Sarah Broom on family bonds and the meaning of home in her award-winning memoir, The Yellow House
This interview was originally broadcast in 2020.
With her debut book, The Yellow House, Sarah M. Broom earned widespread acclaim as a compelling new voice on the literary scene. The memoir won the 2019 National Book Award for non-fiction, the National Book Critics Circle's prize for first book, and was named by The New York Times as one of the five best nonfiction titles of the year.
The Yellow House tells the story of Broom's upbringing and family history in the challenging neighbourhood of New Orleans East, and the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on this community in 2005. It centres on the house where Broom, the youngest of 12 children, was raised by her widowed mother — a home that was a source of both pride and shame, which remains an important symbol in Broom's imagination.
Recounting racism and political indifference in the wake of the hurricane, The Yellow House is a moving meditation on family memories, struggle and the evolving nature of home.
Broom talked to Eleanor Wachtel from New York City in 2020.
What my mother taught me
"'Begin as you want to end' is something my mother would always tell me. One of the things that I thought so much about — when I was doing the research for this book — was how to give context to the world as I saw it into my own life.
"I wanted to talk about what it meant to have come from this particular place — New Orleans and New Orleans East. What it meant to come from these particular women — my mother, my grandmother, her mother — and then I wanted that to form the basis for the story.
"There's a kind of rigour that I approach to telling my story, and that's my mother through and through. The 'begin as you want to end,' to me, signified a kind of depth.
There's a kind of rigour that I approach to telling my story, and that's my mother through and through.
"I wanted to also find moments to get lost and to not know what would come next. That became the fun part of writing this book for me.
"The 'getting lost' is the practice of writing. There are things we know as writers, but the fun part is what we don't know. Toni Morrison said 'I'm stimulated by what I don't know,' and I feel that way. So the trick was not to hold so tightly to any ideas or theories but to also be a little wild, a little lost and be okay with the vulnerable feeling of that."
New Orleans nostalgia
When I think of my grandmother Lolo, I think immediately of her baking things and making things, creating things. Lolo was a person who made pecan candy, which some people call pralines, but she put coconut in it. She was always experimenting.
"She was this woman who had worked so hard to become a nurse in New Orleans during a time when that was very nearly impossible for Black women.
My grandmother created, for all of us, a sense of how to make a home — and the critical importance of making home wherever you found yourself.
"She was also someone who cared so deeply about family. She always tried to create places wherever she went, even if she was there for a short period of time.
"My grandmother created, for all of us, a sense of how to make a home — and the critical importance of making home wherever you found yourself.
"I see so much of Lolo in my mother. My mom is meticulous about detail. It's her specificity about how to make a place which is one of the key ways that I see her creative output. She's the reason why I started to think of abiding in a place or in a house or in a room as a kind of creative act."
"My mom was born in 1941. She was the last of my grandmother's children. She bought the Yellow House which I write about and made this world inside of it. My mother was always a very striving woman, a woman who appreciated beauty. She was always making things with her hands. She, from a very young age, sewed clothes and was raised by my grandmother to be someone very concerned with how she presented herself. Maybe this made her into the sort of woman who cared so much about what other people thought of her or how she was presenting.
"But she cared very much about what things looked like and this made what ultimately happened to the Yellow House a bit unbearable for her."
The impact of Katrina
"I was in New York when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005. Not being there with my family was tortuous for me. I was at the time living three houses down from my sister Lynette who also lived in New York. Many of the phone lines were out and it was impossible to know what was going on. If you watched the news you could only think of the very worst things. We knew many of my immediate family members were on the move but we didn't have any details for a really long time.
My mother couldn't look at the house. She stayed in the car and she looked away from the house the entire time.
"That feeling of waiting and not knowing was horrible for me. Eighty per cent of the city was underwater. The Yellow House had split into multiple parts by the force of water. There was a big opening in the side of the house and it was grossly swollen. You could see that water had gotten into every crevice and expanded it in all these different ways. You could see underneath the layers of the yellow siding that my mother had installed.
"It was just a terrifying thing to take in. My mother couldn't look at the house. She stayed in the car and she looked away from the house the entire time. It felt like it was even hard for her to look at us after we had seen the house. I know that she found the devastation of the house to be a feeling that was very hard to reckon with. It was the thing she had for herself, the thing she built for us and the place she had made."
Sarah M. Broom's comments have been edited for length and clarity.