Sarah M. Broom’s writing acts as a map to the roots of her childhood home in her debut memoir The Yellow House. But this isn’t just any house. Broom, a New Orleans native, depicts the yellow house she grew up in as a home of strength, resiliency, childhood memories, grief, trials, and tribulations.
The Yellow House tells a story of the home that Broom’s mother, Ivory Mae, bought in 1961 and remodeled with the help of Sarah’s father, Simon Broom. After his death, the house that felt like a sanctuary for Ivory Mae quickly turned into a place of grief. The story moves throughout time to examine the interiority of the house and its destruction post-Hurricane Katrina. The Yellow House is a book with numerous, interwoven themes: motherhood, racial identity, the establishment and destruction of place, and the interconnection of stories among ancestral voices.
Although this is her debut memoir, Broom’s work has been featured in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Oxford America, O, and others. She is a recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program.
I had the opportunity to talk with Broom recently about the importance of shifting viewpoints in her book, the concept of home, and the idea of representation in terms of race, class, and the depiction of New Orleans.
The Rumpus: I want to start the interview by saying I really enjoyed your book—I thought it was fascinating. You take the form of memoir writing and make it your own. I was struck by how you veer away from the traditional form and into a more hybrid form of memoir, as far as giving backstory to your family members and utilizing a sort of a third-person perspective for their stories. What initially sparked your interest in writing this way, and how important was it for you to write your family’s story before going into your own?
Sarah M. Broom: That’s a good question. So, a few things. In this book, I was writing about a house and in a way, a book is a house. I thought a lot about how to structure the thing. When you enter a house, what’s the first thing you see? How do you pass through it? What clues does the first room give you about the rest of the place?
There’s a lot happening in the book that, like a house, is part of the foundation, and then there is also a lot that you can see, that is clear and obvious. I’m writing about systemic injustice. I’m writing about places that don’t have solid ground to stand on. I needed to give the reader—very, very quickly—a type of grounding. It was crucial to create context for this world that I was bringing the reader into, because for me, personally, as a human and as a writer and as a thinker, the absence of context feels like displacement. The book is also about displacement. So to give the kind of context that’s needed for the reader to really understand the story, I had to take it back.
And also, the first movement is tricky because if this were a novel I’m sort of omniscient as a narrator, and obviously I’m telling the story and it’s coming through me, but I’m not actually born yet. 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. The story began long before I was born. That context, structurally, really helped the book, and helped the pacing of it work as the book progresses into “Movement II”.
Rumpus: That’s really interesting. It makes me think how selfless you were to give all the backstory before going into your own story.
Broom: It actually doesn’t feel like backstory. It feels like my story. In other words, I’m talking a lot in the book about many things but one of them is what houses mean to these people and what family this really is. I’m trying to establish how important names are, as far as what something is called and what you call yourself. My grandmother was such a natural beginning because, in a way, she created this initial world that my mother grew into and lived in. I needed to establish how people thought about home and place and their relationship to New Orleans, and why they made the choices they did. Their story is, in fact, my story. As I see it, it can’t be divorced from who I am because they composed me and have created these frames for me.
Rumpus: Definitely. What was that transition like for you, switching perspective from your family to your perspective of the house? Did you find the transition difficult to manage or did it come to you naturally?
Broom: I think it came naturally because it’s such an extension. I’m trying to explore how we got to that particular plot of land and in that particular part of New Orleans. So by talking about my grandmother and my mother and all of my siblings, it was essentially telling my story in full context. But of course, something shifts when I start saying “I” and having my first visceral memories of the house. People aren’t necessarily telling me who I am anymore; I’m talking about who I understand myself to be and who I am becoming. And certainly that felt more natural than writing about the people who came before me.
It was hard to write about my grandmother, and so a lot of that part comes from research I did. There’s a combination of methods: there’s research, including a lot of archival stuff, and then there are personal interviews I did with my family members during a year, from hundreds of hours of interviews. I’m trying to reach who these people are and create these characters out of real materials. That was hard; 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, who left her children briefly and came back. That sort of nuance can be very hard to do in the context of family. In a way it was easier to write about my own self because it belonged to me; it solely belonged to me, to some degree.
Rumpus: I noticed you making a similar perspective shift with your mother. I found your mother to be so resilient, such a strong woman given the circumstances of losing her two husbands and, ultimately, losing the Yellow House. What was it like for you to depict your mother on the page? How did you go about not only writing your mother’s strength and resiliency but also her pain and her trauma?
Broom: I literally have thousands of pages of transcribed interviews from conversations with her, so I had a very methodical approach just to getting her story, and that gave me a little more distance. I had been transcribing interviews and then I organized them and that helped me write about her in a way that feels more multidimensional than when we often perceive characters. You know, I’m trying to tell the history of who this woman is and I’m trying to help provide some context to what her world is like and the conditions under which she made certain choices and decisions.
I wanted, from the beginning, for my mother to speak for herself. This was her house. This was her dream. She bought this house when she was nineteen years old with every penny she had. She built her world inside of this place and it mattered to her. So in a way, structurally, I needed her voice to keep appearing in the story. To have this woman who was only dealing with two dying husbands and how hard life was after my father died, would be, for me, a very incomplete story. That’s not who we are, period. It’s not who any person is, and it’s certainly not who my family is. It was really important for me to, with great sensitivity, also present these people with enormous depth because they have depth. I think all books are in conversation with others and we are writing the thing we want to see. I always wanted to see this kind of nuance and layering. People aren’t just one thing. If we’re being honest, people of color in America are often made to be one thing or the other and I resist that idea.
Rumpus: You mentioned going through hundreds of hours of interviews with your family members. I’m interested in the way in which you then integrated that into your book. How did you balance writing your family the way they wanted you to portray them, versus the way you felt it was best to portray them?
Broom: I don’t quite know how they wanted to be portrayed. I made it very clear that I’m writing this book and I’m going to be interviewing you guys and this is going to be part of the book. In certain cases, I went back to them at times and said, “Just letting you know, this is a thing I’m going to include.” But I don’t know if I was necessarily concerned about how they wanted to be portrayed.
I think that’s why it was so important for me, in the first section called “Map,” that I just went head-on in and said, you know, several of my siblings have a problem with me writing this. It’s important for me as an artist to get the voices out of the way because there’s no way to write something that took this long if I was sort of besieged by what people wanted in terms of how they were presented. I was immensely careful in crafting and composing the story, so I didn’t include random details that would hurt people. I tried to be really sensitive. And I tried to put myself on the line as much as anyone else was on the line.
Rumpus: In the book you write, “When a person dies in a place they become the place and nothing is ever the same again.” That’s a really great line. And it’s so interesting how in “Movement II” you call the Yellow House the Grieving House. How was it for you, emotionally, having the death of your father permanently live in the Yellow House? Did you still form a relationship with him through his passing or did it cause you more grief?
Broom: This is a tricky one because trying to answer it took me years of writing and unraveling. In fact, the whole book is trying to unravel that question you asked. In the book I try to explain my relationship to the place from a position of really not knowing, because I was six months old when my father died. The way I’m experiencing the house is what most of “Movement II” is.
My experience of the house is also so different from my siblings’ experience. My sister got married in the backyard, so she has this one idea of it, and my idea is the complete opposite. It dawned on me slowly when I started to hear stories about my father dying in the bathroom, which was my playroom. It all dawned on me very, very slowly, and it wasn’t until I was in maybe the third or fourth draft of the book that I started to understand that part of my agitation about the house, part of the reason why it weighed so heavily on my psyche, was because it was the way I had come to know my father. My father built this. The house was the thing he made with his own hands that we all lived in. No matter its conditions, it belonged to him in that way. There were traces of him in the house, so the moment he was gone it created a deep absence in me. Now I was writing about yet another phantom, which is the house that was also my father.
Rumpus: On a craft level, I want to talk about naming the parts “movements,” and the way that the book moves through time. For example, instead of telling the story in a linear way, you move around in time, especially throughout “Movement I” where you’re going into your grandmother and your mother’s story, which ties into your story. What was your thought process behind this?
Broom: When I was working on the book I realized that because of the layered nature of the story I was trying to tell, I really had to find my architecture. That was key for me. I don’t really remember how “movements” happened. I always had the idea of movement in a musical way. I wanted to think about what it would feel like to have a story coming from a city that’s innately and historically musical. The thing about movements is that they work beautifully when separate, but they’re profound when they’re together just like a symphony. The movements build over time and come to this great crescendo by the end. We can experience them together and we can also experience them separately as their own kind of unit. For me that worked so well because I am talking a lot about time in this book and what that means for different people in this country.
There are many journeys in this book. There is this coming-of-age journey for me. There is the journey of my becoming a writer and an artist. There is the journey that my family takes after Hurricane Katrina, which I call “The Water.” There is the journey that I start taking, in a way, to make sense of it. There are the ways in which I leave home and come back, these departures and returns.
I love the idea of movement because it also allows me to change pace throughout the book. All the movements have a very distinct feel to them tonally and they do different things; they slow down and then they pick up the pace in varying ways.
Rumpus: In the book, you were juggling the arc of you and your family but also the character arc of the house. What were some of the challenges of creating this arc and what came naturally to you when writing about the house?
Broom: That’s all in the revision, I’m telling you. Maybe this had seven or eight drafts, but around draft seven I read only for arc. Only for arc. “Map” is like, okay, here is me as a cartographer and I’m going to point out to you what’s significant in this world. After that, I was tracking from “Movement I” through “Movement IV” how the people moved through time and space. I spent many months just working on people’s arcs and the house was major.
I actually have always thought of this book as kind of an autobiography of a house. If a house could tell a story of itself, what would it say? So we’re in the house, right? We first move into the house, the house gets remade, Betsy comes and the house falls down, the house gets remade again, Katrina comes, and then the house is gone. And then, obviously, the whole thrust of the book shifts because now I’m the house, so to speak. I’m thinking about what houses have represented for me. The book becomes very much about places we belong to that we don’t feel represent us or places we belong to that we don’t quite feel belong to us. Then it becomes about New Orleans and feeling on the edge of it and feeling left out from the narrative, which then becomes about America and how certain narratives are privileged over other ones.
Rumpus: What do you hope your readers gain from reading your book?
Broom: For me, this is not a book that’s just about New Orleans. This is a book about the world we live in. I think a lot about Flint and what’s going on all over the world in so many cities. I think about the fires in Paradise, California. I think about the landslides all over the globe and the ways in which the places where we live are changing very quickly. I hope people ask themselves the question: Who makes the map? Who’s left off of the map? Who has the right to tell the story of those people who are not being important enough to matter to the story of America?
Photograph of Sarah M. Broom by Adam Shemper.