Who Has the Right to Write About Hurricane Katrina?
Maggie Neil on The Yellow House and the Many Names of Loss
Moving through Sarah M. Broom’s debut, The Yellow House, felt like a homecoming. The author and I are different in many ways: age, and race, where we were when Katrina hit, the nature of our connection to New Orleans, where we are in our writing lives. Still, the book resonated—deeply, harshly.
Broom’s stated desire to write about Katrina was something I recognized: I too have long had this writing impulse. Typically I find my written words grasping at concrete details, usually of my family’s evacuation the day before the hurricane—there are bits of memory, some of which I recall with certainty and others that I may have fabricated, embellished, or absorbed from someone else’s retelling. The fragments are personal, private bits of information that feel weighty, like the color and make of the car, what time we left, what music played in the background as I saw my own yellow house recede into the distance, whether or not I brought my ninth grade geometry book to study for the Monday quiz that I would never take, what the traffic was like, whether or not it was raining when we first left—yet they never seem to be enough to even begin to fully understand, or explain to others so that they might understand.
Why do we write about loss, and how do we do it? I’ve often wondered this. I felt a similar grappling in The Yellow House, where Broom’s way of answering comes out in decisions around form and craft. As an epigraph to the penultimate Movement of the book, Broom quotes Adrienne Rich:
the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
These are layered verses in the context of Katrina and Broom’s book, and I kept coming back to them as Broom progressed with the narrative, triggering in me new ways of thinking about my own writing craft of the past 14 years. Immediately, I recognized the desire to get to the “wreck / … / the thing itself,” so restrained in Rich’s verses, so feral in my own self.
I remember learning years ago in a philosophy class about the noumenon, defined as the thing itself—essence, object, existing regardless of human life and perception. It has often felt that if I could simply repeat on paper the exact event, as it happened, I could document and thus capture Katrina’s noumenon, photograph it. Or boil it down and reduce it to its parts, even a single letter—The Hurricane, Katrina, K—as I’ve read people still living in New Orleans now do. Or give it a new name, “The Water,” as Broom does (maybe her throat, chest, oesophagus clench, as mine do, even typing the word, Katrina). Maybe then, this thing that feels so vast, painful, inexplicable, that is made to feel more so by media and myth, this thing that hurtled into my life and millions of others, maybe then, captured and renamed, it’ll be utterable, knowable, understandable—the death, the trauma, the injustice, the loss. This desire to capture is an artistic impulse linked to a healing impulse, as if, in transforming all of it into a work of art, we could suture the parts of our psyches that feel as though they burst apart when the wind and rain and floodwaters stormed through our lives, altering forever their course.
But I recognize that this thing itself—the wreck, the Water, K, whatever it is—cannot be captured, not fully. At one point, Broom quotes Beckett, a reference to euphemism and the breakdown of language, to facing not meaning but the stark realization of its absence.
Words, in the hands of writers, are supposed to be transcendent; craft is supposed to help describe the concrete through choice and order which accumulates into form. But what if we are trying to describe not presence but absence, which cannot be seen but can be felt in a place just beyond the reach of words? Broom toggles between concrete and abstract, between what is there (she is a journalist, and relies heavily on the real, with archival documents, photographs, recordings to that effect) and absence. This tension comes to a head in her big question, the title of Movement IV: Do You Know What It Means? I couldn’t help but think of Louis Armstrong’s lament, “Do you know what it means / To miss New Orleans?” As though asking a question were the only way to call attention to the impossibility of the answer.
Formally, The Water comes hurtling smack in the middle. It’s a book that pays attention to form, and so I wonder if she feels that trauma, as someone once told me, can be defined as the thing that splices everything into a “before” and an “after,” affecting all of it. I continue to experience the hurricane as an unfolding story—not a photograph after all, but a film that moves backwards and forwards. Temporality, beginnings and endings, are skewed. In trying to reconstruct a narrative timeline, we are led to more questions: When do we know when the storm “hit”—was it the storm clouds, the drizzle, the rain, the eerie calm of the eye? Or was it the panic, the boarding up of windows, the news reports?
How we evacuated to Houston, bringing a few pieces of clothing, leaving behind my father’s books, a PhD’s-worth of a library that we spent hours piling on higher shelves. Waking up in the middle of the night in a squalid Texas hotel room, watching the news reports, understanding before I knew for sure that we were not going back, we were going North. Another first day of ninth grade. Hungry, curious eyes wanting to know, was my house destroyed? Are you for real, they seemed to ask. Moving onwards, more north still, to New York, to Connecticut.
We use the simple past tense when we say “the hurricane hit” but this is the wrong way about it because it implies decisive action and clear ending. I often think of how the destruction was largely due to water—an element that literally seeps everywhere, changing the texture, color, feel, smell of everything it comes across. Liquid, seeping into all parts of my life. I don’t know how to make sense of things without thinking of The Water. Or, I don’t know which parts of my life only make sense because of it.
The Yellow House itself was written over time—eight years—and officially begun six years after the hurricane, though Broom borrows from diary entries and family memories that pre-date everything. Like me, in examining the hurricane, Broom includes her pre-Katrina life, family and house, and post-Katrina choices and adulthood, especially whether to live in New Orleans or to live far away, to work, as I also have, in contexts of other displacements. And then she expands beyond herself.
“…the wreck and not the story of the wreck.” A central aim of Broom’s book is to retell the story of New Orleans, whose mythology as the Big Easy obscured the city’s rotten racist bones. Broom’s journalistic methods allow her to get concrete, if not to capture the thing itself, then in order to investigate the destruction of certain, poor and primarily black, neighborhoods. This includes her own house in New Orleans East, an area often overlooked, its authenticity as part of New Orleans questioned by those outside it. Yes, the hurricane caused damage, but racist policies and practices, in the immediate aftermath as well as decades prior, assured destruction and protracted displacement of some of the city’s poorest.
Amidst formidable ambitions of historic and collective justice, Broom questions whether she has the right to authorship: “Who has the right to tell the story of a place?” Because she was not there when the hurricane hit, she did not evacuate, she did not live in New Orleans for a long time.
Like Broom, I too have questioned my right to write about evacuating and Katrina. I lived in New Orleans as a young, white girl. My house was a different yellow house in a different part of town. Where I lived, people did not wonder if the government had purposefully blown up levees in order to protect other, richer neighborhoods, deemed more valuable. I wasn’t born in New Orleans, and neither were any of my ancestors. I lived there as I was still growing up, so my ticket to being an insider, the knowledge of a place that comes with living there, is limited, that of a place seen through the eyes of a child: cafeterias and schoolyards, ma’am and y’all and Ms. First name spoken with the soft inflections of a warm accent; painting Sarah Vaughan’s face on a mural of musicians; greedily stuffing crawfish in my mouth, the stench on my red hands afterwards that I secretly loved; picnics on the levee; my little sisters following me as I walked on sidewalks made jagged and cracked by live oaks. But I left, and I don’t have roots there, unless you count memories as roots.
I do not want a personal, linear narrative to overshadow a collective one—I want to recognize that they are braided. I want to allow myself to hold simultaneously the gratitude and shame of surviving, of leaving before things got really bad when so many others could not, alongside the spectral, lingering feeling of my own disappeared, amputated early life. Like Broom, I would like to not “avert my eyes.”
For all of these reasons, it seems to me important that formally, Broom’s book is just that—a book—a sometimes messy mélange of genres, visual and written, that feels quite literally stitched together, a suturing of dispersed pieces. The book allows for narrative duration and pluralism of voices and mediums. If trying to simply capture a chain of events serves an impulsive desire for immediate satisfaction, the book form instead allows for thinking about loss and catastrophe, absence, trauma, and injustice in a more expansive, and messier, fashion, mirroring more closely the feeling of living and processing after such an event. Reading, I felt a bond; the parallels in our experience mixed with the space she opens for multiple stories to co-exist felt like permission for me to go back psychically, to express and to write
Broom’s Yellow House was destroyed as a result of the dual efforts of Katrina and bad policy. The Yellow House is the protagonist, but also one of many houses which come up in this book. Houses are about history: Black history, American history, New Orleans history. And they are about families, intimacy, privacy, interiority. Broom lingers on houses that the family and community lost, about the importance of owning a house and the perceived tragedy of being nomadic, transient, or homeless. A physical shelter, home is also deeply symbolic and internal, spiritual. By Broom’s own assertion, shelters and God and writing and our insides are inextricably linked. It’s no wonder that to lose a house is so devastating.
I recently went back to New Orleans for the first time in ten years. My house isn’t yellow anymore and the outside structure has changed—it’s not as kempt. I wanted to see inside. Before I could get to the front door, I came across a new gate, the kind you put at the top of stairs so your dog or baby don’t get into trouble. I fiddled with it, for minutes that felt like hours but it would not unlock. So I walked away, back down the steps, noticing wood rotting in places, thinking it was just as well, who knows what the new owners are like. Letting the realization sink in that I was locked out of a home where I’d grown up, a space that had once been sacred.