At The Narrow Waist of the World: A Memoir

“No fanfare, no pyrotechnics. Life-changing decisions explained in humble passionate ways. Simple words for simple actions. A lesson in literary moderation.”

Ilan Stavans, Author of On Borrowed Words

Feel the sticky heat of Panama, dance to the music of El Trio Los Panchos, hitch a ride from neighbors in the old Canal Zone. My story begins in the slender isthmus of Panama. It traces the impact of a troubled mother on her young daughter against the backdrop of a colorful, Jewish family deeply assimilated in Catholic Panama. There’s tragedy as well as beauty in this protected world, and I pull away —leaving for the United States—to discover who I will be.

The book is a cross-cultural immersion…so much love and intensity with grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins. And, at the center, the story radiates the pain of a mother’s presence, sucking all the air out of the room and sometimes bringing in so much splash and sparkle.

 This coming of age memoir examines the intense bond between mothers and daughters, the importance of community and beauty of a large Latin American family, and the meaning of home.

Read other reviews and interviews.


A charming and heartfelt mosaic of stories that paint a portrait of a girl and her troubled mother and the loving family that nurtures them both. Marlena Baraf’s is a wise and authentic voice, distinctive and poetic.”

Sally Koslow, author of Another Side of Paradise

“Marlena Maduro Baraf’s compelling memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, transports us into her Panamanian childhood in the 1950s and 1960s when her enchanting mother succumbs to mental illness and is sent away for years at a time. She skillfully intertwines Spanish expressions to reveal the bilingual culture of her loving, extended family who stepped in to care for the children left behind. Her writing is lush, immersing us in the scent of hot days and bougainvillea, the sounds of children’s games and family feasts, and the colorful beautiful dresses of her mother and aunts. When Marlena is sent as a teen to US boarding schools, the northern climate and culture is a stark, lonely contrast, yet the author slowly and bravely finds her way to free herself of her mother’s claim on her. The memoir also delves into the known story of Spanish Jews who live in Panama, as well as life outside and inside the American canal zone. The book’s dance between Spanish and English fills it with a musical beauty revealing the love and support of this remarkable family.”

Elizabeth Garber, author of Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter

I was totally absorbed and deeply moved by this lyrical memoir that introduces the reader to the sounds and colors of Panama and the bonds linking a Sephardic family in the face of illness and tragedy. The author delicately recreates her struggles as a child and adolescent to come to terms with the mental illness of her mother. We alternately celebrate and grieve with her and catch glimpses of the strength of an extended Sephardic family in a society where they are deeply rooted. Marlena Baraf’s journey from Panama to New York—from girlhood to adulthood—is a universal human story.

Jane S. Gerber, Professor Emerita of History at the Graduate School of the City University of New York and author of The Jews of Spain and The Jews of the Caribbean

“In this lyrical chronicle about a girl growing up Jewish in Panama, we learn from Marlena Baraf that it is possible to live on that narrow edge between countries, languages, and spiritual homes.

Ruth Behar, author of Lucky Broken Girl and An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba

“Reminiscent of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, with its lyrical voice and tender narrator, At the Narrow Waist of the World is a gorgeously vivid memoir that blends the Spanish of the author’s native home and the English of her adopted country to describe the weight of events and a larger-than-life mother who confounds family and psychiatrists alike. The book pulses like a constellation in the night sky.”

Jimin Han, author of A Small Revolution