Who hasn’t heard of the Panama Canal before? I know I have, and I kind of know where it is and the purpose that it serves. However, I don’t know much about Panama at all, apart from the fact that it is located south of Costa Rica in Central America, and that it is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. I was really excited to read Marlena Maduro Baraf’s memoir At The Narrow Waist Of The World as I wanted to know more about Panama, and about growing up in Panama in the 50’s and 60’s and immigrating to the US from there as a young woman.
At The Narrow Waist Of The World reads just like memories work: small chapters are vignettes of images and thoughts conjuring up a moment in time and a place, people, linked to all of the other vignettes surrounding it. I love that Marlena Maduro Baraf keeps some phrases and words in Spanish as it helps develop an overall view of her life in Panama, but also for personal reasons it reminds me of my memories that are always bilingual. When I try to explain a memory words appear in French first, and then English. Boulangerie is not bakery but boulangerie, corner store will always be Tabac. Marlena Maduro Baraf’s writing has poetic rhythm, and flows like a river through the story: soft and gentle at times, as if floating through hazy summer days, and more powerful, direct in others.
At The Narrow Waist Of The World is a story of growing up Jewish in Panama, a small, but strong, community amongst all of the other communities in the country. It is also the story of growing up with a mentally unstable mother, and the loss of a strong paternal figure early on in life. It is the story of living both in and out of privilege, and of searching for oneself as a teen and then as a young adult, at home amidst family in Panama, in boarding school in the US and then finally as an adult in NYC.
At The Narrow Waist Of The World is a memoir of discovery and self-discovery, and it is also a poignant way of laying the past to rest. As Marlena Maduro Baraf describes her relationship with her mother over the years, and her need to withdraw from her mother’s constant needs and breakdowns, you can also feel her need to lay all of her feelings out in the open as a way to lay them to rest. Sometimes the jumps between time and place were a little overwhelming, and sometimes I had to go back and double check characters as the author has a very large family, but neither of these things really bothered me. I really enjoyed learning more about the modern history of Panama, and of the way Jewish tradition and Panamanian culture blended together as the community grew over the decades. And I also enjoyed Marlena Maduro Baraf’s beautiful writing style and her lyrical voice.
Thanks to Marlena Maduro Baraf and She Writes Press for the advance copy of this beautiful memoir, in exchange for my honest opinion.