Breaking the Frame: Sarah Broom Unearths Her Family’s Story in “The Yellow House”

For author Sarah Broom, the expression “home is where the heart is” works not just as a truism, but as an understatement. “I was haunted by the house I grew up in from the moment I left it to go to college in 1997. I’m interested in place and what it means to be tethered to place, and through the years, I kept taking notes on the physical house itself without knowing what I was going to say about it. And then in 2006 after Katrina hit and the house was demolished by the city, the story changed for me. Because rather than write about this physical place that I can cast my longing and interrogations on, there was no place. Then I was writing about absence and that process blew open a world for me.”

That blown-open world would eventually become Broom’s stunning debut memoir The Yellow House, just announced as one of the titles longlisted for the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction. It tells the story of the shotgun home Broom’s mother bought in New Orleans East at the age of 19 and where she raised twelve children, Broom being the youngest, until the house was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

In order to construct this meticulous narrative, Broom, who had spent much of her adult life running away from the city of her birth, moved back to New Orleans in 2011 and spent the year doing extensive interviews with her family. It was an act that was at times cathartic but also gave rise to its own difficulties when the resulting stories began to get published. “An excerpt from the book ran in The New Yorker in 2015 and the magazine is meticulous about fact checking, so they called my siblings to ask them if what they said was true and my siblings were like, ‘Sigh. Here she goes again.’ It’s very hard to be written about. My family understands, I think, the value of having these stories in a book and I think they know that in a way this will outlast them and be something that the next generations can draw on to understand where they came from. But in the moment, that’s not the thing you’re thinking about when you’re feeling exposed and vulnerable.”

The true power of The Yellow House emerges in the way Broom takes these highly personal stories and stitches them into a larger narrative about New Orleans itself, a city that has been plagued by racism, capitalist greed, and government corruption since long before Hurricane Katrina brought all of these issues to the nation’s attention. “I spent a lot of time thinking about the dysfunction of New Orleans. In a way, it made me feel closer to the city, like I was claiming it in the way that Joan Didion writes about making a place your own. But then I was also turning it on its back and looking at its soft underbelly and saying, what kind of place is this that made me and noticing that there are some icky things under there. But those icky things were part of what it means to tell a full story. The whole section about the French Quarter, for instance, is a game of taking what people know about New Orleans and saying, ‘How do I exploit that knowledge and push it to the edge of itself? How do I go into the myths of America like: it’s a meritocracy, and, if you buy a house it will lead you to wealth, and then blow them up?’ ”

Broom got her start in journalism, earning her degree from the University of California, Berkeley, where she worked with Cynthia Gorney, “an old school journalist from the Washington Post.”. The investigative rigor Broom honed there fed a project that wound up expanding outside the limits of a typical memoir. “I was trying to make something a little beyond the frame, because it was personal but that was just one layer, and even the personal was a lot of investigative reporting. If my uncle said to me, ‘In 1920 we were living on Saint Joseph Street by the rice mill,’ I wouldn’t just write, ‘Uncle Joe said they lived on Saint Joseph Street.’ I’d find the name of the rice mill, figure out where the train tracks were, figure out from census records how long they were there, and then construct a story from that fact. I used the thing he said to build a kind of world, and that’s an extra layer of journalistic work. I spent a lot of time in public libraries, cemetery libraries, driving to Raceland where my father is from. I basically lived on the fifth floor, which is called the Louisiana Division, of the main library in New Orleans and the University of New Orleans archive. But there needed to be all these layers of investigation because the book for me was like a concentric circle, just expanding and getting broader and broader.”

Broom took particular pains to illustrate how inadequate healthcare, access to education and employment and “environmental racism” trap black families like hers in cycles of poverty and violence. She uses those broader themes to return powerfully to the memories of childhood shame she carried, growing up in a home that, even before Katrina, had fallen into a state of disrepair. “There was a moment in the book where I say something about how I learned to define myself by the place I’m from and the trick in the work of shame I think, is rather than allow you the clarity of mind to say, what the fuck is wrong with this system? What the fuck is wrong with this world? You take it on as yours. Now, as a thinking, interrogative person, that shame feels ridiculous to me.”

Sometimes the heaviness of the work would stop Broom in her tracks, but inspiration could also come from unexpected places. “It was very hard, because you’re sucked into this world. For a long time I didn’t talk to my siblings in real life, because I was writing them and I was listening to them and it was just a lot, all their stories and their fears and ideas. At some point I was going so insane with this story and it seemed too unwieldy and I couldn’t gather it together and I remember standing up in my office, and going to the wall where I would do charcoal drawings every morning as a kind of exercise and just writing ‘Show Up’ and underneath that ‘Stay.’ And that became the thing that I did. I didn’t overthink it and say ‘This is so hard.’ I just showed up and stayed.”

After spending so much time documenting the loss of her childhood house, one might expect that Broom would be hesitant about owning a home, especially in New Orleans. But an unexpected discovery piqued the author’s interest. “When my book went into production, my friend sent me a listing for this little yellow shotgun house. I never wanted a yellow house. I was not a person trying to replace my childhood home. But it was the cutest little house and I became obsessed with it. The house is only about 650 square feet, so I can’t really host big gatherings there. Only about four people can fit in there at once. But buying it was a moment where I was just thinking about myself and my own needs. And when you’re from a large family, that doesn’t happen that often. So, the house is special for me in that way.”

This new yellow house has a history just as interesting as its predecessor, and may even inspire her next book. “The house is supposedly from 1811 and was originally owned by a free woman of color. I’d like to write about it someday. Who knows? The rest of my life might just be looking up addresses and saying what’s the history of this place?”