In my rush to find a new form of entertainment to fill idle evenings during quarantine, back in mid-March, I purchased a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. My hope was to relive fond childhood memories of puzzling on family vacations. For a summer stripped of the usual gatherings and events, I thought a puzzle would be a novel way to pass the time. After several evenings, I pieced together its borders and got to work on its midsection, but, soon, I was stymied. The puzzle featured a dozen seed packets with similarly colored and shaped berries. The rounded reds and purples swam indistinguishably before me. My partner was disinterested; I threw my hands up. For the past four months, the unfinished puzzle has languished prominently in our living room—an inchoate monument to the quarantine.
The paradox was evident. Here was a task that fit the bill for the era of indoor isolation. It would provide a sense of accomplishment. It would be enjoyable to do alone. But what I really needed was an assist from the very friends that I could not invite inside—new sets of eyes to help me regain momentum, and piece the puzzle together.
The logic of the jigsaw is premised on a promise: a set of disparate pieces, when properly assembled, will interlock and collectively produce a coherent picture. This pursuit—assemblage in search of insight—is the guiding ethos at the heart of two dynamic recently published books by Mexican authors: Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses and Verónica Gerber Bicecci’s Empty Set. Both have been released in English with masterful translation by Christina MacSweeney. MacSweeney is a prolific translator of contemporary Mexican literature, including works by Valeria Luiselli, Julián Herbert, and Daniel Saldaña París. Barrera and Gerber Bicecci’s books are exciting additions to the burgeoning library of contemporary Mexican literature available in English translation. Respectively, these books signal the continued vitality of the Mexican essay genre (in Barrera’s case) and thrilling inroads into experimental autofiction (in Gerber Bicecci’s).
In a field long dominated by men, these works also represent the invigorating opening up of Mexican literature to other points of view—particularly, those of women, as well as of Indigenous writers. This opening has been enabled by hard-fought efforts of trailblazers, a growing array of independent publishing houses, and increased institutionalized state support.
However, as Emily Hind reminds us in her biting takedown of pervasive sexism in the Mexican publishing industry, the thought that women writers are now on an equal playing field with men is “simply delusional.” While women writers have been afforded increased respect, Hind warns, such success could be short lived, given “the longstanding sexism that includes the refusal to allow women to age and gain in intellectual authority the same as men.” As artists in their 30s, Barrera and Gerber Bicecci represent this cohort of talented, young female intellectuals who have gained traction with their elevated works, but face the challenge of achieving career longevity on par with their male peers.
Barrera’s book of essays explores her personal obsession with collecting lighthouses. Gerber Bicecci’s novel is about a visual artist who, like the author, visualizes “almost everything in words” and, consequently, diagrams her life with both text and images. Both books tell their story, in greater and lesser degrees, through the authors’ own respective lives, situating their works within the realm of autotheory.
Barrera and Gerber Bicecci’s works differ in tone and genre, but they share a praxis of assemblage: the act of grouping and fitting things together. Through this process of gathering and mapping, Barrera and Gerber Bicecci seek to make sense of a chaotic world and their place in it. They push back against self-isolating desires and tendencies, by thinking programmatically about their relationships with others—other objects, places, or people.
Barrera’s On Lighthouses is composed of six chapters, each centered on a specific lighthouse. The lighthouse is a classic symbol of isolation—it exists removed from the rest of society—and, yet, its function is relational: to serve and protect others. Through a genre-bending mix of memoir and literary history, On Lighthouses exhaustively explores the lighthouse’s contradictory figuration as an emblem of escapism, which nonetheless remains firmly rooted in relation to a specific geographic place.
It is this paradox of isolation and relationality that appeals to Barrera. Her passion for lighthouses, she explains, is like an “analgesic addiction.” It originates in the aspiration to “become a lighthouse: cold, unfeeling, solid, indifferent.” To be set apart from the world, isolated in a tower, yet serve the world. To approximate that “one-eyed giant” that sends signals to travelers in the night, safely orienting others in time and space.
On Lighthouses is both a collection of lighthouses and a meditation on the act of collecting. Collecting, for Barrera, is “a ritual, a repetition that produces new meaning with each addition.” This ritual is calming in its repetition; it provides purpose, “a sense of direction, however arbitrary that direction might be,” that is grounding in the face of uncertainty. Collecting is a welcome distraction, a form of escapism that is nonetheless constructive. But, for Barrera, a collection is not only made up of discrete objects gathered over time but also defined by the experiences of gathering, experiences that can be similarly “coveted and amassed.”
“On Lighthouses” and “Empty Set” coincide in their appreciation of process over product as the defining action of self-discovery.
On Lighthouses is, therefore, about lighthouses as infrastructures and historical objects but also about Barrera’s personal experiences of them—a collection of encounters. For example, the chapter dedicated to Montauk Point weaves details about the mechanics of lighthouses into an intimate story about growing apart from a dear childhood friend. This chapter, like others, gathers a dazzling array of facts, sources, and anecdotes, which range from a description of outbound New York traffic to poems by Walt Whitman, and from an account of the lighthouse in the French Enlightenment to one of a misunderstanding with the management at Barrera’s local laundromat.
Toward the end of the book, Barrera faces the limits of her own collection. She includes a list of the lighthouses she will never see, and decides to end her project before it is complete, a failure that she accepts as symbolic of the choice to embrace the messy ephemerality of life rather than escape it. She concludes, “I must leave the lighthouse, come down from the tower, confront the bustle, irreverence and noise of dry land.”
For a book that collates an encyclopedic lineup of literary references to lighthouses from antiquity until today, the decision to end the book with the rejection of the project’s original totalizing pretense feels like a liberating contradiction. Its open-endedness invites possibility. Perhaps Barrera will take it up again at some other time, or perhaps the desire for containment will always be frayed by its own limits. This truncated denouement invites the reader to similarly confront their own obsessions, and, perhaps, leave them unfinished.
Similarly self-reflexive, Gerber Bicecci’s Empty Set is an experimental work of autofiction that blends text and images, and philosophy and romantic melodrama. It is narrated in the first person by a metafictional protagonist in her early 20s named Verónica, who—like Gerber Bicecci—is a visual artist. Other biographical details also coincide. Like the author, Verónica is the daughter of Argentine exiles in Mexico; she has a brother who makes documentaries (the book is dedicated to him: “the other half of the empty set”).
The novel narrates Verónica’s attempts to grapple with newfound isolation. She has recently been broken up with by her ex-boyfriend Tordo and must return to the “bunker,” the apartment where she grew up, in Mexico City, with her mother and brother. The bunker is haunted by another severed relationship: Verónica’s mother left abruptly when she was a young teen. In order to pay for a ticket back to Argentina to visit her grandmother, Verónica gets a job sifting through the archive of a recently deceased writer and falls for her son, Alonso, who is emotionally unavailable.
Further complicating things, Gerber Bicecci doesn’t narrate these events linearly. Rather, they are arranged in a format that approximates the ontological logic of plywood: compressed, disordered shavings of time. Like plywood, Empty Set is a constellation of discontinuous moments pressed together. It recounts Verónica’s two consecutive love stories simultaneously, along with other events, including the trip to Argentina. This temporal disordering brings larger patterns to the fore, in a reflexive manner akin to the visual mapping that Verónica uses to make sense of the inexplicable.
Verónica attempts to fill in the gaps of her partial view of the world through words and diagrams. These, she hopes, will shed light on the people who mean so much to her, yet who are stubbornly opaque, hard to bring into focus.
For instance, to make sense of her breakup with Tordo, she draws a series of Venn diagrams (figure 1). The overlap of herself (I) with Tordo (T) is reconfigured to include a third party: Her (H), Tordo’s new lover. Presented as a real-time visualization of Verónica’s affective disorientation, the diagrams help Verónica ask herself if she is now missing a piece (the piece of herself that overlapped with Tordo), or if that void is still a part of herself.
While we often think of illustrations as a secondary element in books, subordinate to the written word, the diagrams in Empty Set are a complementary mode of expression. They are a way of processing and synthesizing information that words fail to capture: a way of mapping time and space, the networks between people and things. This is a visual form of telling that can wrangle “things that can’t be told in words.” The secrets, or holes, at the root of bewildering events: a breakup, a missing mother, a staircase to nowhere. This is the conceptual intervention of Empty Set—its search for forms of representation that exceed the linear logic of grammar and time.
Verónica also uses diagrams to process her mother’s absence (figure 2). An exile from Argentina’s Dirty War, her mother has a symbolic foot in two countries: Argentina and Mexico. This bifurcation means that she is never fully present in either place. Verónica primarily experiences her mother as an absence—just as she does the men in her life. This experience is captured in a drawing that maps her mother’s simultaneous occupation of two different universes:
Verónica’s praxis of mapping is rooted in set theory. A branch of mathematical logic that studies collections of objects, set theory, she explains, was outlawed during the dictatorship in Argentina. Verónica hypothesizes that this is because dictatorship and set theory are organized by opposing paradigms. Dictatorship exerts power through the atomization of society: “Its aim is … dispersal: separation, scattering, disunity, disappearance.”
By contrast, set theory is all about the collective. It is about community and networks, an infinite number of possible sets. “Visualized in this way, ‘from above,’ the world reveals relationships and functions that are not completely obvious.”
Creating sets is also a way to combat loneliness, which Verónica deems “a kind of empty set that installs itself in the body.” Like collecting and puzzling, diagramming fends off loneliness. It articulates community amid chaos.
And, yet, like Barrera’s renunciation of her unfinished collection, Verónica’s quest to make sense of the world through mapping does not culminate in a coherent picture. Her desire to make sense of the felt absence of those she loves is left unresolved. Her mother returns home, but “the rest of the fragments are illegible.” There is no grand aha moment, no epistemological mastery—just the understanding that comes from the process of searching for new ways to see the world and oneself.
Barrera’s and Gerber Bicecci’s works are intimate portraits and fictions of the inner lives of young artists in the 21st century. These works of autotheory operate as expansive sites of self-discovery, and experimentation, and as spaces to grapple with community, the ties to places, infrastructures, events, and people that make us. For both authors, the understanding of the self is formulated by assembling relationships with other objects, people, and places. It is the act, not the result, of these interpretative methods of assemblage that offer ways of knowing that push back against totalizing accounts.
Importantly, both Barrera and Gerber Bicecci extend this collaborative ethos beyond the literary work. Barrera is a cofounder of Ediciones Antílope, an independent publishing house, started in 2015, dedicated to publishing books that are less commonly picked up by commercial publishers. It is purposefully collaborative. Antílope’s publishing team cooperates with authors at every step of the editorial process, from drafting to distribution. Their mission statement reflects this collaborative ethos: “La edición es una labor creativa que germina en colectividad. Si la escritura ocurre en solitario, la edición es el acto de compañerismo que se opone al aislamiento, un sitio donde es posible gestar amistades mientras se trabaja un libro a varias manos.” (Publishing is a creative task that germinates in the collective. While writing takes place alone, publishing is an act of companionship that exists in opposition to solitude, a site where it is possible to develop friendships, working together with many hands on a single book.)
Similarly, Gerber Bicecci creates sets beyond her books and art installations. Most recently, she collaborated with adolescent attendees of a creative workshop held at a Mexico City museum to invent vocabulario b (vocabulary b): a new lexicon of words for this moment of social and ecological crisis. The participants came up with terms like “terremasteza,” which blends the words terremoto (earthquake), alarma (alarm), and tristeza (sadness), to describe the anxious affective state of anticipating an earthquake, a common occurrence in Mexico City.
These projects of collaborative creation nurture and are nurtured by creative practices undertaken in solitude. On Lighthouses and Empty Set coincide in their appreciation of process over product as the defining action of self-discovery. These processes are not linear but sometimes aleatory and sometimes reiterative: the understanding of the self through accumulation—the act of collecting—or a network—the diagramming of sets; the understanding of self through practices that might be left incomplete, like the outline of a puzzle, waiting to be filled in with the help of others.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
Featured-image photograph by Bianca Ackermann / Unsplash