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Sarah Broom’s 2019 memoir, “The Yellow House,” won the National Book Award for non-fiction. Jeffrey Brown sits down with Broom to discuss her mother and how an obsession with houses passed down two generations to the author herself, why Broom doesn’t appear until 100 pages into the book and the larger story she is telling about New Orleans East.
Now Jeffrey Brown has another title for the "NewsHour" Bookshelf.
Author Sarah Broom's memoir, "The Yellow House," won the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction.
Jeff began by asking Broom about the owner of the Yellow house, her mother, Ivory Mae.
She went on to raise me and my 11 siblings in this house. So beyond it being my mother's place, it's a significant place emotionally for all of us.
It's a personal memoir you have written, but, interesting, you didn't show up until about page 100.
You're telling a much larger story about not only your family, but this particular area of the city.
And it felt completely natural to me to not show up for 100 pages. I tried it the other way. I tried beginning the story with me, but something about that felt like it lacked context. And I really wanted to make this world that existed in context.
And I wanted to talk about my grandmother and how she made houses, how she was obsessed with making place, and how she passed that quality on to my mother, and how my mother passed it on to me, so that, ultimately, when this house is gone, what we feel is so much more intense, right, because it's not just a house, or — you really understand what made this place.
"My mother, Ivory Mae, bought the yellow house in 1961, when she was 19 years old. It was her first and only house. Within its walls, my mother made her world."
Well, I really wanted to think about what it means not just — so, not just for the person who doesn't know New Orleans or isn't from a place, but for the person who really knows a place, to get very up close to something and tell that story, but also think about and figure in what distance does, what it means, for instance, if the story of New Orleans becomes for someone only Katrina, and they only see that story or those images from 200 miles away, right, how that changes their relationship to a place.
So, I wanted to go very high up and present that view, but then also say, look what you're missing. You're missing this 19-year-old who bought this house. You're missing my brother Carl, who goes there every single daily after his job at NASA and tends to land.
And then also to think about the innate taboo for me of being the baby of 12 children telling this story. That felt painful to do. And it was something I had to reckon with the entire time I was writing: How dare I tell this story? It's not my story to tell. And I'm telling too much.
And you told this — or you figured your way into tell it through memories, through archival, through…
I mean, there's clearly a lot of research, but you also interviewed family members and went as far back as you could?
The foundation was a year, in 2011, when I moved to New Orleans and actually lived in the French Quarter.
Moved back, you mean.
Moved back to New Orleans, and lived in the French Quarter on the busiest corner in all of New Orleans.
And during that year, I interviewed every single one of my siblings. I recorded them, so I gained from that year hundreds of hours of audio interviews, which I then transcribed.
So those make the basis for the book. They're a kind of oral history. But then layered on top of that is — are hours and hours I spent driving to various Louisiana towns, driving to cemeteries to get information, going to archives, going to the local library, the Louisiana Collection, you know, interviewing people, trying to interview people, and then reading everything I can, because there were no books about New Orleans East.
It's just not that sexy, compared to the rest of New Orleans.
Did you feel compelled to correct that record, in a sense? I mean, Katrina plays a role, because Katrina is what ended up destroying the yellow house, right?
Of course. Of course.
Katrina got so much attention. Other parts of New Orleans got so much attention.
I felt moved and buoyed by the idea that I could write something that didn't exist, and that there's a little girl right now still living on the short end of the street in New Orleans East where I grew up.
And I wrote it for her, so that there could be some history already in existence. And, you know, one of the striking things about New Orleans East is the way in which it doesn't always appear on a map of New Orleans.
So I wanted to quite literally put New Orleans East on the map.
In this act of looking back, right, did it make sense? I mean, do you see, from there, from then to now for yourself?
I think I actually grew up with this feeling of being bifurcated as part of the way I thought about the world.
I thought a lot about how our street was cut off from the other end of itself, how New Orleans East was cut off by the Industrial Canal from the rest of the city. I think it grew me into a person who noticed bifurcations, who noticed disparities, who cared a lot about the ways in which injustice was baked into the soil of a place.
One of the things that intrigued me as a kid was how soft the ground was. And, of course, when I was a child playing hide and go seek, I didn't understand that the ground was subsiding.
But I just knew and my friends knew this is soft ground. It eats our basketballs, or — when it rains, the water pools for one or two weeks, right?
And so to sort of have been born out of this place, where we were really thinking about environmental issues even then, but not knowing what to call them — so, so much of, I feel, my composition and how I write and how I think as a human is based on having come from that very specific place.
Who did you come to feel you were writing this book for?
For my nieces and nephews, I'd say…
… primarily, yes.
And the entire moment now, now that the book exists in the world, and even the National Book Award win, is really for them. I mean, they — many of them never heard of the National Book Award before this moment.
And so to get the texts from them, screenshots of them watching the National Book Award, is profound for me. I feel like it's a step toward making them better readers, even, and that makes me hugely proud.
All right, the book is "The Yellow House."
Sarah Broom, thank you, and congratulations.
Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.
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In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
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