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Sarah M. Broom On 'The Yellow House'


Sarah M. Broom grew up in a yellow house in New Orleans East, 10 minutes from the French Quarter, the youngest of 12 children. The house was bought by her mother in 1961 and grew into something more than the family's home. It became its hearth and its center. But like many places in New Orleans, the earth below it was already sinking years before Hurricane Katrina hit.

SARAH M BROOM: The ground was fragile. And of course, that fragility is the thing I picked up on as a child when we were playing hide-and-go-seek, when we were playing ball in the yard, you know, we came up with all of these stories about the danger of the ground. And that becomes the thing that, in a way, haunts me.

PFEIFFER: Sarah M. Broom's debut book is called "The Yellow House," and it's a memoir of a place that was hard in many ways but also indelible in the history of her family.

BROOM: It was a house that I loved deeply, in fact. And I say that because I feel it's impossible to love any place, and to truly love it, to truly see it for what it is, without taking in all of its complexities and its nuances. And I also feel that way, by the way, about America, which I love deeply and am always interrogating, right? So the house created such complexity of emotion for me because it was the place my mother bought. And the house, at some point, really was in disrepair. It was falling down all around us. And even in those moments, my mother was always trying to fix it back up.

PFEIFFER: Your book is a good reminder to anyone who reads it that even though Hurricane Katrina was this tragic, infamous thing that happened to New Orleans, New Orleans had for a long, long time struggled with levee problems, and storms, and floods and the challenges of building in an area where building is challenging. But Hurricane Katrina was cataclysmic. Can you describe the impact it had on that neighborhood and also on your family?

BROOM: The thing that was mostly felt for us as a family were the ways in which many of my family members were forcibly displaced. And this was most felt about a month after the storm. In fact, a month to the day, we all came back to Louisiana to bury my grandmother, who had been evacuated to Texas and, shortly after, we discovered, where she had been, her organs were failing and she ultimately died. So we were forced, in a way, to gather again very shortly after the storm. And we felt how spread out we were then because people had to come from California, and from Alabama, and from Texas and from Atlanta, right? And so that was a devastating thing for my family. And I'm not completely sure that we have yet to recover.

PFEIFFER: The demolition of your house - there's a really heartbreaking part in the book, and it's almost one simple sentence that stops the reader in his or her tracks. You basically say one letter got sent from the city, saying, this will be your only notice, that if we don't hear from you, we're tearing your house down. But basically, because your family was scattered, they never got that letter, and the house was torn down. And you have this line where you say, when it fell down, something in me burst.

BROOM: I had been writing about the house for a really long time. I had been obsessed with it and by it. And it's funny because I had been thinking a lot about home and writing about it. And then when Katrina happened in 2005, the story changed for me. And I started to want to put Katrina in context to demonstrate that there were many, many storms over the course of these people's lives. Katrina was one. In 2006, when the house was demolished, suddenly I was contending with the absence of the place. And I realized that much of my father's traces were contained in the house. So when the house fell, it sent me - when the house was demolished - because it didn't fall. I want to take that out of passive tense. When it was demolished and no longer there, I was contending with all that was lost. And for me, part of it were my father's traces.

PFEIFFER: And when you talk about your desire to put Katrina in context, that's again a really interesting and important part of this book, which is that in many ways, it's telling the story of black America, of the black experience, of what black Americans have wrestled with over the years.

BROOM: You know, this is so important for me that I be able to act as a kind of cartographer and include my family on the map of a place that we love so much and also belong to. And for me, I'm really interested not only in thinking about big things, like home and inheritance and belonging, but also thinking about what houses mean to human beings and what it means when a house is gone from the landscape. And, you know, I only recently went back to the land where our house once stood. And it was so emotional for me because it occurred to me that unless you knew a house had been there, you would never know. And I made this book in a way to stand in for that absence, to be a record, a history, so that some things might be saved.

PFEIFFER: Sarah, it seems somehow symbolic that your book is coming out very soon after Toni Morrison died. And you actually have a quote by Toni Morrison in your book. It says, water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Obviously, in connection to Hurricane Katrina. Can you talk about how much she influenced you, if she influenced you at all, as a writer?

BROOM: Tremendously. You know, the next two sentences of that quotation is, writers are like that, remembering where we were. And I thought of that quotation almost every day while writing. The day Toni Morrison died was really hard for me. It felt familial, her death. I felt and sensed an enormous loss. What's incredible is the body of work that she left behind. And her sentences - I spent most of the day she died reading her work. I was reading "Sula," and I was reading "Paradise." And I was reading one of my favorite pieces of hers, "The Sight Of Memory," and remembering how she made sentences, how she constructed them, that she was someone who wrote for and about black people and didn't feel that that was a small thing, understood how massive it was, and also wrote with a great deal of layered-ness and complication and allowed us to kind of get lost in the world she built. So she - in a way, I feel that she birthed me as a writer and that I needed all of the books that she wrote to write this one.

PFEIFFER: That was Sarah M. Broome. Her new book is called "The Yellow House." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.