Review by Sarah White
I don’t recall, nor does it matter, what brought Sarah Broom’s memoir The Yellow House to my attention. Maybe a “best new memoirs” list (it won the National Book Awards 2019 first place for Nonfiction), or maybe that its subject matter is New Orleans, especially New Orleans East, even more devastated by Hurricane Katrina than the rest of that city. I spent a strange, very moving day (which I blogged about) in Broom’s neighborhood with a crew of community consultants nine months after Katrina. Maybe the mention of “Gentilly” is what drew me to Broom’s book.
The Yellow House is structured as the autobiography of a house, the family it sheltered, the community it stood in and with, intentionally omitted from the touristic narrative of New Orleans itself.
The book consists of four Movements, preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue. From the first page, author Sarah Broom clearly maps her life onto the geography of her home place.
The first Movement, “The World Before Me,” (approximately 100 pages of the 384-page book), tells the story of the blended family of Broom’s mother, twice married, and the eleven children she bore. Then Sarah is born, the 12th child and the only one fathered by the second husband, who died six months after her birth.
This launches Movement II, “The Grief House,” wherein Broom explores the missing father and his connection to the Yellow House, which he was continually tinkering on, adding to, rearranging, until his death in its bathroom. This section reads like many a coming-of-age story, as Broom absorbs her mother’s values–attention to place-making, self-respect, education. Those eleven older siblings provide examples of where life might take Broom; we see the shifting nature of a big family, how the oldest move up and out before the youngest get to know them, how the olders shift in and out of the youngers’ lives, teaching by their examples about choices both good and bad.
In Movement III, “Water,” Broom completes a journalism degree and begins a career in New York City. Then Katrina hits in August 2005. Everything after that is a story of displacement and the struggle to find the meaning of “home.” The Yellow House was razed by the city after a single notice delivered to the mailbox in front of an empty house on an abandoned street. What had first been Broom’s mother’s sanctuary, then her place of grief, refuses to die–the empty lot remains an anchor for the family in the largely vacant, post-apocalyptic New Orleans East.
In Movement IV, “Do You Know What It Means,” Broom constantly shifts jobs in an attempt to find her place, doing everything from working for Oprah’s magazine to running an NGO in Burundi. In the end, she returns to New Orleans and rents an apartment in the French Quarter for a full year, determined to research and write a book that, as the National Book Award’s review put it, “expands the map of New Orleans to include the stories of its lesser known natives, guided deftly by one of its native daughters, to demonstrate how enduring drives of clan, pride, and familial love resist and defy erasure.”
Broom largely tells her story through straight chronology, occasionally making visible the act of writing. She mentions her early instinct to write down family conversations verbatim, and later, the red tape recorder she carries–left running untended in the final scene as she learns to mow the lawn where the Yellow House once stood. Her brother and his friends still gather there, now caught on tape commenting on her performance with the riding mower.
Broom does not mention the fellowship that allowed her to take that year to live and write in New Orleans, or how she funded the many trips to interview family members flung far across the U.S. post-Katrina, never to return. Certain parts of the act of writing are, apparently, unmentionable. Googling tells me that Broom has attended numerous writing workshops, been awarded fellowships and residencies. Clearly, she’s worked at building her writing craft.
Broom skillfully manages shifting viewpoints, from the 3rd person point of view as she writes about the family backstory, to 1st person as the story becomes her own. She decided on this structure, she told Rumpus in an interview, because “I wanted to make a point about the ways in which we as humans are catapulted into preexisting stories—that we aren’t born and the story begins.” In that interview, she discusses the perspective shift required to write about her mother and grandmother as women: “It’s hard not to think of your grandmother as ‘grandmother,’ as opposed to ‘woman,’ a woman who made choices, who had decisions to make.”
Broom’s research took her deep into archives in New Orleans. She conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with family members, resulting in thousands of pages of transcripts. Themes in the book–what houses really mean, what family really is, the journeys of coming of age, of becoming a writer/artist, of finding home after displacement–emerged slowly, she told the Rumpus interviewer. The house as a way to understand her father only in the 3rd or 4th draft. “Around draft seven I read only for arc.” As a writer myself, I find this view into Broom’s process very helpful. (And daunting. I have a lot of rewrites ahead for Glory Foods, apparently.)
Broom’s The Yellow House is relevant far beyond its story of a family’s survival after catastrophe. There is displacement everywhere–wildfires in California and Australia, war and climate change in developing countries. Any of us may suddenly be on the move, asking ourselves the questions about place that Broom explores.
© 2019 Sarah White