“What are the characteristics of a place that creates writers?” asks author Sarah M. Broom. “Why are there not a thousand books by black New Orleanians about what it was like to grow up here?”
These questions come on the eve of the release of the native New Orleanian’s debut book “The Yellow House” (Grove Press, Aug. 13, $26). An amalgam of reporting and lived experience, it’s a deeply personal and detailed history of family and place.
"Her memoir isn’t just a Katrina story — it has a lot more on its mind," wrote The New York Times' Dwight Garner. "But the storm and the way it scattered her large family across America give this book both its grease and its gravitas."
Broom, 39 and now a resident of Harlem, New York, was in town last month visiting family, which she tries to do frequently. She recently purchased a home in the Faubourg Marigny, which she leaves open for members of her family. She had just come from running errands with her mother, Ivory Mae, one of the book’s main subjects.
Ivory Mae purchased her New Orleans East home in 1961 for $3,200 in cash. She was 19 years old at the time, and she would raise 12 children in this one house.
“When I was growing up, there was just no reference,” Broom says. “There certainly wasn’t a book about coming from New Orleans East.”
After graduating from Word of Faith Christian Academy, Broom left New Orleans for the University of North Texas in 1997. She started taking notes on something she called “yellow house,” thinking mostly about the physicality of the home in which she grew up. She thought of the askew floor, the door frames, the scenery framed by the windows. She thought how glad she was to be out of the house, which her mother described as unfit for guests.
Then, in 2006, the house “went missing.”
“Whereas before I was thinking about something that was there, suddenly I was writing about absence,” Broom says. “It changed everything.”
Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures decimated large portions of New Orleans East, including the Broom family home. The structure, one of 1,975 deemed in “imminent danger of collapse,” was demolished by the city the following summer.
“Part of why this book took so long is because I was so adamant about not writing a Katrina book, whatever that means,” says Broom. "And I say that not because I don’t think Katrina was a significant event, but because it was being thought of out of context. The absence of context feels like displacement.”
While much more than a book about Katrina and its aftermath, “The Yellow House” is one of the most distinctive and important entries in the canon of New Orleans literature produced in the post-Katrina era. Broom writes from an insider’s perspective of loss and recovery, but she also frames her subjects, and herself, outside of catastrophe. The result is a debut that occupied the entire front page of the Aug. 11 New York Times Book Review.
“I think it would not have been my story if I centered Katrina and didn’t talk about what composes a life and what are all of the devastating, damaging things. And what are all the joyful things that have happened?” Broom says.
Broom, who prefers to write around 4 a.m., speaks of her process in terms of excavation. Her storytelling is imbued with layers and polysemy and explores themes of lineage, passage, and grief. She writes in detail of a time long before she was born, conceptualizing history as solid ground upon which to build the structure of her story.
“The thing about this book is it couldn’t drown in research,” she says. “It had to be a little light on its feet, a little tactile. It had to have history, but not be weighed down in it.”
Broom has a journalism background. As an undergrad, she was set on writing for newspapers. She completed summer internships at The Times-Picayune, The Dallas Morning News, and The Providence Journal. She attended the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, studying with New York magazine founder Clay Felker, Berkeley professor and author Michael Pollan and professor and journalist Cynthia Gorney. Broom was most excited to study with June Jordan, a Jamaican American poet and professor at Berkeley, but Jordan died the summer before Broom was to attend the school, so she relied on Jordan’s books for her literary education, citing “Affirmative Acts: Political Essays,” “Civil Wars” and “Things That I Do In The Dark” as pivotal texts in her development as a writer.
After graduating, Broom worked for a year at Time Asia in Hong Kong as a stringer, then moved to Harlem, working at O, The Oprah Magazine as an assistant. Determined to ingratiate herself at the magazine, she pleaded with one of the features editors to let her open newly arrived galleys and log them into the magazine’s database. This led to a job as assistant editor, which eventually led to Broom writing a cover story for the magazine about growing up in such a large family.
Broom then lived in the African country of Burundi, then in Washington D.C., working in the nonprofit sector. She had a stint working as a speechwriter for Mayor Ray Nagin in 2008, a post she abandoned after six months. In 2011, Broom began seriously working on what would become “The Yellow House.” She left Harlem and moved to the French Quarter.
“Not only was I writing a book,” Broom says, “I was becoming a writer.”
Much of her research consisted of a combination of family albums and library archives. Over a year, she interviewed her many relatives — aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and mother — tracing her family’s history and trying to corroborate narratives. She’d spend days sorting through archived material at the University of New Orleans, the New Orleans Public Library’s Louisiana Division and the Historic New Orleans Collection.
“I was collecting the stories and trying to figure out who had the same story, or who had a different piece of the story,” Broom says. “But I was also fact-checking the story, and I was also being fact checked. I had stories that were passed on to me that turned out to be completely not true.” With 11 older siblings, all of whom are still alive, she struggled with her self-appointed role as storyteller. “My perspective is that when you’re the youngest child, you’re hearing about who you are through other people," she says, "and those people have more history than you.”
Broom says if she were had conformed to a more classic memoir approach, the first 100 pages of her book would be gone, and the story would begin with her. “But that’s not the way that I see the world,” Broom says. “I was born into a story that had already begun. I’m part of a line. That’s context for me.”
According to Broom, to write well one must have “enormous confidence on the page.” “That’s how you find voice, how you find a point of view,” she says. “That’s really hard to do when you’re a listener and taking in all of these other people’s stories.”
When Broom received a finished hardcover copy of “The Yellow House,” she gave the book to her mother. “It was very emotional. We cried, and I’m not a big crier. Neither is my Mom. I’ve only seen her cry a few times,” Broom says. “Both of my mom’s siblings have died since I started writing the book. That's been really hard because they gave me so much information and so many stories. Their lives are in the book.”
Asked what her mother had thought of the story, Broom laughs. “She read the book, then was silent. It was worse than submitting to any editor ever in the history of my life. Submitting to The New Yorker was nothing compared to submitting to my mother.”
Broom describes feeling anxious waiting to hear from the person she considers her most important reader. Ivory Mae invited her daughter over to her house in Raceland for a dinner of chicken and carrots and they discussed the finished book.
“The Yellow House” contains the pieces of many lives, but no one person receives more attention in this sweeping, multigenerational memoir than the author’s mother. Broom’s investigations are hinged on a history of parallels, with the house serving as the framework and the life of Ivory Mae occupying the foreground. “I felt like the work for me was to write about my mom not as a mom, but as a woman,” says Broom. “The mom might be one-dimensional, but the woman is incredibly layered and nuanced.”
The story reveals intimate details of Ivory Mae’s life, some of which were perhaps easier to live with when forgotten. Intensely personal moments are laid bare, exposing the private inner workings of a family. Bygone individuals from Ivory Mae’s earlier life are brought alive on the page, only to disappear again. In such a book, the weight contained in a long and full life, and all of the lives connected to it, is inescapable.
“She said, ‘Everything is true, but it’s really hard for me to read,’” Broom recounts. “I said I was sorry that it hurt.”
As Broom writes, “Remembering is a chair that is hard to sit still in.”
Speaking of her visual acuity, she describes herself as blind. In the book, she writes of how for the first 10 years of her life she hid the fact of her poor eyesight, until the problem could no longer be concealed. “My poor sight and the hiding of it shapes my behavior and thus my personality, becomes me in a way only time made me know,” she writes.
The difficulty of seeing, in Broom’s estimation, is tantamount to what she calls “the American problem”: We’re too easily made uncomfortable, too averse to confronting hardship. For readers who have described “The Yellow House” as distressing, Broom posits that this type of feeling is perhaps representative of our culture’s reluctance to reflect.
“I don’t know how often we practice just sitting with things and letting them sort of just take root inside of us,” she says. “This book was an exercise in that.
“It was really painful to remember the house,” she says, “to resurrect it in words.”
The day before this interview, Broom visited the site of the house in New Orleans East, the first time she had been there since her mother signed over the property to Road Home in 2015. She describes the visit as “horrifying but also instructive.” The lot was empty, all signs of a house ever having been there absent.
“I felt strangely thankful that the book existed, which I hadn’t felt before,” Broom says. “I felt like it was a record. People will know that something was there.”
— Andru Okun is a New Orleans writer. Contact him at www.andruokun.com.