Standing on the Ground, We Knew
Isaac Bashevis Singer once said, “The writer needs an address, very badly needs one. It is [her] roots.” The Yellow House is a memoir that not only expresses Sarah Broom’s nostalgia for her childhood address but also paints a broad picture of the rise and fall of a neighborhood. To write the book, Broom did extensive research and interviewed her family. In addition to documenting her upbringing, the book maps out her parents' lives and chronicles the family diaspora as they flee to California, Texas, and Alabama after Hurricane Katrina.
Early in the book, Broom’s mother Ivory Mae bought a shotgun house in New Orleans East after the death of her first husband. The newly built area was booming economically. “The newspapers fell hard for New Orleans East. Here was a story with possibility for high drama involving men and money and wetlands, dreaming and draining, and emergence and fate.” A few years later, she married a man 19 years her senior. Her new husband, Simon Broom, had fought in the Battle of Manila during World War II. “He earned five stars fighting on behalf of a country that listed his name on a roll-call docket as Simon Broom (n), the (n) for negro or negroid or n[*]gger.” Simon Broom worked in NASA’s New Orleans East facility, which was another factor in the area’s growth.
New Orleans East was built on swampland. Simon and Ivory are constantly struggling to keep the back of the house from sinking. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy hit the neighborhood. New Orleans East, including the yellow house, was half destroyed. “This story, that the levees were blown, the poorest used as sacrificial lambs, would survive and be revived through the generations.”
Both Ivory Mae and Simon Broom had children from previous marriages and had several more together. Sarah was the youngest of 12. Simon died when she was 6 months old. Though Simon was hardworking, he never quite finished working on the Yellow House and his death only accelerated its decay.
Growing up, Sarah witnessed the comings and goings of her family. Her elder siblings found work and moved out but moved back in between jobs or marriages. Sarah was born with an eye defect but tried hard to hide it from others, including her mother. As a teenager, Sarah felt ashamed of the Yellow House. Her mother was great at making clothes for her children but wasn’t as good at fixing the house, creating a contrast between how the children looked and the place they had to return at the end of the day. People assumed they lived in a functional house. Only the family knew how precarious their house was. “When would the rats come out from underneath the sink where the plastic bowl caught leaking water? You could not say. This is how your disappointment in a space builds, becomes personal: You, kitchen, do not warm me. You, living room, do not comfort me. You, bedroom, do not keep me.” Sarah never invited her friends over. “By avoiding showing people the place where we lived, we unmoored ourselves.”
Sarah felt the urge to run away. She went to Texas for college and California for grad school. She moved to New York City after graduation and worked for O Magazine. She was at a noisy party as Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Her family, her grandmother, her mother and her siblings, scrambled to evacuate. “That absence, my not being there physically, began to register in me on subtle emotional frequencies, I can see now, as a failure.” The Yellow House broke apart during the storm and was practically abandoned. In Katrina’s aftermath, “the Yellow House was deemed in ‘imminent danger of collapse,’ one of 1,975 houses to appear on the Red Danger List, houses bearing bright-red stickers no larger than a small hand.” Sarah did want the Yellow House gone, but a bulldozer wiped it out without giving the proper notification, leaving her frustrated. “I had no home. Mine had fallen all the way down. I understood, then, that the place I never wanted to claim had, in fact, been containing me. We own what belongs to us whether we claim it or not...Houses provide a frame that bears us up. Without that physical structure, we are the house that bears itself up. I was now the house.”
In order “to understand more broadly the displacement of my New Orleans family,” Sarah became a humanitarian aid worker going to Burundi, where she was often assumed to be Tutsi: a major ethnic group in Burundi, but she couldn’t speak Kirundi, which didn’t help her frustration. “One important reason to travel the world is so you know how to speak about things...So that there exists in one’s mind a system of comparison...” After eight months, she returned to America and worked as a speechwriter for New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. Even with connections at the city hall, bureaucracy stood in her way. She couldn’t speed up the reimbursement for her mother’s demolished house, which took seven long years to resolve.
At the end of the book, Sarah and her brothers went back to the site of the house to cut the grass. “We were cutting grass for the look of it, making a small blot of pretty in a world of ugly. From high up above where the survey pictures are taken, this would not show. But standing on the ground, we knew.” Trimming the grass in the empty lot is an action charged with a deep affection for a place that no longer exists, and a deeper regret for her powerlessness. As a final struggle to honor the house and calm her regrets, Sarah began writing this book, the thing that a writer does the best.
In her review of the book, Martha Anne Toll points out that The Yellow House “stands in for the countless ways America has failed and continues to fail African Americans.” As difficult as the African American experience may be in the United States, I still envy Sarah Broom for having grown up in a society that allows free expression.
While I was in China from 2012 to 2015, I sensed that people were becoming increasingly forgiving of the military crackdown on the Tiananmen Protests in 1989. That new forgiveness wasn’t based on a thorough examination of the facts, but on a belief that ends justify the means. China’s unprecedented economic boom has also convinced people to discard their doubts in the party. They believe that a totalitarian regime is more efficient than a democratic system, and they happily cede their freedom and human rights. Sarah was disillusioned with the bureaucratic system in her hometown. For me, it was both the state’s tight control and people’s insensitivity.
I returned to North America in 2015. After settling down, I began writing the book I’d always wanted to write: a memoir blended with China’s historical narrative. I first wrote it in Chinese, my native language, but there’s absolutely no way the government would allow it to be published. I decided to write it again in English. “I desire to dream in another language, which would place me in a different world altogether. Ultimate displacement,” Sarah wrote in a letter to a friend of hers. I strongly identify with her desire to feel displaced by language.
Simply choosing to write in a new language shaped a huge part of my family life and social life. After my memoir was published, my account on WeChat, a Chinese social media platform, was blocked. Since the Great Firewall of China blocks any social media site developed in a Western country, I’ve since been isolated from my friends and family who are still in China. If I want to talk with my parents, I can still pick up the phone. But I don’t usually have any reason pressing enough to call my friends. I was always happy enough keeping tabs via WeChat. Now that I’ve lost access, those invisible ties were cut. “The large, close family is like an amoeba. To disconnect from its slithering mass is to tear. A friend once told me that it is easier to cut than to tear. I learn this, but slowly,” Sarah writes. I didn’t really feel a great loss when I was cut off from my friends in China. I had been growing away from them anyway. The final cutoff, though it wasn’t my choice, seemed to save me the pain of saying goodbye.
In the era of globalization, there are always faraway disasters for people to pay attention to. In January 2020, when news of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan broke, it quickly overshadowed my concern for the Australian bushfires. At first, the disease appeared containable. The Wuhan Health Commission determined that the virus had originated from a seafood market and reassured the public that it was only transmissible from animal to human, not human to human. However, on January 16, a Japanese patient was found to be infected, and he’d never set foot in said market. On a Chinese news website based in California, users joked about the virus’s patriotism since it only manifested outside China.
I started to suspect a cover-up by the Chinese government. In the spring of 2003, SARS started to spread in Guangdong and Beijing. The Chinese government first denied the virus’ ability to spread until the virus began running rampant through Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America. On Jan. 23, the city of Wuhan announced a city-wide lockdown. Flights, trains, and buses leaving Wuhan were canceled, highways were blocked and all public transportation within the city was suspended. Even private vehicles now need special permits to operate.
These measures were intended to discourage people from traveling, but the response seems like too little, too late. The number of active infections grew by a couple of thousands every day after the desperate methods were enforced. For people who had already contracted the virus, the transportation shutdown made it impossible for them to get treatment. On Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, desperate people are tweeting for help. Every day, I come across tweets saying things like, “My father is dying, but we can’t get to the hospital,” or “I’m running out of time.” I watched a video of a woman on her balcony banging on a gong and crying out, "I don't know what to do!" The video was shot by a stranger living in another quarantined building across the street. The photographer undoubtedly has his(her) own story to tell, but the woman wailing on the balcony seemed more cathartic, so they posted that instead. The video reminded me of the images of people stranded on rooftops after Katrina. Wuhan is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.
China is no stranger to humanitarian crises but lacks art depicting said crises. I often lament that there aren’t classic artworks depicting disasters, natural disasters or human disasters. In her nonfiction book, Louisa Lim refers to China as “The People’s Republic of Amnesia.” It’s harsh criticism, but not undeserved.
China’s lack of recorded history is the direct result of government repression. They believe that the pursuit of truth will lead to disapproval of the Party, which isn’t untrue. Chinese writers are under increasingly strict censorship and are simply not permitted to plumb the depths of human despair. W, a senior writer I greatly respect, has recorded her daily life on Weibo since the outbreak. She lives in Wuhan, the eye of the storm, so her well-written posts were of particular interest to me.
Unfortunately, authorities decided her writing was too negative and blocked her Weibo account. Never one to give up, she chose another social media platform to stage a comeback. When I read the latest entry in her new journal, her tone had become mellow and cooperative:
“Our enemy is the virus,” she writes. “I am absolutely in line with the government, co-operating with every decision, and trying to help the government calm the people’s anxiety. It's just that we all have different ways of doing things, and I may occasionally reveal my own feelings. That's all.”
It was painful to see such a talented writer forced to justify having her own ideas and feelings. The high-pressure propaganda machine has reduced the nation’s most creative minds to apologizing for straying from party lines even a little bit. But what choice does she have? If she hadn’t started being careful, she might have lost her publishing privileges entirely.
I thought that W had the potential to write a book as great as The Yellow House when the disaster is over, but I now doubt that that will happen. Even if she has the ability, that book would never see the light of day, just like my book on the Tiananmen Square Protests. In order for my book to be published, I chose to write it in English, which killed my chance to go back to China. I am an ocean away while China is suffering. It saddens me that neither I nor W will ever be able to publish a sentence as powerful as Sarah Broom:
“But standing on the ground, we knew.”