By Zack Boyd
“It almost drove me crazy, trying to write about 12 things at once.”
This is how Sarah Broom has described the process of creating her debut nonfiction book, “The Yellow House.” Speaking to a crowd of 300 in Cubberley Auditorium last Wednesday night at a reading and Q&A, Broom explored the complexities of her memoir, which won the National Book Award in 2019.
Coming from East New Orleans, a neighborhood which rarely appears on any map of New Orleans, Broom captured the many moments that she and others knew growing up in a place forsaken by the city.
“My work is a way of telling a story about people who rarely appear on a map, whose stories are so rarely told that they rarely have the chance to be epic,” Broom said. “This book is an act of resistance,” she added, specifying that it is resistance against the way that disasters and stereotypes come to overshadow the lived experiences of the people who survive them. “People are more than the sum of their disasters.”
At the event, organized by the Stanford Storytelling Project and the McCoy Center for Ethics in Society, Broom discussed the complex difficulties she had in producing her part-memoir, part-novel, part-epic exploration of the lives of her friends, family and neighbors in East New Orleans over the past 100 years. The story primarily revolves around the yellow shotgun house she called home throughout her childhood, but extends into the past and present, reaching back to the early 1920s before the house existed, and beyond its destruction in Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
After reading the opening of her book, Broom sat down for a discussion with Jonah Willihnganz, manager of the Stanford Storytelling Project, and undergraduates Natalie Johnson ’20 and Alice Viera ’23. After several questions from those on stage, Broom took questions from the audience.
Many of these questions centered on the experience of interviewing and writing publicly about her family. Others focused on her literary techniques, how she explored her own role in the story and her relationship to her hometown of New Orleans. Broom stated that through her writing process she found that the story of her family’s house, and of her neighborhood, represented larger trends throughout the South and America as a whole: East New Orleans was created as part of a real estate project in the late 1950s that promised money and prosperity but ultimately evaporated, leaving the predominantly black neighborhoods with far fewer resources than the rest of the city. As an adult, Broom saw similar patterns repeated in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when she worked for the mayor’s office.
“I wanted to show how architecture, places, cities, countries … stand in for us,” Broom said, adding that she realized early on in the writing process that the story she wanted to tell did not begin with her birth. She relied heavily on testimonies from her 11 siblings, as well as her mother and other family members, to piece together the history into which she was born.
“The Yellow House” is Broom’s debut memoir, and has gained national attention since its publication last year, winning the National Book Award and being listed as one of the top 10 books of 2019 by The New York Times Book Review and The Washington Post.
By crafting this masterful book, Broom has told not only the story of a house, a neighborhood or even a city, but also the story of America, and its many injustices and triumphs over the last 100 years. She does not shy away from hard truths, and at points in the book struggles to reconcile her difficult childhood with the appreciation she feels for her home.
“I felt tethered to home … Like Joan Didion said, ‘a place belongs to whoever claims it hardest.’” In this sense, Broom has certainly succeeded in claiming her home: “The Yellow House” shows a deep appreciation for a place that is often ignored, even by its own city, and reminds the world of the people who inhabit the places just beyond most maps, and just beyond the pages of most books.
Contact Zack Boyd at boydz ‘at’ stanford.edu.