Every so often, a book comes around that must be read far and wide regardless of usual taste in literature or culture. The story is personal but also transcendent. It is written intimately but speaks globally. Sarah M. Broom’s memoir about the house her family lived in is that story now.
The titular yellow house of Broom’s memoir The Yellow House was nestled in the neighborhood known as New Orleans East. Purchased in the 1960s by Broom’s mother Ivory Mae, it was filled with hope. Filled with a dozen children, the house was filled with love. It was also filled, at times, with chaos. Its meandering history came to a devastating end in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Broom tracks her family and the house through an intimate lease filled with many nooks and crannies just like the house she grew up in.
Broom has spent a career where her work has been featured the New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Oxford American, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She has also been awarded many grants and fellowships, including the Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant.
I spoke to her about her time growing up in New Orleans East, her career, and what it was like writing such an intimate story about her life and her family.
What is a word or phrase you think of when you think of New Orleans?
I think when I think of New Orleans is that it’s complicated. I thought that even as a kid.
What do outsiders seem to think about it? Do you hear a lot of misconceptions?
They mostly have good things to say or have warm feeling experiences. They say it’s their favorite city in America or that they love it They say it’s so magical there. I think all of those descriptions aren’t that true to some extent. It’s more than that. They think it’s this cool and unusual place that feels old and loaded with history.
What was New Orleans like growing up?
Honestly, I don’t think I was thinking of the fallacy of New Orleans. I just wanted to play with my friends. It was playing in the yard with Alvin and my nieces and nephews. I wasn’t thinking about the things I started thinking about when I was getting older or what I am thinking about now. I was in my own world. We lived in this cool spot that had a lot of land.
That’s what I remember. We had a lot of land. My mom had a vegetable garden and it felt that we had this lush place that was all of our own. Of course, as I got older, it started to get more complicated.
But growing up, I don’t know how different growing ups are when it boils down to it.
I moved across the country three times and yeah the scenery was different, but everything – the friendships, the school, the growing pains – were the same.
When did you start to think about New Orleans differently?
Probably when I left there in 1997 or 1998 for college. College is this really intense incubator of thoughts, feelings, and ideas. That’s when I started to look back on it and think about it differently. As a freshman in college, I started these notebooks, which I looked back on in 2011 when I started writing the book, and I read what I wrote about the house. I wrote about what I remembered about the house and what bothered me about the house. It was then that I started making certain connections that I eventually wrote about in the book.
Between 1998 and 2011, did you think about the house a lot?
I was thinking about it a lot. It was my obsession. My obsession is general is home and place. It probably will be for the rest of my life. I was writing about other things, but I was still thinking and writing a lot about it.
I wrote about my childhood friend Alvin when I was in the magazine journalism program at UC Berkeley around 2001. In 2005, when Katrina happened, I did the cover story for O Magazine. It was a story about what happened to my family. I was writing obsessively about it for a while and it was agitating me.
So in 2005, I started thinking about it differently when the house was devastated. In 2006, the house was demolished. Then I was not writing about a place I could look at and take pictures of. I was writing about the ‘after.’ That’s when things changed for me and gave it all these layers that it didn’t have before.
When I started the book in 2011, I knew it had to be this very nuanced and layered book. It had to be like the house where it had all of this space and these nooks and crannies hiding places. I think it has all of these places you can go inside of it.
As someone who has lived in the northeast and southeast my entire life, I don’t think I think about hurricanes even as they’re happening. I feel super removed from it. The devastation is something I have never experienced. But growing up in New Orleans, was hurricane preparedness always something on your family’s mind?
No, not really. It’s like people in San Francisco aren’t going around thinking “an earthquake can happen.” It’s a similar thing. In hurricane season, you are more aware of it. The whole world kind of changes, meteorologically. You become slightly more aware.
I don’t remember an evacuation my entire childhood. Or I don’t remember feeling in danger. I definitely remember lots of pooling of water. When it rains, water just lived there for many days and didn’t go anywhere. I wasn’t thinking anything like our land is less solid. I was just thinking that there was water there for five days.
In 2005, you weren’t living in New Orleans, but what was it like leading up to that August? Was family talking about what was coming to you?
It’s sort of what I write about. I was checking in and seeing how people were. That wasn’t just that unusual for us. We were just keeping an eye out, which is something we were sort of just trained to do.
What was your family’s reaction to the book as you started digging more into the past?
I think it was hard. They were used to it because I had written so much about them in the past. They understood a recorder because I always had one around. I took a lot of care to tell them what I was doing. A lot of it was asking for details. When I started I only had frames of it and there was a lot to fill in. I had to ask them very intimate details. They would want to share just a piece of the story and I found we had to physically work through stories. It was intense. About five months in, we were all exhausted.
It was hard and emotional. There was a lot of sobbing. We took a lot of walks. A lot of walks with my mom. I tried to empathize a lot with her while I was doing my work.
Would there be times when you would talk to a family member about a story and then months later they would come back and reveal more about it?
As with any story, especially one you’re working on over a long time, there were often moments like that. Sometimes people need time. I need time as a writer. There are ways to see something completely new on the 6th, 7th, or 8th revision. I would go back to things just to make sure I got it right.
Was family involved in reading early drafts or did you keep that distant from them?
No. No early drafts. Part of that is that I am trained in newspaper writer where we are trained to never let our sources read our writing. There were moments where I would read things to my mother or my siblings, but could you imagine 11 people reading something and telling me their opinions about it. Very early on my mother told me to do my work and figure out as much as I can so I could tell the truth. If my siblings read early drafts I feel they would have told me they didn’t like how I wrote certain things. That’s what they do after every article comes out. I have to gently remind them that it’s my story. I felt like having them read it that early would sully it. I had to get out what was in my head.
My mom has read it now in its entirety. That’s the most important person to have as a reader.
What was her reaction to it?
I think it was hard for her to read, of course. It’s her story. It’s her life. There are difficult things in it even though they are true. She said I told the truth. She said it’s all true.
You’ve been obsessed with place and home for most of your writing career. What else would you like to explore?
Many things. I have a very broad interest. I’m a little superstitious. When I am writing something, it’s very fragile. I never want to damage something by talking about it. I have very global interests. That’s what I would say. I am very interest in the world and how one story can reflect on the world at large. A lot of the stuff I am going to work on next is more global. Then there is a lot of environmental stuff.