited to read that book! How do you, as you're writing something, differentiate between your own experiences as a source of inspiration, while also crafting a book that is of course separate from your own lived experiences? How did you also navigate this, when writing Cross-Stitch?

It is a very particular experience for me. I wrote a couple of novels I never published because I wasn't convinced by them, they were completely fictional. My two previous books [that were published] were something closer to memoirs. I was trying to be loyal to my memory. It isn’t that there isn’t fiction, because of course memory is very inventive. But there is an intention for me to at least to be loyal, faithful to memories and other people’s memories.

When I wrote Cross-Stitch, I had to find a balance between being loyal to feelings and situations that I wanted to portray, while also allowing the freedom to play with it.

To create a story it’s always something you have to negotiate.

What struck me about the sections about the three friends is that much of their story takes place outside of Mexico, though of course they were all connected by their experiences teaching Spanish there. What was your thought process behind that choice?

To me the central idea of the book had to be [about] friendship. This had to do with a process I was going through because my friendships transformed a lot in recent years. It was mostly to do with being a mother. Everything changes and your priorities are different. Your free time is different. The way you relate to other people is also very different; the way they react to your new circumstances, so unpredictable.

I’m an only child and always felt that friends had to be a priority in my life. Otherwise I would grow up alone. I had a lot of friendships I really cared about [that] I thought were going to be in my life forever. Suddenly they weren’t there anymore, for different reasons. There’s a death in this novel and death is also a part of that. Also, friendships grow apart for reasons as varied as distance, time, differences in interests or chemistry or misunderstandings or fights and… I was going through something like grief.

I wanted to honour a lot of those friendships that weren’t there anymore and wanted to do that by going back to a time when friendships were the most important relationships in my life. That was adolescence. I mentioned looking through material I have about that part of my life and I think travel is a very interesting element for me, regarding friendship. Some of the strongest friendships I have in life are from when I travelled with people. When you travel with someone you get to know them in a different way. Either you realise this is someone you don’t want in your life or you grow very close together—or something in the middle. But it’s always a way of bonding with someone in a totally different way.

The intimacy when you travel with someone is total—you get to see them when they wake up, you get to notice all of their little obsessions and manias.

I wanted to portray this voracity.

To listen to every record, to read every book, to go everywhere and see everything and know everything—this hurry. I was in such a hurry to eat the world.

The trips I did with these friends was also the first time we got to be all by ourselves, to take care of ourselves completely. That was a very powerful, very formative experience. It’s a rite of passage. You’re yourself in a completely different world.

Alone and together with them—it’s very special.

As you were exploring the essay form in and beyond university, how much were you thinking about literary ancestors you were pulling from? Or did you feel very free in writing from a place specific to yourself?

It changed a lot.

As a starting point I was drawn to those writers that played a lot with form and weren't of a specific genre. I mentioned Argentinian writers and also some English ones. But also, French writers were really important to me. [Georges] Perec, Roland Barthes, from the avant-garde of the 20th century who came to literature from a different starting point.

There was also another important moment for me, which had to do with feminism. For very different personal reasons, I started reading avidly feminist texts. Not only theory or essays, but also feminist books, more books by women—who were undermined or overlooked, or just made invisible by our context and culture. That really changed the way I read and wrote.

I told you I came to an institution where we had workshops all the time. I met people who became very close to me. I started sharing my texts with them. My writing has been very collective since then, because I’ve had this community that reads what I write, I read what they write. We comment and exchange ideas.

I also started a publishing house with 5 friends. It’s called Ediciones Antílope. It’s a very small project and we publish 2 to 3 books per year. We do it out of love for books. It’s a very beautiful collective process where we take literature that’s not available in Mexico and make it, share it.

Writing is not so unconnected from that part of my life. Translating, editing, writing, you mentioned the material aspect of books. They are all very important to me—my relationship to editors, to people, who as I said, read and help me rewrite my books. My books wouldn’t be what they are without it, definitely.

How would you describe the process between coming up with an initial idea and then deciding to share it with that literary community you mentioned?

There is a part you do by yourself; you write and then you share.

For me one of the most difficult parts of writing is that first part. where you have to deal with your indecision and own insecurities and doubts. That’s necessarily a part you don’t share. You share once there’s words on a page. Maybe even ideas. But you have to have something to share, to work with other people.

I mean of course I enjoy it, it has its own kind of playing and enjoyment, but it’s difficult to shake those doubts. As I mentioned, I had all this time in college with voices saying: you’re not going to be able to do this. You’re not good at this. It’s difficult to shake that off completely. There’s always a part of you that doubts. I think it’s even healthy, to a certain point.

It takes a lot to convince me that a text is done.

A wonderful Mexican writer, Verónica Murguía, has always been a mentor to me, ever since I was a child. I remember one of the best pieces of advice someone ever told me was, she said:

You have to let yourself be when you’re writing a first draft. You have to just let it flow, enjoy, make mistakes, don’t worry about them. Then, in the second reading, you can be as strict and picky and perfectionistic as you want. But if you do that the first time around, you won’t get anywhere. You will get stuck.

That has been very helpful for me.

It’s so true that there’s something about travelling with people where you start to blur a little bit as a person to them and they to you. Cross-Stitch is bound by friendship, but the protagonist is also a mother. How did you think differently about the act of caretaking, between motherhood and friendship?

My previous book, Linea Nigra, is all about motherhood. It’s a book about pregnancy and the first months of motherhood. The transformations of the body and the way it changes everything from a philosophical, creative, professional, emotional point of view.

Even though as you mentioned, motherhood was not central to this book, motherhood for me changed everything. Even if I’m not writing exactly about that, I’m always writing about that. I read somewhere or maybe it was in a documentary—that if you become a parent, if you are the first caretaker of a small child, a part of your brain in the amygdala zone gets turned on, the part for fear. It stays on your entire life; that for me was so impressive.

Motherhood is an experience of radical empathy, in the sense that when I go outside into the world and see a child, I immediately notice if he is not wearing a sweater and it’s very cold. Or if he is not crossing the street properly and it’s going to be dangerous. If I see a movie right now and there’s a child, I’m always distracted by things like: this child hasn’t eaten in the entire day, what are they thinking?

That’s not only with children. The fact is I feel right now as if every human being could have been my child—and that is horrible. It sounds very romantic, but it’s horrible.

It’s difficult to detach yourself from that emotional experience. But it also makes you that much more empathetic to everyone around you. That’s just one example of a way in which motherhood changed my entire perspective on life.

I go around with that in my head all the time.

How was the love of reading born for you?

My mother always read to me at nighttime. We read together until I was about 10 years old. I lived in the suburbs of Mexico City and at that time, they were so far away from everything—my mother used to tell me that the internet didn’t get that far.

Literature was the most important entertainment element of my life as a child. I looked forward to that moment at night, when I got into those worlds, of fantasy and humour and joy and adventure; it was also a moment of company.

I started to relate reading with affection at an early age, that was very important for me.

I went to a small school, one of the many that Spanish refugees from the civil war founded in the centre of Mexico city where the teacher would ask us every couple of days to write a free text, that’s what she called it, a texto libre.

She didn’t say a short story, an essay or anything like that—a free text.

It was very beautiful as we had printing presses, like the old-style ones with wood and metal and letters. We then printed our stories, our free texts, and made small books with them. From when I was five years old. I remember the first text of mine that was printed, it said something like: yesterday my cat had five kittens. That was it [but] it was so exciting.

Writing for me started as a way of playing, a way of sharing, a way of creating—something connected to freedom.

Erick Baena Crespo

Jazmina Barrera, born in Mexico City, is the author of five books. Her first book, Cuerpo extraño, was awarded the Latin American Voices prize by Literal Publishing, in 2013. Her second book, Cuaderno de faros, was longlisted for the von Rezzori award; and its English version was chosen for the Indie Next list by Indie Bound. Jazmina’s third book, Linea nigra, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Gregg Barrios Book in Translation Prize, the CANIEM’s Book of the year award and the Amazon Primera Novela Award. Her books have been published in nine countries and translated to English, Dutch, Italian and French. Jazmina is also editor and co-founder of publishing house Ediciones Antílope. Cross-Stitch is her debut novel.

Micaela Brinsley

Micaela Brinsley is one of the co-editors-in-chief of La Piccioletta Barca and editor of interviews, as well as fiction and essays.

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