Marlena Maduro Baraf grew up in a large, extended Jewish family in Catholic Panama of the 1950s and 1960s, then moved to the US in her late teens. Her new memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, explores how community and families of any size have incredible power to sustain young people.
Marlena recently talked with Rose City Reader about immigrating, her favorite books, and her new memoir:
Your memoir tells about your childhood among an extended Jewish family in Catholic Panama. What was it like growing up in with such a mixed cultural heritage?
I was very secure within my own community of Spanish-Portuguese Jews who had been in the country for several generations (since the mid-1800s). We were well assimilated in the culture and worked and socialized with other Panamanians. My friends were my cousins and the Catholic girls with whom I went to school, a nun’s school. There weren’t alternatives then. There were some instances where the teachings of the Catholic church did bubble up and I got stung, the teaching which was prevalent then that Jews killed Christ. Even so, living both cultural traditions from the inside, almost, was formative for me. It gave me tremendous perspective about our shared humanity and I am grateful for that.
How did you come to write At the Narrow Waist of the World?
There was an unresolved issue with my mother, from childhood. A sense of not being loved by her. Once I began writing one scene from the past, the rest poured out. It was predestined that I would write this book. Equally important, I was at a stage in my life where after 50 years of being in this country I felt a longing for my childhood home of Panama, the sensory details, feelings and memories that reside in the past. So writing this story also brought me a lot of joy.
Why did you leave Panama and make your home in the United States?
Ah. I don’t have an absolute answer to this. I’ve always been a curious person and always needing to understand. I think I wanted to be independent of my enormous (loving) family and discover things for myself. A bigger playing field, as they say. I think more immigrants than not come to this country (or any other country) for this reason. I also felt hemmed in by women’s lives then in Panama. Comfortable among the people I knew, but boring. The interesting people to me were the men.
Your book talks honestly about your mother’s mental illness. How did her illness effect you when you were growing up?
In situations like this, I think most young people find a way to shrink themselves. You lose confidence if your parent is so overwhelmed by their illness that they can’t see you. The situation also gives you an opportunity to be strong. You find a way to be. I think I felt both diminished but in the end it made me very strong and able to tolerate difficulties later in life.
What did you learn from writing your book – either about the subject matter or the writing process – that most surprised you?
I learned that my mother was an ordinary human and pretty wonderful in spite of the challenges in her life. As an adult and with a safety net of loving family here, I was able to see her in a new way. Writing the book put the hobgoblins to bed (safely).
As to writing—I discovered that I love to write and that I must write.
Are there other memoirs that you love or inspired you to write your own?
I love especially works by Hispanics writers in this country, like Julia Alvarez (How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents), Maria Arana (American Chica). Absolutely anything by the magnificent Annie Dillard who wrote many books and what is now the classic, An American Childhood. Anything by the memoirist Abigail Thomas. I love books that play with form. I read constantly.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?
I listed some above, but can add: George Saunders (Lincoln and the Bardo), W.G Sebals (Austerlitz), Nathan Englander (anything). You must read to feed the creative beast.
What kind of books do you like to read? What are you reading now?
I am about to start On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese American poet who just published this his first novel.
You have a terrific website and are also active on Facebook, twitter, and Instagram. From an author's perspective, how important is social media to promote your book?
I don’t really know the answer. I do like FB and keeping in touch with people and having an audience for short bits which I enjoy writing. I think FB has helped me build an audience within a limited world. I’ve never really figured out Twitter which is too big a party. I like Instagram because I like visuals very much. I’m a designer in my other life.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
Yes, I have a conversation with a moderator and four other authors at the Bryant Park Reading Room in NYC. Wednesday, August 21, 2019 at 12:30 p.m.
There is a book launch/celebration at the Barnes & Noble Eastchester store in Westchester, NY. Sunday, September 15, 2019 at 4 p.m. All are welcome!
What is the most valuable advice you’ve been given as an author?
Write every day if you can.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
What’s next? What are you working on now?
I am continuing to interview Hispanics/Latinos/Latinx on my Breathing in Spanish blog. I am considering ideas on how to expand this.
THANK YOU MARLENA!
AT THE NARROW WAIST OF THE WORLD IS AVAILABLE ONLINE, OR ASK YOUR LOCAL BOOK SELLER TO ORDER IT.