Sarah M. Broom was writing long before Hurricane Katrina. What would ultimately become her memoir, The Yellow House, started as a collection of notes and essays on the house she grew up in, her family, her neighbors, and her local community in New Orleans. She began in the late 1990s after leaving home for college, and it eventually became impossible for her to see the work as anything other than a book project: a family portrait and a history of New Orleans, which would explore the larger social narrative of the United States.
While it’s impossible to underscore Hurricane Katrina’s impact on her family and the city at large, Broom’s hope with The Yellow House is to reveal the ways in which Katrina was no singular catastrophe. “When we boil Katrina down to a weather event, we really miss the point,” Broom told me recently over the phone. “It’s so crucially important for me to put Katrina in context, to situate it as one in a long line of things that are literally baked into the soil of this place.”
Broom recognized these connections, but her aim was not so clear to publishers. “The main complaint was that I needed to choose,” Broom recalled. “That I was either going to write a book about New Orleans or a book about my family, but not both—which was so confounding to me that I couldn’t even process it.” While memoir is often pigeonholed as subjective and emotional, the genre is a genuine entry point for history: Collective historical narratives are drawn from individual experiences. Broom writes in her book, “The facts of the world before me inform, give shape and context to my own life. The Yellow House was witness to our lives. When it fell down, something in me burst. My mother is always saying, Begin as you want to end. But my beginning precedes me.”
In the book, Broom characterizes the events leading up to her mother’s purchase of the Yellow House in 1961, starting with the development of their New Orleans East neighborhood in the late 1950s. “From the beginning, no one could agree on what to call the place. But namelessness is a form of naming,” she writes. Broom notes that a pamphlet written by a local advertising agency promoting the area’s early development stated, “Here lies the opportunity for the city’s further expansion, toward the complete realization of its destiny.” She then offers periodicals and mayoral speeches that show how the area’s promise never came to pass. This scheme to drain the wetlands and get rich, Broom writes, was “not so different from the founding tale of New Orleans itself.”
Broom’s interest in her family’s neighborhood baffled others. Discovering archival photos of her father and fact-checking locations for a memoir was one thing, but researching the deterioration of residential zoning in New Orleans East to explore systematic disenfranchisement was another. No history had been written of the area; neither academics nor writers considered it essential to do so. After Broom pressed one city-records employee about zoning issues, his superior remarked to Broom, “We don’t have the liberty of going around and examining things the way we think makes sense.” It’s a telling statement, given that Broom’s book is an effort to take otherwise separate narratives and weave them together in order to construct a more expansive perspective on American history.
Before undertaking the creation of a heretofore unwritten social history, Broom returned to her earliest inspirations: her family and neighbors. The youngest of 12 siblings, Broom developed the habit of writing down conversations. This act of note-taking took root out of love, but over time it evolved into the motivation for her work as a writer. “For some reason, I had a very strong sense that everything [my family] said is critically important,” she told me. “I just love how they put words together.” In what could have been a simple exchange about what it was like for her mother to have a 12th child, Broom writes about the delicate nuance of managing the conversation.
When you told Dad you were pregnant again, did he say something?
What did he say?
Not a single word?
Here we go again! You were born in seventy-niyen. They say you were in distress. All them children I had, ain’t none of them ever been in no distress. And you have been in it ever since.
Interviewing her mother required great care and boundaries. As Broom notes in the book, “Mom closes down passageways to memory when something doesn’t make sense or when the thing or person no longer exists, which is possibly the same thing.” Broom told me that she had to work to “move beyond hagiography … not think of her as a mother, but to think of her as just a woman who made a series of choices. I created a physical distance for myself.”
A hybrid project, The Yellow House required a lucid and thoughtful structure. “I made no distinction then or now between the house, my family, the street, New Orleans East, New Orleans, America. Those were all the same subject to me,” Broom told me. “And so how I did it structurally, first, I started with a family timeline: ‘In 1914, X happened.’ Then I layered on top of the family timeline the city timeline. Then I layered atop the city timeline, almost like a painting—there’s an actual file where this happens—I layered American history, and then I layered on top of that New Orleans East history. In that way, I could see very clearly the interstices where things met up. And then I could understand the story differently.”
Broom found that the absence of her home and the memories that collected there drove the framework of The Yellow House. “I knew when I started collecting evidence, so to speak, that I was trying to find the architecture of the book,” she said. “I needed to know where the beams were and what was the supporting wall. I literally thought of it as a house because I knew that I was trying to put a lot in it.” Using movement, not unlike sections of a piece of music, Broom found “a structure that felt a little malleable, where within each segment there could be differences in rhythm, and pace, and tone, and overall feeling, so that theoretically you could move the pieces around and still have a story.” The constant motion shares a double meaning with the themes of the book—migration and the threat of gentrification. “The book itself needed to feel and have this sense that this kind of displacement and scattering—inside the city and even now, just with people getting kicked out of neighborhoods and the rent being too high,” Broom said. “The book would contain this feeling that things were moving all over the place and needed to be gathered back together again.”
The Yellow House’s destruction, first by the flood and then by the city’s demolition of what remained, and the subsequent diaspora of her family, left Broom with an aching sense of absence. To confront this, she inserted herself more fully into the fabric of the book. As a teenager, she took two unreliable city buses from New Orleans East to the French Quarter to her job as a barista. As a successful adult, Broom returned to the city’s most historic district, a space that depends on the African American service workers who often cannot afford to live within its boundaries. Once behind the counter, Broom was now the local.
She sought to upend the conventional wisdom about this tourist-heavy area at the port of New Orleans, once a site of slave trading but now a fantasy that thrives on hedonistic behavior, southern charm, and decadence. “I’m always trying to make it about me in the French Quarter, about the interactions I’m having and how I’m seeing it specifically so I could turn these very trotted-out ideas on their head,” she told me. “If you’re trying to sort of examine the underbelly of something, you have to be able to move with the discovery and be malleable, so to speak.”
Living in the French Quarter placed Broom squarely in the city’s mythological and cultural heart. Moving from the periphery to the city center, Broom laid claim to a place that she was always made to feel was out of her reach. Too often geographic displacement narrows the comprehensive record of a place, privileging certain people with the final word on what is deemed history. Broom had to return to the city’s gem, home to its greatest pleasures and its greatest shame, to write a story that would reconcile her losses with the losses of others. She expanded the collective understanding of American history in the process.