|Cross Stitch / Jazmina Barrera
trans. from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney
San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2023, c2021.
When I first heard about this book during Women in Translation month, I knew it would be one I would have to read. It's a translation of a novel by a Mexican writer, which explores the role of female friendship, interspersed with the history of embroidery, to create a resonant feminist narrative. I really loved it.
Our narrator, Mila, is now a young mother and a writer whose book on needlework was recently published. But as the story opens, she hears about the drowning death of her old friend Citlali, who along with another friend Dalia, made up a high school triangle of best girlfriends.
Mila's narrative spools back in time, to go back to the beginnings of their friendship, to illuminate how the balance of power shifted between them, and how there were experiences that they kept private from one another even with their strong bonds. Like the author noted in an interview, there is always something that we won't know about another person, no matter how close.
The friendship covers many tumultuous years of adolescence and young adulthood. They face sexual harrasment, abuses, everyday misogyny, as well as the trials and disillusionments of growing into adulthood. At one point, the three plan to meet in Europe (where Citlali is already living) to have a Big Trip together. But it doesn't go quite as planned - Citlali doesn't meet them in England, only making it to Paris later on; Dalia and Mila have different ways of travelling and sightseeing and have to negotiate daily routines. This felt so realistic, how you have to manage these close relationships and can be utterly annoyed with one another even while remaining the same depth of friend.
And through their years of friendship, they all embroidered together. From samplers and unique projects in high school (like Citlali's ambitious goal to embroider an Arachniary of all known spider species) to more complex art based embroideries as they grow up - like Mila's monochrome black on black embroidery meant to emphasize texture - they've always stitched together, despite it being a bit of an outlier hobby.
Barrera includes small sections interspersed with the fictional narrative which detail and reflect on the history of stitching, mainly as it applies to women's lives and whatever is going on in the story. There are mentions of embroidery around the world, and how it appeared both as a language and means of expression whether personally or politically. And what the role of art is, and the relation to stitching. These are facts drawn from embroidery history texts, which the author also shares in a bibliography.
Eventually Mila and Dalia resolve their memories and come together to create a memorial for Citlali in their own neighbourhood, even including Citlali's mostly awful father. The final scene is memorable, and involves Citlali's stitching.
I found this book thoughtful and stylistically engaging. The tone is clear and nostalgic in one sense, though never sentimental. The writing style is natural but also has a poetry to it, with imagery, resonance and the inclusion of other women's words; I appreciated the style of this novel. The way that fiction and fact are interwoven throughout the story was smoothly accomplished, and I felt that it added an extra layer of interest both in subject matter and in style.
The characters are also fascinating. The three girls are different in many ways, but the development of their friendship felt so true to high school dynamics, as did the way they grew apart as they became adults. I think if you read for writing and characters, you will appreciate this book. And, if on top of that you are also a stitcher and appreciate the role of embroidery in women's history, I think you will love this book.
You can read more about it, including author interviews and a reader's guide, at the publisher's website if you are interested.