Sarah M Broom was born and raised in New Orleans. Her journalism has appeared in the NewYorker, New York Times and O, the Oprah Magazine, where she worked as an editor for several years. In 2016 she received the Whiting creative nonfiction grant, which allowed her to finish The Yellow House, a memoir about family, belonging, race, history and home. It won a US national book award in 2019, the judges praising her deft interweaving of “reportage, oral history, and astute political analysis”.
The Yellow House is about the ties that bind – a house, a family and a city – but also about America and its discontents: race and class. Given the many different layers, was it a daunting undertaking?
Finding the architecture was tough, but once I did, it became easier. A book is like a house; it needs a support structure, beams, entrances and exits, all these layers of construction and form. Before that, though, I was haunted almost from the moment I left New Orleans for New York by the house itself. I felt this deep disconnect between where I was and where I came from. In fact, the very first line I wrote in a notebook was: “I, Sarah M Broom, am a haunted house.”
The house is quite a presence throughout the book, almost another character…
Well, I set out to answer the question: “What does the house contain that is so agitating me?” The answer is the book. I began by thinking about the ways I was formed by place, how the literal soil of the place in which I grew up made me who I was. When I was writing it, I became obsessed with the space, the physical structure – doors, windows, the view. And also, why it meant so much more to my mother, who bought the house back in 1961, when she was just 19.
Your mother, Ivory Mae, is the other big presence in the book. Her relationship to the house is, to say the least, complex.
Yes. She was and is a complex person. She taught us that your internal composition mattered more than anything, but she also seemed to value the appearance of things over the substance of them. She was obsessed by beauty and by presentation. She believed that if the house was falling down, so was she. It’s a complex dynamic, made all the more so by the fact that she did not have the means to make it as beautiful and presentable as she wanted it to be.
Or the means to buy another house in a less precarious location.
Indeed. As black people, our choices were limited. Ultimately, my mother could only afford to buy a house in New Orleans East, which is a vast neighbourhood that has been constantly neglected and threatened by subsidence, by floods, by the toxicity of the soil itself. The Yellow House is very much a New Orleans story, but it is also an American story. If you are black and poor in America, no one is paying attention to your neighbourhood, how your street looks, whether there is a dumping site across the road, or a four-lane highway cutting you off from the rest of your world. That was very much our situation.
Katrina changed everything. The landscape that you know intimately is suddenly alien. Landmarks are under water
And, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans East, destroyed your house and scattered your family. Suddenly, the house becomes a huge absence that haunts the remainder of the book.
Katrina was life-changing. Think about it: the whole landscape that you know intimately is suddenly alien. Landmarks are under water and, believe, me, water changes everything. It challenges your whole idea of place. And, of course, it was a disaster waiting to happen. Growing up, we knew the water was perilously close – the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, the Industrial Canal that connects them – and that it was an ominous, even terrifying presence. You paid attention to the earth beneath your feet because some days your feet would sink into it. We made jokes that the ground would one day eat us up. So, even as children, we instinctively understood the absolute vulnerability of our lives.
You were raised in a family of 12; what did your mother and your siblings think of the book?
Well, there is no easy way to write about your family. I did so many interviews where I was asking the kinds of questions that most family members do not ask each other. It was very painful for them at times to confront the past, but there is nothing in the book that they did not tell me. I think ultimately there was a sense of relief, even elation, that their stories were being told.
In such a big family, did you escape into books as a child?
Yes. And that came from my mother, too. I remember we had the Scholastic book fair every year at school and I’d be given this flimsy pamphlet with the names and descriptions of children’s books on it. I would skip home, elated, and we’d go through it and pick out the few books I could get. It was like my Christmas. Aesop’s Fables made a big impression. I’d memorise certain lines and go around wielding them against the neighbourhood children. [Laughs] I loved the language of it, words like “upon” and “mistook”. I still do.
What books or authors influenced you in the writing of The Yellow House?
The Emigrants by WG Sebald was important as a way of thinking about loss, absence and history. Holy Land by DJ Waldie, which is about growing up in suburban California, is a really fascinating book on place and its formative influence. I love Jamaica Kincaid’s The Autobiography of My Mother. I also read a lot of books on urban planning: Bienville’s Dilemma by Richard Campanella brilliantly traces the historical geography of New Orleans.
Which contemporary writers do you like?
I’m always happy when a new novel by Javier Marías comes out. He makes me wish I could read Spanish. I’m a big fan of Nicole Krauss’s fiction, especially The History of Love and Great House. I love John Edgar Wideman. Kaitlyn Greenidge’s novel, We Love You, Charlie Freeman, is a recent favourite. She is a great writer and thinker.
Are you working on a new book?
I am, but I’m superstitious, so I can’t speak about it. For me, writing is like a spider’s web – it has to be finely woven and anything can untangle it.
• The Yellow House by Sarah M Broom is published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15