New memoir explores the brutal tenderness of family, and what is gained when we leave behind what we know


WHITE PLAINS, NY – What does it mean to love someone in the face of mental illness? What does it mean for a young woman to grow into herself while finding her way through an unfamiliar culture? What does home mean to a person on the move? Author Marlena Baraf explores these themes in At The Narrow Waist of the World (Aug. 6, She Writes Press), her layered, savagely tender memoir of her younger years.

Raised by a colorful family of Spanish Jews in tropical, Catholic Panama of the 1950s and 1960s, Marlena depends on her many tios and tias for refuge from the difficulties of life, including the frequent absences of her troubled mother. As a teenager, Marlena pulls away from this centered world, leaving for the United States and a life very different from the one she knows.

At the Narrow Waist of the World examines the intense bond between mothers and daughters, the importance of a supportive community, and beauty of a large Latin American family. For those who’ve left one home for another, it explores the tension and riches of living a life in between cultures.

Marlena Maduro Baraf was born and raised in Panama, but chose to leave her native country for the United States in her late teens, gaining citizenship years later. She worked as a book editor at Harper & Row Publishers and McGraw-Hill Book Company, is a devoted alumna of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute, and has established her own design studio. Over the last ten years, Baraf has dedicated herself to the compelling art and craft of writing.




“At the Narrow Waist of the World”
Marlena Maduro Baraf | Aug. 6, 2019 | She Writes Press
Paperback | 978-1-63152-588-9 | $16.95
E-book | 978-1-63152-589-6 | $9.95

“Lively and visual, the text’s descriptions of the sights, smells, and flavors of Panama impart a strong sense of its culture.” —Foreword Clarion Reviews





In an interview, Marlena Maduro Baraf can discuss:

● Her experience growing up as a “Jewish Latina” cultural insider/outsider in Panama.
● What she considers “home.”
● Surviving her mother’s mental illness.
● Finding her voice in this memoir, which is lyrical and a dance between English and Spanish.


BarafAuthorPhotoTwoAn Interview with Marlena Maduro Baraf:

Could you tell us a little bit about your experience as a woman of many cultures?
I feel very lucky to have been born into a Jewish community and also a Hispanic community. I went to a Catholic nuns’ school as well as a Jewish school on Saturday mornings and was able to experience Catholic traditions close up and feel respectful. I am a hybrid, a citizen of the world, and also deeply American now. Difference makes life interesting and pushes us to grow. I am becoming more and more fascinated by multilingual writing, as in Jumpha Lahiri’s experiment with Italian, poetry written in two or more languages, and Spanglish works. I believe “home” resides in language.

What drew you to the United States, and why did you decide to stay here?
As Jews in a Catholic society–while deeply integrated in Panama’s culture–my family and community felt that they could rely on the protection of the United States, champion of liberty and religious freedom, should they ever need it. So traveling to the United States for higher education was considered attractive and a way of broadening one’s exposure to the world. Once I came up to school it was hard for me to return. My memoir’s themes are about the difficulties of coping with a mentally ill mother and having to push away from her in order to thrive. Pushing away from the narrow lives available to women in Latin America was another reason why I chose the United States in the end.

Are there writers from the Hispanic canon who have influenced your writing?
Oh yes. I’ve found sisters late in my life (in addition to the sister I have in Panama). Women caught in the bridge between two countries. Women straddling the disparate demands of culture, also celebrating the riches. Among these are, of course, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez, Margarita Engle, Marie Arana, Daisy Hernandez, Ruth Behar. I am currently reading Melissa Rivero’s novel, The Affairs of the Falcons.

You have a blog called “Soy/Somos” that focuses on the lives and stories of Hispanic people. What do you hope to share through this?
I have interviewed Hispanics from all walks of life, carpet layers, chiropractors, musicians, gardeners: hard-working, fascinating people that other Americans may not understand because of language or cultural differences. These are conversations often in Spanish, or Spanglish, written in English, that satisfied my own curiosity but also reveal the humanity that we all share. I believe these stories are especially important today because of the polarization in our society.

What surprised you in the writing of this story?
I took a class at Sarah Lawrence, “Finding Your Voice.” The instructor asked us to write a scene from the past–something we’d held on to–and this memory spilled out about my mother and me when she was in the throes of mental illness, and the gates opened up. The memoir became a path to discovery of who she was and who I was. Totally unplanned.