An author who made Edgemont her home after growing up in Panama is set to release her memoir focusing on family, mental illness, faith and making a new life early next month. Marlena Baraf, who describes Scarsdale as having been central to her life for the past 35 years, owns local design business “Just North” and published the first chapter of her book in the Westchester Review prior to its completion.
The book, “At The Narrow Waist of the World,” describes Baraf’s life growing up in a Spanish Jewish family during the 1950s and ’60s in the very Catholic country of Panama. Baraf recounts living with a mentally ill mother, the support of a colorful family and moving to the unfamiliar culture of the United States in her teens.
Described by Baraf as a coming-of-age story that demonstrates the importance of family, the bond between a mother and daughter and what it means to find a home between two cultures, the memoir is heavy on Latin American themes and experiences.
“It’s multicultural because it’s an immigrant story and it’s about being Panamanian and Jewish,” said Baraf. “So you have that tension, that inside or outside of it. We were part of the various Spanish Jews in the 1950s [who were] very much assimilated in Panamanian culture, but you do have a little bit of the insider/outsider. And then I came to this country for school and chose to stay … so you have that multicultural feel.”
Growing up, Baraf went to a Catholic nuns’ school as well as a Jewish school on Saturday mornings, and her family saw the U.S. as a place that championed religious freedom in a way that made it a good place for attending higher education. Baraf said the narrower lives of Latin American women and the dynamic between herself and her mother, among other factors, made staying in the U.S. a more appealing choice post graduation.
After coming to the states, Baraf worked as a book editor at McGraw-Hill and Harper & Row Publishers before studying at Parsons School of Design, after which she opened her own design studio. Many of the friends she met in New York, as well as clients she worked with when launching her career, had grown up with or were based out of Scarsdale where she decided to settle after graduating.
She took a break to raise her two sons Arthur and Eduardo, and in 2011 when the economic recession was still dampening her design business, she decided to take her lifelong love of writing and move it a step forward by attending the Sarah Lawrence Institute of Writing.
“They had a course called ‘Finding Your Voice’ and the second assignment was about a memory that was very difficult in your life,” said Baraf. “I wrote this piece about my mother, who struggled with mental illness, she was very troubled, and that just opened the gates — I couldn’t stop.”
Baraf described the writing of the book as being a lyrical, rhythmic mix of Spanish and English that gives the reader a sense of the life she lived while mixing two cultures.
“I couldn’t divorce myself from the Spanish of my childhood, it’s in there, it’s in English, but a little music with a little bit of Spanish,” said Baraf.
“At The Narrow Waist of the World,” like many memoirs, addresses some of the most personal and intimate moments of Baraf’s life, including the death of her father and learning how to handle her mother’s erratic behavior. Though painful at times and a project she hadn’t thought she would undertake until inspired by her writing class, Baraf said the process of writing the book has helped bridge some gaps from her past.
“I got very close to my sister and two brothers and they told me some of their memories,” said Baraf. “The message is that community and extended family really provide a safe harbor and I do think that community is so important.”
Though Baraf’s book officially releases on Aug. 6, with a launch event on Sunday, Sept. 15 at Barnes & Noble Eastchester, she continues writing on a regular basis with her blog “Soy/Somos.” The blog, written in English, features interviews with Hispanic individuals from all walks of life who have fascinating stories that others might not fully understand due to a language barrier. Baraf interviews these individuals, who range from musicians and gardeners to carpet layers and chiropractors, and shares their stories online in an effort to demonstrate a collective sense of humanity during a time she feels is polarizing.
The message of “Soy/Somos” is similar to the message she hopes people garner from “At The Narrow Waist of the World” — one that highlights the joys of multiculturalism and a shared sense of being human.
“We are a nation of immigrants and we don’t always think of it that way,” said Baraf. “There’s marriage across race and ethnicity, we travel, and I think it’s such an important part of our life and so, in a way, my book has that message that is important right now.”