In Her Family Memoir, Sarah M. Broom Expands the Map of New Orleans
The author of "The Yellow House" on rediscovering family lore in an overlooked part of the city
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
Sarah M. Broom’s nonfiction debut, The Yellow House, meticulously maps out the story of her family and the city of New Orleans—both built with their own levees. Written with a four-movement form, a structure mirroring a symphony, hurricane phases and steps in map making, Broom searches, digs and looks for the unknown and the unexpected: “My book begins with the house, but it expands to be about the city of New Orleans and, ultimately, America.”
At ten, the youngest of twelve siblings, Sarah acquired the nickname “Tape Recorder” because she listened in on adult conversations and played them back almost verbatim. Tape Recorder, then and now, pushes against a native New Orleans’s black woman’s narrative whose story doesn’t matter and won’t be valued.
The Yellow House compiles facts about her family, the history of an iconic city, and memories that Broom carves into a larger and complex universal story.
Using email and social media conduits, Sarah and I talked about existing beyond a map’s edges, rediscovering family lore, and growing up in a matriarchal world.
Yvonne Conza: At ten, eyeglasses improved your vision to 20/20 and you wrote: “Sometimes, when I want the world to go blurry again, I remove my glasses when passing by these [unpleasant] scenes. In this way, I learn to see and to go blind at will.” Did you wrestle with emotions and truths about family, home and place within a vortex of blurriness versus clarity?
Sarah M. Broom: You hit on what was, in essence, the work of making this book. To write it and certainly, to finish, I had to first give myself the kind of permission often not allowed me. Permission to write obviously, but also to overcome a slew of perceived transgressions, including being the baby of the family telling its history. John Berger wrote “to look is an act of choice.” That’s a mighty idea in me. Writing this book was an exercise in turning toward, not away, from the experiences that compose me. “Me” of course is a black woman in America and all of the innate nuance and complexity born to that. I could feel myself, in the course of the work, writing against the narrative that my story does not matter, would not be valued, but then I remembered how I grew up in a matriarchal world underneath Lolo, Ivory Mae and Elaine—not to mention all of my amazing sisters—and knew (soul-wise) how untrue this was. Pressed on.
It is human nature when facing the most difficult things to want to turn away. Just note which things in our culture are deemed hard to watch: Precisely the things we must look straight at, eyes uncovered.
Family lore is often hazy. I had a few key stories from several members of my family. Pure raw sketches. Like: your dad died when you were six months. You were a responsible baby. Grandma never knew her Mom.
My job was to fill those stories in, to dig down, unearth the granular detail which is where, as a writer, I love to live. Having found and confirmed the evidence, I could sort through myth and fact—often intertwined. These were the moments when I felt most clear. Clarity is also about language for me. Because obfuscation often transmits through language, I challenged myself to write with as much precision as possible, to forego the dog and pony show of words. Much of that clarity came in revisions as my understanding of the story’s heart deepened. I was constantly readjusting, reexamining what I thought I saw – often, what I thought I knew clearly was not so precise after all.
YC: New Orleans East, where you were raised, an area fifty times the size of the French Quarter, is cut off from the Avis Rent A Car map, illustrating how a place and its history, is left as blank space through erasure. While this book is specific to New Orleans, it’s a thunderous nod to other places in America. Talk to me about maps and the territory that exists beyond a map’s edges.
SMB: Maps are made—designed—things. To exist beyond a map’s edges is not the excluded person’s choice, but it was someone’s. That decision does not in any way forfeit the lives of those beyond the map’s edges. My work suggests that if we want the whole, full and true story we need to go far off the official map, force ourselves to look up-close, close the distance. Maps and cartography are about power. Peter Turchi said, “To learn to read any map is to be indoctrinated into that mapmaker’s culture.” The history of mapping is fraught to begin with — redlining, the erasure of Native American lands on early maps, gerrymandering, to name a few.
Writing this book, I thought about all of the ways disappeared houses affected me personally. I was always wondering: what used to be in that spot where that house once stood and what stories might that house tell? What might we learn if only we knew? I thought about Detroit and about photographer Latoya Ruby Frazier’s work in her hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania. I imagined those people whose houses were lost to fire in Paradise, California and in parts of India after flooding. I’m interested in the underbellies of things-the soft, raw side that never gets to see the light of day, the story beyond the news cycle, the ways in which people make place, make houses and worlds even when where they are building is unsteady, sinking ground.
YC: How did the terrain of your own life shift after understanding the cost of defining oneself by the place you are from?
SMB: I began first to unravel—in the research and eventually the writing—the ways in which I had come to define myself by the house I grew up in. I’m using “house” metaphorically and literally here. The house that I belonged to—whether or not I wanted to claim it—did not represent who I thought myself to be, which created an inescapable agitation. That same thing happened when it came to New Orleans and my family and the mayor’s office and America. The story was, in essence, a great concentric circle-the story of the house led to the family who lived in the house and the street that the house was on, the city the house was in, etc.
If we too closely align ourselves with these oft-mythologized, unexplored identities, we become tethered to the fear of “telling on” these places and things that we think of as composing us and we stay silent. I learned — through the telling of this story or maybe in it — a kind of detachment. Which took courage and is also my definition of adulthood. If we define ourselves by where we are from we take all of the built in systemic injustices as our own failing. We stay shamed.
YC: A line you wrote spoke to me in a myriad of wonderful ways: That was the fact, but facts are not the story. What was your experience in examining researched material in relationship to being factual? And, how did your researched material and family interviews collaborate with your memories to develop a story?
SMB: Many times the literal evidence I found in archives and research conflicted with the story I had been told, or more often, the story I had been telling myself. Very specifically, I will never forget the moment when I sat down to interview my sister Deborah about “The Yellow House” and she said “What Yellow House? The house I knew was green.” That shifted, at least in mind, the trajectory of the work for me. Made clear that my siblings each had individual stories vastly different in certain ways than my own. Her response forced me to ask even simpler questions about detail that I assumed to be true. I could make no assumptions.
The story, carved from a sea of facts, is a made thing, framed and composed. The trick with this book was to allow myself to stay open when another person’s version of a story or the evidence itself collided with my long-established narrative. Often, I could fact check memory in the archives. For instance, I remembered my childhood friend Alvin’s death as a shifting moment. But I did not remember exactly where he had died—that he crashed on Chef Menteur Highway was vital to the story because it was connected to my overall sense of that highway as a kind of emotional boogeyman and demarcation line. But without the actual obituary I might not have made that connection. And, too, I remembered clearly that Alvin had a headstone, but he did not. I learned that by going back and reporting, asking his siblings, calling the graveyard, finding the plot, seeing it for myself. If I had written only from memory I would have perhaps gotten the essence of Alvin’s loss right, but stopped short of the larger discoveries. The latter is more of a challenge to the self and one has to be ready for that.
YC: Does it feel fitting to launch your book on the 14th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina?
SMB: I don’t think of this as a “Katrina book” whatever that means. I started taking notes on something called Yellow House when I was 17 and had left New Orleans for college. Back then I was writing about the ways in which the house did not physically contain me. After 2006 when the house was demolished, I was now writing about absence and loss, an entirely different matter altogether. The narrative changed. Became more about my father, about displacement and inheritance. I see Katrina as one in a long line of chaotic and often systemic forces that change the course of history for my family and many others. I just read that New Orleans has the same 39% child poverty rate now as it did in 1999, pre-Katrina. This is why understanding Katrina in context matters so much to me. The book’s timing is pure accident, the matter of how long it took for me to get the story right. Fourteen years, you’re reminding me, is a very long time. As a writer, I want to tell the full, nuanced and layered story, which is not only about New Orleans, but America at large.
YC: Your book has changed how I think about maps, the stories left off them, and the importance of reclaiming those voices.
SMB: My intention, actually, was to redraw the map to include me and my siblings and my mother and my father and my nieces and nephews, to reinstate our centrality to the narrative. In this book, I saw myself as a cartographer (and perhaps still do!)- redrawing the map, which required context vis-a-vis history. Those things feel like love and respect to me.
I am drawn to those places in the world that often do not make it onto the map. When I lived in Hong Kong, I first lived in a neighborhood called Causeway Bay, which was not where the expats lived. I wanted to know what life was really like. My time there proved very hard and lonely, which is perhaps the same idea, but I learned the texture of Hong Kong in a way I never would living elsewhere.
As for the voices: they did not need reclaiming, per se. I hear and am in conversation with them daily. But craft is an act of framing; I shifted the frame.
YC: Why did you decide to use “water” instead of Hurricane Katrina? Did “water” give the story its own narrative arc removed from media bias and keep it proportionate so it wouldn’t flood the larger story—as if word choices were their own levees?
SMB: Water is the more accurate word. But let me back up. For one, I grew up in a watery world. The ground where we played hide-and-go-seek was soft and wet. Murky. When it rained, water pooled for days. Our house was surrounded by water. I am in awe and more than a little fearful of it — slightly less now because I recently learned to swim like a baby. Water is a monumental force for me in all of its myriad forms, which is why it’s personified in the book, a character, alive, not unlike the Yellow House.
Reason two is critically important. Hurricane Katrina at landfall was a Category 3 storm. Much of the subsequent damage and destruction and death had to do with engineering flaws in the levee system and the unwillingness of officials to act — official negligence. So the use of “Water” makes a crucial distinction between the hurricane itself and the human-induced neglect that led to much of the still-ongoing tragedy. “Water” as a device and idea throughout the book encapsulates the grandeur, the layeredness of it all. And it is not always capitalized, by the way. When I, for instance, talk about water in a tub, it is not the idea of “Water” as you see it elsewhere. This distinction — the high and low — matters to me as a writer and thinker.
YC: How much did your mother influence the weave and narrative flow of the pages? How is her sense of place different from yours?
SMB: I spent a year in New Orleans interviewing my family members for this book. Most of those hours were spent with my mother, Ivory Mae, in intimate and probing conversations, which I transcribed and organized afterward by theme: Mom on childhood or Mom on religion or Mom on family, etc. I always knew that within the book, my mother needed to interrupt the narrative and speak for herself. That device, her voice inside the narrative, contextualized, and at times added heft to my own narrative. I also love her voice. The way she says things is surprising. Her voice became part of the structure. If a book is, structurally speaking, a house — with architecture — my mother was the framing. There was a technical issue, too. In the first movement, “The World Before Me,” I was not yet born even though I am of course writing the story. My mother tells the large majority of that story, in a way. There is only one time in the book when someone else takes the place of my mother’s voice in italics and that is when my brother Carl narrates his story during Katrina. It is as if during her displacement, someone else had access to her seminal position.
I wanted the chorus of voices in this book to coalesce to tell a story about place. New Orleans is a ritualized place; music and sound helps make that so. But I am attached to physical houses in a way my mother is not. She was attached to the Yellow House, of course, but more to the idea: it was her inheritance, what she owned, signifying adulthood and having “made it.” Her relationship to the house on Roman Street where she spent much of her growing up is more akin to how I feel about the Yellow House-imbued with that childlike wonder and innocence.