Sarah M. Broom won the National Book Award for Nonfiction on Thursday night at the National Book Foundation’s annual awards ceremony. Her work, a memoir entitled The Yellow House, tells the story of her family, drawing from her life in Louisiana as the youngest of 12 children living in a shotgun house (yellow, obviously) her mother purchased in 1961. It is as much memoir as it is historical nonfiction, weaving together first-person accounts from her family members and the development of East New Orleans starting in the mid-century and jumping around in time and space to create an immersive masterpiece where the city, her family, the nation, and, of course, the yellow house combine inextricably to form the book’s subject.
In her acceptance speech, after thanking her team, Broom’s first words of gratitude went out to her mother, Ivory Mae, a central character in The Yellow House. Her voice quaked — elegantly, in a way I only wish I could sound while on the apparent verge of tears — as she announced her mother was also at the event.
In this room tonight, my mother, Ivory Mae, poet in her own right. How as a child I watched her every move, seeing her eyes fall upon every word anywhere encountered in the grocery store, on a bus, pamphlets, the package labels, my high-school textbooks. She was always wolfing down words, insatiable — which is how I learned the ways in which words were a kind of sustenance, could be a beautiful relief or a greatest assault. How I learned that words were the best map. “Make me know,” my mother was always saying, in between raising 12 humans. I am in this room … semicolon … and so is my mother.
“When you read a memoir you feel like you know everyone in it, which is why I gasped when @sarahmbroom, National Book Award winner, said that her mother is in the room,” writer Maris Kreizman tweeted during the ceremony, as apt a description as any for the emotional moment. Broom also thanked her late brother, Simon Jr., who died “the day after this book appeared in the world.” She talked about listening to the recordings of interviews they had done while she was working on The Yellow House.
And yet, in somehow and still, in the interstices of time, I have listened a million times to his hesitant voice on the recordings that we made so that I might make this book. His saying, “You grew up on Wilson Avenue in the East, baby, you can handle anything.” And on the recording he is also telling me that sometimes I talk too much, which is what I am doing right now, but I just want to say, somehow and still, even with and through it all, the work stands. Nothing can stand in for it, I have learned, because the work is the work is the work. And this honor will buoy me as I make the next one.