Sarah M. Broom has captured the people who lived inside her childhood home in New Orleans, who fixed it up and wore it down and, even after Hurricane Katrina, even after the house was gone, continued to mow the lawn. In her memoir, “The Yellow House,” she traced the soft land on which the shotgun house was built, the forgotten neighborhood in which it stood.
Broom had never forgotten, though. Neither had her family. Now, thanks to her bestselling book, the country can’t either.
“There was a real moment when I heard the words ‘New Orleans East’ coming from people’s mouths — like what?” Broom, 40, said by phone in advance of her virtual appearance Tuesday as part of the Talking Volumes series. “They’re saying ‘New Orleans East’? What world is this?”
It is great, she acknowledges, that her writing put these people on the map. But her aim is bigger: “What I have also done is call shame on a system that excluded them in the first place,” she said. “Because we were always very visible for each other within our community.
“It just keeps pointing to a largest and greater systemic failure to place value on certain American lives.”
In conversation and on the page, Broom moves easily between details to the larger and greater, between the literal and the philosophical.
With “The Yellow House,” which won the National Book Award for nonfiction and is now out in paperback, she “began with a series of questions that I felt were complicated by nature, having to do with what we see, what we choose to see, what’s buried, why it’s buried.”
Quickly, with both nuance and force, the house becomes much more than a house.
It becomes her mother, Ivory Mae, who bought the place with her every penny when she was 19 years old. Her father, too, who built the addition and, when Broom was just 6 months old, died in its bathroom of a brain aneurysm. It is Broom herself. Then New Orleans, built on myth and soft, sinking land.
Until it becomes clear that the Yellow House is no less than the United States.
In Broom’s sure hands, somehow, the symbols feel clear but never obvious. Smart but never pedantic. She maps her history — our history! — in all its complexity, telling a story that centers, rather than ignores, Black people.
Mapping is “a powerful tool to enact injustice,” she said from her home in Harlem, her voice low, slow, melodic. “I am struck by the fact of how many places don’t exist on maps. ... What might it mean for me, a Black woman — the theoretically least respected human in America — to say, ‘Here’s a thing that matters to me.’ And I’m just going to shift the frame a little bit.”
These days, “in this season of loss, I am thinking about mapping as a more philosophical endeavor. There’s a way loss maps its way within the body, right?”
When she first left her neighborhood for a private school, or left New Orleans for college in Texas, or left the United States for Burundi, she had this feeling that she had left so much behind, but psychically taken so much with her, too.
“There were traces of this old place within me,” Broom said. It called for a kind of excavation.
But, as she realizes in the book, visiting her childhood home post-Katrina, “Remembering is a chair that it is hard to sit still in.”
Blueprint for a book
To write “The Yellow House,” a story that begins long before she is born, Broom acted as an archivist and journalist, compiling records and interviewing family members. (She earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.)
She also acted as a poet and a bit of an architect. (A book is a house, too.)
Growing up as the “babiest” of 12 kids, Broom would circle the books she coveted in the Scholastic Book Fairs flier. She also took notes, feeling that it was important, somehow, to record the voices around her.
For the book — her first — Broom spoke with her many siblings, collected granular detail and asked her mother impossible questions.
“My mom is very thoughtful, very reflective, very emotional,” she said. “There was a lot I was dredging up for her. There was never a moment where it wasn’t painful.”
Transcribing, Broom filed her mother’s thoughts into folders. Mom on religion, mom on children. At some point, Broom realized she was “so madly in love” with the way her mom speaks. “Holy [expletive], this woman really knows how to put a sentence together.”
So she italicized her mother’s words. Gave them room.
It’s her mom who tells, in concise, perfect prose, how the Yellow House was razed: “Carl said those people then came and tore our house down. That land clean as a whistle now. Look like nothing was ever there.”
In the book and in conversation, Broom also quotes the writers who instilled her love of a good sentence. “Me and sentences,” she said with a laugh, “we’re very tight.”
She quotes Toni Morrison: “Water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” Broom tried to think back to when or where she first heard that line. It’s hard, she said, because Morrison’s voice is “indistinguishable from my own consciousness.” With James Baldwin, whom she also loves, there’s a little distance. But not with Morrison.
Writing this coming-of-age story, she said, meant including the voices of other writers who composed her.
Framing the book was difficult, arduous. One revision took an entire year. Thinking about it as a house helped. Broom set the foundation and the floors, then figured out what could fit inside. Phrase by phrase, brick by brick until it became more permanent than its subject.
A new yellow house
The Yellow House was knocked sideways by Katrina, torn down by bureaucracy. “When it fell down, something in me burst,” she writes.
Recently, Broom bought a home in New Orleans. A small spot — just 650 square feet — that happens to be yellow.
“It just feels very hard-won,” she said.
Broom would fly there once or twice a month. But since the pandemic hit, she hasn’t been back — partly because she can’t imagine being near her mother, who is nearly 80, but unable to touch her.
Broom always has been “sort of strange about places,” she said. “When I live in a space, I am really living in a space. I am in communion with that space.
“Now, owning a place, there’s another level.”
She traces that back to her grandmother, Lolo, but also to slavery and Reconstruction. To a historical need to be rooted and grounded. “I think all that stuff gets passed down.” Homes and places — and the bigger questions they ask — might be her subjects for some time, she said.
Is Broom writing something new?
“Yeah,” she said. She paused. “Yep.”
Is that all she’ll say at this point?
She laughed. “The fact that I even said yes is really a lot for me.”
Broom is a little superstitious about revealing what she’s composing. She finds horrifying the idea of sharing, at a writing workshop, a work in progress.
Her partner, screenwriter and director Dee Rees, likes to joke: She would go to the printer and, because Broom would recycle her pages, printing on the other side, she’d catch snippets of what would become “The Yellow House.”
“The only way she would know what I was writing on ... was to print something out,” Broom said. “I was the person annoying everyone.
“Someone would ask, ‘What are you working on? And I’d say, ‘Ah, a book about a house.’ ”