Home. Those four letters teem with such meaning it’s a miracle they don’t collapse under the weight. Home can manifest in the intangible — a sound, a scent — or the concrete (four walls, the feel of your mother’s hand, the spot on the sofa where you always find yourself sitting).
Home can induce nostalgia or anxiety. Like the curves of spines and the shapes of noses, home is, for each of us, a shade different.
For Sarah M. Broom, home is memory and history, recounted with rigor, candor and grace in her new memoir, “The Yellow House.” The actual wooden structure after which the book is named is gone, a casualty of Hurricane Katrina.
“The Yellow House was witness to our lives,” Broom writes of the home where she and most of her 11 older siblings grew up.
Broom probes the history of her family and New Orleans East — a part of the city often missing from maps and history books, even though it’s significantly larger than the French Quarter — before and after Katrina. Archival research and oral histories factor heavily in the work.
Recently, Broom and I spoke about how and why she undertook this project, the necessity of writing frankly about family and her ongoing examination of what home means.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: The scope of your book is large. You tell the story of your family and New Orleans over several decades. You’re not even born until about 100 pages in. Logistically, how did you approach this project?
A: I had to map it out. Imagine an overlay: The bottom page is the Yellow House, the street I lived on and New Orleans East. Then on top of that I put New Orleans history. And then on top of that I put American history, and then I had hundreds of hours of interviews.
The first thing I wrote was my grandmother as a character. She was immensely hard to write. I always had the feeling that my grandmother was the beginning of the story of myself. I don’t believe when you’re born the story starts; the story already started, all the chaos we have going on now our children will inherit.
This is an American story. My mother bought a house; she had a dream. Houses are supposed to pay off, earn you dividends, right? They’re an investment in the American concept. So, what happens when your investment doesn’t pay off?
Q: You are the youngest of 12 in a family that, like all others, has its secrets and wounds. How did you give yourself permission to write this story?
A: That was the chunk of the work actually, figuring out how to give myself permission to tell a history that in a lot of ways preceded me. I was also giving myself permission to “tell on” my family and “tell on” the city of New Orleans, which also has its secrets and its stories. Also, as a black woman writer, I was shoring myself up to write knowing that often black women are not actually listened to.
The thing that kept me going was that I was writing this story essentially for my family. I wanted there to be something that lasted. I wanted there to be a kind of narrative history that a child in New Orleans East could pull off the shelf. When I remembered that I was writing for my family, for my 50 nieces and nephews, and for the little girl growing up on the street where I grew up, I sat down and wrote.
But it still was hard. There are ways in which I wanted to protect family, but then I realized that the thing I wanted to protect them from would make the story hagiography. My quest in this book was to present a world as full, as nuanced, as layered, as textured as I possibly could — it was crucial that this not be a praise song to these flawless people.
Q: There’s a moment in the book I won’t soon forget. Your sister Deborah wanted to go to college, but your father wanted her to work and help support the family. When she refused, you write, “she was beat by Simon Sr. with a sugarcane.” Later, when Deborah is about to get married at the family home, Simon Sr. wakes up early to cut the lawn before the ceremony, you write, he “fixed his sadness outside.” It’s a nuanced, specific portrayal. Was it difficult to walk the line between protecting and exposing your father, since he died when you were an infant?
A: In the case of my father, my goal was not to protect him. The person I thought most about was Deborah, because she told me the story. I asked her for permission.
There could be no story of the kind that I’ve written without my family’s permission to tell it. They’re brave, courageous people. Also, they understand that, in a way, this story is bigger than them. In a way, I’m discussing the complication of being, ancestrally speaking, from a group of people who couldn’t write their stories, couldn’t keep their stories, couldn’t tell their stories, and the incredible importance of saying what exactly happened and not necessarily feeling shame.
As for Deborah, I don’t think she is at all embarrassed by that story.
Q: I don’t think it’s embarrassing, just vividly rendered. In 10 years, if someone asks me about “The Yellow House,” that moment will be one I remember.
A: That was the goal. I was trying to write something where people were alive on the page, where when my father dies, you understand why that matters so much, because he was real for you. I was really trying to humanize these people in a way that they aren’t humanized in the typically told story of New Orleans.
Q: One last question. You and your partner live in New York; do you own a home there?
A: I don’t think I want to talk about that. We’ve got to have something for ourselves.
Q: I hear that. So you don’t think I’m a total busybody, that was my lead-up to ask how you feel about homeownership.
A: I have a little place in New Orleans, too, which is tiny, but I own it. But yes, we’re New York people. I’ve thought a lot about this: If you don’t own something, can you still feel tethered to it? I think the answer’s yes. You might feel more tethered especially when you don’t own. I think a lot, obviously, of land loss and land being taken from people historically in America.
Home is even more a metaphor for me now than a real thing. It is the thing I’m interrogating and trying to understand. What my work tries to explore is this: What is home, and how do you know when you’re there?
By Sarah M. Broom
Grove Press. 376 pp. $26