‘People Can Become Houses’

In her debut memoir, Sarah Broom builds her “obsession” with her family home — destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina — into a story of how families decide who they are, how they got here, and how they reconstruct themselves over and over again.

Danielle A. Jackson  | Longreads | September 2019 | 18 minutes (4,289 words)

The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom’s debut memoir, tells the story of the light-green shotgun house in New Orleans East her mother, Ivory Mae, bought in 1961. At 19, Ivory Mae was the first in her immediate family to own a home; her mother had been born on a plantation in St. Charles Parish. Over years of renovations, the house acquired a second floor at its rear and a layer of pale yellow vinyl siding. 

The book is also about a neighborhood, a city, a nation, and how generations of systemic neglect weigh on the human beings who bear it. New Orleans East was a vast, mostly undeveloped marshland in the early ’60s, a fledgling suburb within the city held afloat by investment from retailers and oil developers. Its neighborhoods were, at the time, predominantly white. The public schools were not yet integrated. 

The Brooms built a lively home life there. Sarah, the youngest of 12, was born in 1979. Largely missing from city maps and narratives that highlight the tourist-friendly French Quarter, New Orleans East fell into disrepair by the late ’80s. As investors pulled out, its streets became lined with abandoned apartment buildings and men in cars soliciting sex.

Sarah was just 6 months old when her father, Simon Broom, died suddenly at home. She came of age with the ache of his absence. The house became increasingly difficult to maintain, and shame settled in alongside the family’s grief.

 

Throughout The Yellow House’s four sections, which Broom calls “movements,” after the parts of a symphony, she pulls from hundreds of hours of interviews to include exceptionally long passages where her family members speak for themselves; the book is, in part, an oral history. She says it is because their stories “compose” hers. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans East and destroyed their home. By then, Broom had a magazine job in New York and had been gone from her hometown for nearly a decade. Her Louisiana family recounts the storm in “Water,” the book’s riveting third movement. In the fourth, the author unravels the questions the full text poses: about grief and identity, American racism and environmental catastrophe, family and womanhood and the multiple meanings of home.

The Yellow House is beautifully wrought on a grand scale and at the level of the sentence. It is intricately researched, narratively complex, and dives into the most fundamental questions of our time: Who am I? How did I become me? How does one survive catastrophe when it is inevitable? How does one rebuild? The Yellow House was longlisted for a National Book Award and became a New York Times best seller in late August. I spoke to Broom two days before its release. A condensed version of our conversation follows. 

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Longreads: Even before Toni Morrison passed away, I’d noticed certain things about The Yellow House that reminded me of her novels. Beloved begins by mapping the house where Sethe and her family live, the place that is haunted, with an address: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children.” There’s a scene in the documentary The Pieces I Am showing how Morrison sketched out a floor plan of this house. The architecture and physicality of a house and how a house can live as an object, but also as an imagined thing, a goal, a part of us, is really the foundation of your book. Could you talk about Toni Morrison’s influence on you and your work?

Sarah M. Broom: I remember finding out that Toni Morrison had died. It was rainy and dim where I was in upstate New York, and I kept thinking, This day is so low hanging. That’s how I kept imagining it. Almost like the sky was hovering close, just above my head. I felt grief. It was bottomless and familial. The way that one grieves a family member is like grieving a part of a system, a part of an organism. And I knew this, but I really knew this after she died — she was literally a part of my system. A part of what it meant for me to be a writer. She was so interwoven in these layered ways into the ways in which I think. 

In The Yellow House, I talk about “water having a perfect memory” [from the essay “The Site of Memory”]. Most people only mention that part of the essay, about how water is forever trying to get back to where it was. But the part that comes after that is equally as important. She says, “Writers are like that, remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.” Writing this book for me was driven in some deep way by that quotation, which is really about the ways in which Morrison thought about and dealt with place. It was a given and known thing that she was from Lorain, Ohio. I think that in a way she was always writing deeply about place and about belonging.

There was an interview a few years ago in the Telegraph, where she is talking about a conversation with her sister, Lois, who still lived in their hometown. Her sister told her the street where they grew up is gone. In the interview she says that her sister drew her a map of the street and wrote in the names of the people who used to live in the houses on their street. They figured out that 20 houses were gone. What Morrison said in the interview is that loss, that absence of the houses and all the memories they held, it’s a death. That idea fueled me as I was trying to understand my book and the architecture of it. 

Another thing about Morrison, which matters so much to me: Often, especially with writers of color, people focus a lot on our story and less on our craft. Toni Morrison wrote sentences that were so multi-varied and layered and also were road maps to something. Beyond that, they had an innate musicality to them and they made you feel. I think often when certain writers make you feel, people misunderstand the difficulty of that. Making a person feel something is the greatest thing an artist can do, and it’s all about craft. It’s about rhythm and cadence and tone.

Is it also about what you have to take out to get to that? What isn’t there?

Absolutely. There is a composed-ness. It’s jazz-ical. Great language and great writing is jazz-ical, it’s spontaneous but it’s super controlled. Whenever I was at a point that I felt that I needed to remember the sounds of what writing could do, I always read Toni Morrison. And that’s a gift. I’ll probably be rereading her throughout this entire book tour because I can’t imagine not having her voice every single day. 

Do you read your work out loud while working on it?

Yes, yes I do. There are lots of revisions and one of them is a read-aloud revision. Normally what happens is I start reading it aloud and then I’m disgusted with the work and I give it up. I have to be in a certain mood where I’m feeling generous toward myself. And when I’m not feeling generous, I hate every word and I can’t read it. 

This book has a lot of different registers, so to speak. The beginning of it is more biblical in tone. It’s setting the foundation for a world. It’s the frame. Often when telling our stories, we don’t get to take time to set things up.

The character that is you doesn’t come into the story until 100 pages in. 

Precisely. That was a choice and I was doing a few things with that. One, I was saying we don’t just arrive to the earth and the story begins. The story has already begun. My child and the environmental and racial catastrophe that they inherit won’t just begin at the moment of birth. They’re the carriers of it, and they enter into an entire world of things. In a book which is partly about foundations and the literal ground our house was built on, this is how I’m literally shoring up the house I’m going to build. I’m shoring it up. There’s a moment where I ask, “How do I resurrect a house with words?” What you’re going to understand when I do come into the story at 5 years old is so different because you already know there are 11 other people.  

Also, I wanted to establish the women in this story and create its matriarchal world. The pacing is different than most memoirs, for sure. It’s much more biblical. I’m telling you the lineage: So-and-so begat so-and-so. Then I’m giving you an enormous amount of history that’s not just familial history, but also city history and then American history. They are all moving together.

Often, especially with writers of color, people focus a lot on our story and less on our craft.

The book is structured in “movements.” And like you mentioned, they’re very different in tone and feeling. What we’ve been talking about is the first movement, what you call, “The World Before Me.” The rest is more like a traditional memoir, told mostly from your point of view. Because there is no “witness,” so to speak, in that first section, was the writing process much different from the rest?

There are a few moments [in the first movement] where I indicate that I am the one telling the story. You’re right, that section is completely reported. The other movements are equally as reported. In other words, if I remembered something I would, during the course of the interview with my family, say “Do you remember this thing happening?” or, “Is it true that … ?” Or I would tell a story and my mother would say, “Yeah, remember when you would open the presents under the Christmas tree and try to tape them back?” I was still relying in some way on other people’s memory and other people were correcting my memory. There were times when I would remember something incorrectly. I remembered that my childhood friend Alvin was killed on Chef Menteur Highway at the corner of where our house was. But when I went into the archive and inspected the microfiche, I discovered he actually was killed nowhere near our corner. He was killed five blocks away. The tricky nature of memory has me placing it differently. With the accounts of others, I could fact-check my memory. It was interesting to be in a kind of contention with myself over memory.

My training is as a journalist. I could have written an entire book on New Orleans East. Most people know of the Lower Ninth Ward. The Lower Ninth is a single neighborhood. New Orleans East, which is in the Ninth Ward, is an area, a section, composed of many neighborhoods. I’m writing about a sliver of this, which is the area right off of Chef Menteur Highway, where I grew up. I could have spent forever with the research. There was reporting and oral history, there was recollection, and just a lot of me driving to cemeteries and being in Catholic libraries and consulting their records. There was probably a book-size amount of things that I just left out.


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How did you make the decision to not write that book? The book that is a history of New Orleans East, or a history of the streets or the houses, the collection of homes closest to where you grew up? How did you decide to make it a history of those things and those places, but told through the lens of the people in your life?

I have always been obsessed with human beings. I love people and I love their stories. I also love architecture a lot. I could have written a book that was more about geography, and I think I will still write that book, or I hope I will have the opportunity to write that book, and many other books. 

For this book, I drew many maps to work from. An early one was a dot in the center of the page, which was the yellow house. Think of a concentric circle. The next layer was the street that the house was on, and the next layer was the area of the city, which was New Orleans East. And then the next layer or the next rung was New Orleans. And then around all of that was America.

I tried to stay very, very focused on telling this multirung story: How do you tell it small and how do you tell it big? If I’m going to tell you about a house, I have to tell you about the people who live in that house because the people make the house. I stayed very close to that map. I knew that I had to jump away from certain things. I would spend a lot of time on New Orleans East and then I’d go, OK, how does that connect to New Orleans? And how does New Orleans connect to America?

And then you go even broader when you connect the city to the global South. After Katrina, after the family home has been demolished, after the death of her grandmother as a result, in many ways it seems to me, of the storm. The narrator, who has been away from home for college and graduate school and is settled in Harlem, working, goes to work in Burundi, which I did not expect.

You didn’t expect that?

No, I did not, I really did not. 

Did it feel strange to be there?

No, it didn’t feel strange to be there. There is foreshadowing that the narrator has a kind of wanderlust. But it’s a leap in a sense because we’ve been so focused, tightly on a very specific place for about 200 pages. Even though we go to Texas with the narrator, for school, we’ve been so close and focused on New Orleans East and New Orleans and Louisiana. Then it’s like the world of the book explodes suddenly.

I have a very strong belief that in order to understand any place you need to see it from all perspectives. And in many ways the American way is to stay extremely myopic. That’s something about America that I resist. The way that I like to be in the world is to constantly be telescoping out to ask what does a new place teach me about a place I know already? What don’t I understand about this place that I’m not even thinking about, and how does the new place teach me or help me gain insight? When writing that movement, I was reading Dante’s Inferno, which I think now just seems completely infused.  

The narrator feels dislocated and forcibly displaced. Even though she wasn’t in Louisiana during Katrina. I hadn’t yet seen a story about a kind of environmental and human disaster that talked about what happens when you’re not there when it happens. Because if it’s your family, it happened to you. The narrator goes on this journey and she’s flailing. At first she’s obsessed with going home, and then she needs relief. She has pain, and she needs to — I need to — go farther and farther away. I’m becoming more and more displaced. I’m getting farther away from the place that actually can be the answer for what I’m trying to find, but in a way I find the answers in Burundi. And then of course that entire movement ends with me back in New Orleans, working in City Hall.

The way that I like to be in the world is to constantly be telescoping out to ask what does a new place teach me about a place I know already?

In the preface, you talk about how it is upsetting the natural order of things to write a family history when you are the youngest. I know you have a lot of experience writing about your family, which means they have a lot of experience being written about. How did you reconcile or manage everyone’s feelings about the book?

That’s tricky. It’s all happening on many layers. First of all, in the reporting, I’m making it clear to each person that this is going to be a book, and at the end of it, in the revision, I’m reminding people of certain things that might be really personal. I tell them, when I know, that this thing or that thing made it in the book. People had various reactions to that.

I tried to be very careful with building out my siblings as people. For me, the way to honor this was not to write a one-dimensional human being, a person who lacked nuance. I tried to be true to them by giving them the complexity that they actually have and allowing them to be real on the page. Because then they’re in context. You’re understanding Carl in context. When you read about him cutting the grass [of the yellow house after it has been demolished], you’ve already seen him do so many things before that moment and seen the way in which he is in the world. So it makes sense. With my brother Daryl, you see him at first as this guy who is struggling to understand his place and his role in the family, but then becomes someone who is quite ordinary in the end with a big house. Then I’m the person who is still hanging on to old stories and old fears. I think I put myself on the line. It would have felt weird to me if I were telling the story of all these people and not putting myself on the line. 

My mother is a very sophisticated reader who is capable of reading about herself and telling me what annoyed her, even though she remembered saying it. At the same time that I’m allowing everyone space, I’m also remembering that this is my story. And my job. My mother said to me, “Do the homework, do the labor, and tell the truth.” When I gave her the book she said, “I think you did both.” That meant a lot to me.

Another thing that is different from a traditional memoir is that there are several moments where you allow your family members’ voices to rest uninterrupted on the page, as they are. Your mother, Ms. Ivory Mae Broom, takes over for several pages in the middle of the text. She’s telling the story as herself. It’s very lovely. Can you talk about that choice?  

Well first of all, just on a very basic level, I love the sound of my mother’s voice, I love her sentence construction. She is really an interesting person to listen to. Number two, I needed her. It was a profound act for me to allow her to speak for herself in the middle of my story. It created a generational feeling, a sense that, even though I am telling you my story, my mother could pipe up at any moment and say, ‘But wait what about this thing? Or why don’t you do this thing?’

Maybe my mother will never write a memoir or autobiography or any other book. You could just read her part of The Yellow House and that would give you a complete story. A lot of people say this is a book about race and injustice, and it is. But this is also a story about a woman who was 19 years old, who bought a house with every dime she had, and raised a family in it. I don’t want the humanity of this, the profundity of this, to be lost. My mother is a woman who had a house and who lost that house and who was tethered to that place. We all were tethered.

When she describes the end of the house, that is one of the hardest sections for me. That section comes from a great big interview, and I edited the interview. In the interview, I asked, “What were the last days of the house like?” My mother gave a very long answer. I revised it, I cut. I didn’t change the words, but I tightened. The work of it is how it’s edited. And it’s profound. What she says is philosophical. She talks about people becoming houses eventually.

She says that you all are the house.

Yeah. And that’s a really philosophical idea, that people can become houses, that houses can live and die. At that moment I realized I am my mother’s daughter. Everything she just said is the philosophical grounding for why I even think I can personify this house and tell a whole big story about it. Like she literally gave me this way of thinking. There are a lot of pauses in that section.

I was obsessed with the physical house. And then that shifted after 2005 because I was then contending with an absence.

Yeah, those pauses…  I think the preservation of her voice is really beautiful because she is so clearly a different character speaking than the narrator.

This is a book about generations. I have a different experience of the world in certain ways than my mother. But also, this woman gave birth to me, I am her child. I’m not far away from her. We’re essentially the same. So if you dare judge her or the sound of her then how do you contend with how her child, who she gave birth to, who she made, sounds? My own voice is a mix of high and low. I was trying to play with the ways in which language works.

How long did it take you to write the book?

Eight years, because I was writing as I was researching. But I was thinking about the house long before that moment, obviously. I got a book deal in 2011, but I was making notes long before. The sections of the book that have to do with the house and its state of disrepair were taken from the notes I wrote in the late ’90s.

When you were in college?

Yes, from notebooks I had. I was obsessed with the physical house. And then that shifted after 2005 because I was then contending with an absence. I was then trying to figure out what it meant that the house was no longer there, which changed the nature of the story.

I think a lot of times, when people are thinking about cities that do not get a lot of coverage in the national news, they don’t really understand how those cities are important to us all, as a country. They get dismissed as flyover country. Can you talk about why New Orleans is important to America? Also, what is the myth of New Orleans that you are revising with this book?

I think when it’s not hurricane season and there is no looming storm, New Orleans is actually a cipher, it’s whatever you need it to be. Generally what you need it to be is related to a feeling. It’s related to a kind of exoticness, a sense of timelessness. It’s the most different city in America people generally say. I want to point out that I love New Orleans more than any other place on planet Earth. Which is precisely, as James Baldwin said, why I think I critique it. I believe all those sentimental things too. But its 1,000 times more complicated than that. It’s a city with a massive amount of dysfunction. It’s really small. I think people often forget that New Orleans has a population of fewer than 400,000 people. 

That was a surprise to read. I think the number in your book is 300,000 or something like that?

At the time of writing, it was smaller. But this is not a major city. This is a really small place. You can see dysfunction in terms of what the economics are like. It’s hard for people to find good-paying jobs. It’s hard for people to find adequate health care. There is a major homelessness problem. There isn’t enough affordable housing. Every single time there’s a hard rain or a flood or possible storm, the media story becomes about failing New Orleans. But after [Katrina in] 2005, there were so many trips to talk to the Dutch about their water system and the ways in which they live with water. None of those ideas have ever been implemented. I always feel in those moments that we’re not allowing the city to actually be a complicated place that just isn’t dealing with the issues that it’s facing.

I grew up there and I had a substandard education there. And many of my siblings did. And they are the beating pulp and heart of New Orleans. If we fall into pathologizing it, or needing it to be this romantic, exotic place, we really don’t allow space for any kind of critique of the place because we’re sensitive about it. And in the process, maybe inadvertently, we smother the voices of the people who live there.

What do you hope will come as a result of your book being in the world and being the kind of work that upends those notions and tells a more complex story about the city?

I hope the words New Orleans East get said more, that people will have a reference for it. I really hope that this book connects to the people who I wrote it for — my nieces and nephews mostly, and the children who still live on the short end of the street where I grew up. I saw them recently, and I think a lot about the story they would tell about where they’re from. I hope that someday they get to read this book and think, “I wasn’t alone.”

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Danielle A. Jackson is a contributing editor at Longreads.

Editor: Kelly Stout
Copy editor: Jacob Gross