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In Berkeley Talks episode 159, Adriana Green, a Ph.D. student in the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley, and Nadia Ellis, an associate professor in the Department of English, discuss Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House, winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The memoir, set in a shotgun house in New Orleans East, tells a hundred years of Broom’s family and their relationship to home.
“I am a diaspora scholar and I’ve had to explain what my field is to many people,” says Ellis, who specializes in Black diasporic, Caribbean and postcolonial literatures and cultures. “Sometimes people seem to not understand what the word ‘diaspora’ means. And I think this is such a wonderful book that one can offer as an example of what it means to feel as if one is both from one place and also displaced from that place — to feel as if the place that claims you maybe most closely is also the place where you can’t live — which is an extraordinary and painful and very, very idiosyncratic feeling to have. That’s very characteristic, actually, of Black life and Black life in America.
“There’s a moment when she’s in Burundi that I really want to point to because it’s such a beautiful way of thinking about that tension between the place that you’re from being the place where you can’t be.
“So she says this — she’s working for a nonprofit at the time — she says, ‘My time in Burundi had helped me to place New Orleans in a more global context as part of the often neglected Global South, where basic human rights of safety and security, healthcare and decent housing, go unmet. But the distance only clarified; it could not induce forgetting. My traveling to Burundi was my trying the elasticity of the rubber band, pulling it all the way to the point where it should have broken, but it did not. The band snapped violently back and I found myself in the bowels of the city I left searching for.”
Ellis goes on to talk about how, as a person connected most deeply to Kingston, Jamaica, and who has belonged in multiple places, her own sense of longing for home happens precisely because she’s in California, where there are few Jamaicans and where she “can’t find a good party.”
Green responds: “I think there are two quotes that speak to … what you’re speaking about — how you can be physically distant, but have not moved at all and vice versa.
“She says, ‘It is hard to talk about returning to a place you have not psychically left.’ And so, there’s this sort of dilation of time and space that’s happening for her and that is what it is to be in a diaspora, especially the Black diaspora, that doesn’t just move in terms of distance, but also temporally across time.
“One of the moments that I really had to sit and think about why what she was saying resonated with me so strongly on so many different levels was when she was talking about what it was like to be in Harlem while [Hurricane] Katrina was happening in New Orleans.
“And she said, ‘I had only watched everything that happened from a distance. What right did I have to react this strongly?’
“And I think that that made me think of my own experience. My father and his whole family is from New Orleans. And so, that brought me to the moment of being in southern Virginia, watching my father watch the TV, watching him panic and feeling this distance, not just between myself and New Orleans, but with myself and my father and watching him navigate his distance, but also what it means to be in the diaspora and to encounter moments in history.
“There are many times where I’ll read a book, a textbook, and read about something that has happened years in the past and I will react to it so strongly. And you have that moment of thinking, ‘What right do I have to react this strongly? I, who am only watching this from a distance?’ And I think that that speaks to a lot of a diasporic being — when your place in the world has shifted and your family’s place in the world has shifted, but maybe your identity in the world has not.
“And you’re navigating all of these different times and spaces from a single point, which is yourself. And that is an ungainly fit that’s hard to navigate. And a lot of this book is about navigation.”
Listen to the full discussion in Berkeley Talks episode 159, “Adriana Green and Nadia Ellis discuss The Yellow House.”
This conversation took place on Sept. 8, 2020. It was hosted by the Townsend Center for the Humanities as part of its ongoing series of scholarly conversations.
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Watch a video of the conversation below.
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