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.”