Sarah M. Broom Knows What You Think of Her Hometown

Sarah M. Broom. Photo: Adam Shemper/Courtesy of Broadside

I first met Sarah M. Broom two years ago, when we found each other via Twitter and met for coffee. It was one of those getting-to-know-you dates you try to arrange with people whose work you admire. I knew of her book project (which would later become her debut memoir, The Yellow House) when the Whiting Foundation gave her a Creative Nonfiction Grant in 2016. A friend who knew Broom from a residency at the MacDowell Colony told me, “She is one of the smartest people I know.” So I was a bit intimidated as I waited for her on a bench across from the Strand.

But our meeting in real life was lovely. Broom was warm, and we shared stories of publishing while black — the compromises you are asked to make, the sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful feedback you are given when you consciously center blackness, black people, and the black experience in your work.

After reading the first 25 pages of The Yellow House, I wanted to run out into the street and tell the next person I saw what a remarkable book it is. But I’m shy and an introvert, so I did what introverts do — I posted about it on Twitter instead: “@sarahmbroom’s THE YELLOW HOUSE is like a nonfiction, black New Orleans version of 100 Years of Solitude and I am fully reveling in being hypnotized by this book.”

It was the best way I could think of to describe this remarkable debut, which operates as a memory palace built to commemorate a place — Sarah’s hometown neighborhood of New Orleans East — that most people either look over or actively try to forget. Broom knits together her family history, the history of New Orleans East, and the history of her family’s house to tell a grand story of the fallacy behind the myth of New Orleans, the aftereffects of Katrina, and the transformation of a city into something not quite what its inhabitants have made.

New Orleans is one of those places many people claim to know. Even the most casual visitor stakes a claim on it. Broom’s book, then, is a revelation and an antidote to the image of New Orleans that has emerged in the past ten years or so — a hipster haven for artistic-minded transplants from more-expensive cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The Yellow House is decidedly local. At one point, Broom includes the astonishing statistic that before Katrina, New Orleans had the highest rate of native-born citizens of any U.S. city; after the storm, those numbers dropped. The Yellow House also paints a picture of an unapologetically black city. As I read it, I was reminded of the phrase a friend, whose family is from New Orleans, used to describe it: “the northernmost city of the Caribbean.”

I was eager to talk myths of home and the power of great cities with Broom. Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length.

How do you approach writing about a place like New Orleans, which so many people believe they know? Do you start with engaging the myths head-on, or do you start elsewhere?

I’m interested mostly in the underbellies of thorny ideas. The first thing I did with The Yellow House was drill down and write specifically about the place I know particularly well — New Orleans East. I’m not even writing about all of New Orleans East in this book; it’s too massive and varied. I’m speaking specifically about the short end of a long street in an area once called Orangedale or Plum Orchard, just off Chef Menteur Highway.

Once I’d drawn that world clearly, it felt much easier, writing-wise, to start to juxtapose the experience of life there with the experience elsewhere. I tried to do that subtly by, for instance, building a case about how “historicized” certain New Orleans neighborhoods are (literally, the “history” has been obsessed over and is easily accessible) and how that grew a kind of “charm” that actually affects investment — what the schools are like, what the view from a person’s window is, where they go for jobs, the direction and shape of public-policy zoning, for example. Through this work of discovering and building a counter-narrative, the myths are laid bare. One can, for instance, discuss the stories that are retold about New Orleans and discuss their validity by positioning humans up against them — then you begin to see the cracks, start to see how deeply the city’s image of itself is based on illusion and a kind of front that belies deep dysfunction. Myths are sustained too by those who love the city. There are people I know, for instance, who love New Orleans but will not engage seriously with my critiques and ideas as a New Orleanian. They don’t want their narrative challenged. They love the place, I think, much more than the people who come from the place.

What did you feel you owed, if anything, your relatives when you began writing? What do you feel you owe them now?

My mother asked at the outset that I do my work (the writing and research labor) and tell the truth. I felt I owed those things to my family, but also I owed them a complexity in how they were drawn, the opposite of hagiography. I protected them in certain ways — using details relevant to the narrative but not exposing them unnecessarily. Now I feel I owe them the resolve to stand next to the thing I made and say, This is my story. I made it. It comes from me. Of course, I listen when they tell me how they feel about the thing I made, and I encourage them to write their own versions of the story. But they themselves also recognize that there is something revolutionary in having their stories told in such granular detail, understanding that it is perhaps one way to defy erasure.

What helped you keep going as you drafted this book?

My obsession with finishing things. I almost don’t want to remember the process of writing this book because there are many others I want to write! And right now, I need to forget how hard it was. For longevity.

How did you decide what parts of your life and your family history to leave out?

At some point, the story became swollen with tangential but exciting stories. When it became clear that I was writing an autobiography of a house, I began to map out everything that had led to my mother’s acquiring of the house and all that the house birthed. That was my frame, so to speak. I understood from the start that I wanted to break open the American notion that once the individual is born, the world begins! No. When we are born, we inherit ideas, philosophies, heritage, mythologies, the weight and trauma of systemic injustice. Absence of context feels like displacement to me. I tried to write about all that went into composing me. Of course, this book is only the tip of the iceberg.

You’ve included the time you spent living in Africa. Why did you want to have this part of your life, and how it connects to New Orleans, in the book?

Burundi was a critically important time for me because it was where I landed after much spinning out, post-water — when I was moving farther and farther away from New Orleans and the trauma of my family’s forced displacement and migration. Burundi was me forcibly displacing myself but gaining a cutoff-ness that the baby of 12 children often yearns for. It was also a great way to talk about myth and stories of a place. To demonstrate my mode of thinking, which is that no place exists unto itself, that we live in a global and ever-expanding world.

I’m obsessed with filling in the “blank spaces on a map.” Burundi was a kind of unknown neighbor to Rwanda — which, post-genocide, had the bigger, more dramatic story — and felt exactly like New Orleans East to me in the ways the East and Burundi were to some degree flat-out ignored. Most people have no idea that Burundi’s civil war lasted for more than ten years or that Burundi and Rwanda were once the same country. I was intrigued by the physical place, the way its citizens felt “in the shadow of …” I was, strangely, while in Burundi, among my scattered kin. Stripped of all the stories I had told myself about myself. Stranded, searching for positioning on the narrative map.

I remember doing an interview with Victor LaValle in which he talked about writing memoir — that the temptation is to make yourself into either a saint or a monster in relating an incident in your life.
You’ve avoided this. I’m wondering how you conceived of yourself as a character and how you would describe your role in the story.

I think it was the work of actually conceiving of myself as a character that made distance — and thus insight — more possible. For a long time when I was writing the book, I would call myself “the narrator” in conversation.

People I was talking to thought that was the strangest thing, but it created for me a daily reminder that, at the end of the day, I was composing a story that contained the stories of many others. My work as the writer was to create the infrastructure, to sketch out the frame, as it were, so a compounding story could unfold alongside my own. Because I am the youngest of 12 children, I’m used to making space for other, sometimes competing, voices. I have from a very young age thought of myself as a recorder of family history, someone for whom every bit of evidence of who we are and why we are matters. The exercise of the book was a gathering together, a compiling of the record for my family members, who have known disparate parts of the story but not necessarily the whole.

I am so fascinated by this idea of people not wanting their version of New Orleans disturbed. It’s one of those cities people seem to like to claim ownership of, even, maybe especially, as outsiders. Which myths, specifically, of the city did you wish to dispel?

I was intrigued by the mythologies of New Orleans that natives particularly buy into. The main one has to do with the exceptionalism of the city. That somehow no place on earth compares. That we are special because we know we’re special! That we are a kind of perpetual underdog waging war against nature, etc. That sort of thing. American exceptionalism. The notion that New Orleans is a progressive and cosmopolitan city belies the fact that it is relatively tiny with a population of less than 400,000. More villagelike than city — with incredibly high crime, homeless, and unemployment rates; with systems that don’t work; with baked in systemic injustices and a culture of surface examinations. New Orleans has made as its economic basis and fame the selling of a mythology of itself that revolves around a set of routine images that stand in for all that we are unwilling to say. But these tropes do not wholly represent the city where I grew up. My work intends to expand this system of belief.

The beginning of my book is biblical, in a sense, in that it relays an origin and creation myth of sorts — issuing forth from my mother and her mother — a world of women who decide what to call themselves and who collectively compose a place made by their own hands. Any myth of mine begins and ends with women as a centripetal force.

Sarah M. Broom Knows What You Think of Her Hometown