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Marlena Maduro Baraf


First Language(s): Spanish
Second Language(s): English


Marlena Maduro Baraf immigrated to the United States from her native Panama and her writing is colored by this dual identity. Her memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, was published in August. She’s moved between the worlds of books and design, studied at Parsons School of Design and the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, both in New York.


What was your favorite book as a child?

Growing up in Panama — this was in the 1950s — I remember stories we listened to, cuentos de adas, fairy tales like Caperucita roja and Las mil y una noches, tales with veiled Arab princesses and magic lamps. Parents did not read to children then. My language was Spanish, but at about age 13 I had picked up enough English in school, comic books, and movies to try my first English-language books. I remember Heidi: a little orphaned girl who was taken to live with her strange grandfather in the Swiss Alps and learned to love the mountains. In my favorite, The Secret Garden, an orphaned girl discovered a beautiful, overgrown garden that she tended and brought back to life. Both girls overcame huge obstacles, and nature played a part in their redemption. Years later, I read Nancy Drew stories (all of them?) where the girl was brave and independent and solved mysteries (so different from me or any girls I’d ever met). Where I lived, girls had to be sweet. The whole scenario with Nancy and her dad was like a story on another planet. I left for school in the United States when I was 15 and began reading with a vengeance, my introduction to American culture.

Do you remember the original reason or motivation why you started writing creatively?

I have always written, especially letters. My mother had to go to psychiatric institutions when I was a girl, so I wrote letters to her. When I left for school in the United States at 15, I had lots of people to reach back to in Panama, and I poured my heart out in letters. Letters were really conversations with myself. I also wrote to authors over the years as editor of school books, as well as editing the books. When I studied design I wrote articles on issues in design for my local paper. My need to create on the page was deep. If I had to pin down a specific moment in which I got into “creative writing”, I’d say it was during the economic recession in the US of 2009/2010, when my design business was in trouble, and I decided to sign up for a writing workshop at Sarah Lawrence College near me. This is when I began writing about my mother and my childhood — I just couldn’t stop after that.

What was the most adventurous or thrilling thing you ever did/experienced?

There is no question about it in my mind. It’s when I took a plane, a Braniff flight that left Panama for the US with my mother, to place me in a school in the Allegheny Hills of Pennsylvania, in a paper mill town that stunk. Everything, everything would be new in my life. The food, the kids, the language, the sports. SNOW. In Panama, girls did gimnasia exercises on school grounds. In that first American school, I got to play tennis and was accepted on the field hockey varsity team, I knit long wool scarves and visited the homes of my new friends. It was like being born again in a new place. That was the first year. It changed after that. Some of this is in my memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, which covers that leap into another culture and the adjustments and the beginnings of gaining a world view.

Do you listen to music while reading or writing?

No, I don’t. I don’t like music as background unless I’m at a party or during dinner… I like to pay attention to music when it’s around me. My favorite will have a Latin beat or jazz. Also blues. Rock and Roll. Bossa Nova. Latin jazz is supreme, and near NYC there are many opportunities to listen to the most wonderful jazz performers. When I write, I concentrate on the music in my head, the sounds of the words together. There is music in writing always — it’s essential. In my memoir, it was especially significant, because I was weighing the sounds of English alongside Spanish, and they had to get along.


Living In-Between
Issue Fall '19

Supported by:

Land Steiermark: Kultur, Europa, Außenbeziehungen
U.S. Embassy Vienna
Stadt Graz