Lecture Recap: "Sarah Broom in Conversation with Imani Perry"

Written by
Joe Shipley, ODUS Communications Fellow
Jan. 14, 2022

On Tuesday, January 11, 2022, ODUS, in conjunction with the Department of African American Studies (AAS) and the Council for the Humanities, hosted the first FOCUS Speaker Series event of the new year. The event featured author and journalist Sarah M. Broom in conversation with Professor Imani Perry of the AAS Department. This unique installment in the FOCUS Series took place in the Chancellor Green Rotunda with a limited in-person audience, and was broadcast live on Facebook and YouTube.

Sarah Broom Listens to a Question

Sarah Broom is the author of the bestselling memoir The Yellow House, which received the National Book Award and was named one of the New York Times 10 best books of 2019. Imani Perry is the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and a faculty associate with the Programs in Law and Public Affairs, Gender and Sexuality Studies and Jazz Studies. She has written six books, including Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, which won the 2019 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography and the Lambda Literary Award for LGBTQ Nonfiction.

Yellow House Books

The tone of the conversation was intimate and familiar, something that Professor Perry observed almost immediately. “It’s such a gift to be in conversation with you,” she said. “We have these conversations, usually, privately, so it’s wonderful to get to share some of that.” That tone lent itself well to the subject matter, which was deeply personal as well. The discussion between these two exceptional authors and thinkers mostly revolved around The Yellow House. The memoir explores not only Broom’s own life, but the lives of her family members as they carved out a community in New Orleans East. The eponymous “Yellow House” was the home that Broom’s mother bought in the neighborhood in the early sixties, and that sheltered the family for decades before being swept away by Hurricane Katrina.

Because The Yellow House is tied – geographically and metaphorically – to a place, it was natural that the conversation began by focusing on the relationship between the material world and the literary one. Perry prompted Broom: “As a reader of your work, your attention to space, architecture, geographies, is so gorgeous and powerful, but I don’t know if the reader necessarily knows the minutiae of your intention,” she said. “One of the things I still struggle with,” answered Broom, “is thinking more philosophically, about furniture, objects, about space about myself in space, about the things that compose me in space … there are these containers we find, to start to think about history and time, travels with time and that maybe their traces somehow can think about geography, history, loss.”

The conversation covered not only material as metaphor, but as identity as well. Broom and Perry, both Black women raised in the American South, spoke about the role that objects, homes, and places played in the formation and preservation of identity. They spoke about specific items – chairs, couches, headboards and houses – that made up a “material culture” that had been denied to Black Americans and continues to be underrepresented in literature.

Imani Perry listens to Sarah Broom

Broom and Perry then returned to the role of writers (whether journalists, novelists, or memoirists) as record-keepers. Much of The Yellow House, and much of the conversation, dwelt on how to love and preserve the memory of things that no longer physically exist. They talked about how tenuous existence is, even for things that seem permanent. The symbolism of the Yellow House being swept away by a hurricane and the slow erosion of New Orleans itself to rising waters, global warming, and even tourism factored heavily into the conversation. Both authors agreed that, when things could or should not be preserved in reality, it was the job of storytellers to preserve them by other means.

They also acknowledged that it was no small challenge to recreate or, more accurately, reinterpret reality in writing. No matter how faithful to facts and truth a writer is, they cannot avoid writing from their own point of view and in the context of their own experiences. Broom spoke briefly about Joan Didion, who recently passed away. “Didion used to say, nonfiction is so much harder, because I already know the story. So you spend all this time on how to tell it. I think you’re still discovering a nonfiction … nonfiction requires a kind of discipline and knack, because you have to move people through something that can feel very very staid. And I think the question is, how do you elevate the world of nonfiction so people are as passionate?” They spoke about walking the fine line between retelling others’ stories and telling their own, and the complicated process of refining individual experience into something that was accessible to the reader.

As the floor opened up to questions, moderated by Justin Smith, Forbes College Director of Student Life, it was clear that members of the audience, whether attending in person or online, were eager to hear more. One question from the audience asked both panelists about the writing process – how they deal with creating something personal “immortalized in its current form.”

Justin Smith Introducing Focus Event

Broom responded by describing something akin to a sense of detachment. “I think that's one of the ways that I can't think of it as a story of myself, because it's a story of me in a particular world, which is different from the story of myself. Maybe one day I can write that so I don't think of it actually. In such personal terms. Maybe it's like a psychic trick.” She recalled interviewing friends and family, trying to transform their stories into the stories of characters rather than stories that intertwined with her own, equal parts defense mechanism and journalistic technique.

Another student asked the panelists about how they knew when they were ready to return to their experiences, especially difficult ones, in order to put them down in words. Broom answered that this was something she had struggled with while she wrote The Yellow House. She credited being a regular journal-keeper with allowing her to return to specific memories with a clear head. It did not make it easier for her to revisit loss and pain, but she did not have to contend with pinning down the facts at the same time as she did the emotional labor of writing.

Broom and Perry then turned the conversation toward their mutual love of wandering. They agreed that a place, especially a city, was almost impossible to understand without wandering through it on foot. “It tells you so much when you're in a place that encourages walking,” Broom said. “You have a different kind of mentality about the place, about the people of that place. New Orleans East, one of the big tells about changing was the driving culture that no one was walking. I mean, it's like going to L.A. you know? When you see the few souls at the bus stop … that's just not meant to be. They don't value, right, this sort of closeness and way of being on the street level.”

Perry chimed in that her hometown, Birmingham, was also becoming less and less walkable, and that has a profound impact on the lines that separate communities. “It’s not a wandering place at all, right? I think there's so many different cultures of the South because it's one of those places that holds you at a distance. It's not a place, you know, where people aren't gracious, but part of [the distance] is because you can't even make your way into the neighborhood, right?”

One of the last questions brought the conversation back to Princeton itself. An audience member asked Broom about a scene in her book in which she described her mother dropping her off at school, and feeling profoundly mismatched with the school’s culture. “What advice,” they asked, “would you give students who may feel similarly about Princeton?”

Broom briefly ran through the scene, remembering the sense of shame and displacement she felt as her mother dropped her off – worrying about fitting in and worrying that there was something “lesser” about her or her family. “There's such danger, I've come to know, in conflating the sort of circumstances of your life with who you are …  that moment of shame, of not claiming who I am, who my mother is all, these beautiful things that she has created and made for us was a way of distancing myself.”

Audience members ask a question

Her advice to the student was simple: “to not conflate, to not imagine that the circumstances are you. And to again, go back to whatever that home is that exists, whether you’re in Princeton or not.”

Perry also spoke briefly about the idea of being “misfitted” to an institution, and the cognitive dissonance that results from it. She urged students to “keep in mind that when you are a member of any institution, you become part of its creation. You are co-creator of what this place is. So, absolutely, you know, having that experience, part of the responsibility becomes making [the institution] different.” She reminded students about the power they hold even within the most mythologized institutions, and of the power of individuals to change narratives rather than just be swept away by them.

The conversation covered an enormous amount of territory – it touched on literature, philosophy, race, and community, but also much more. The full recording can be found here. Please continue to check the ODUS FOCUS website for upcoming events and additional resources during the spring semester.