[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions ]
Intro: This is Berkeley Talks , a Berkeley News podcast from the Office of Communications and Public Affairs that features lectures and conversations at UC Berkeley. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. New episodes come out every other Friday. Also, we have another podcast, Berkeley Voices, that shares stories of people at UC Berkeley and the work that they do on and off campus.
Nadia Ellis: Hello everyone. My name is Nadia Ellis and I’m an associate professor in the English department here at UC Berkeley. I’m coming to you here as part of the Townsend Center for the Humanities new program about books and reading and conversation that’s called, So What Have You Been Reading? And I am happy to be here with a student of mine, Adriana Green, who in a second will introduce herself.
But I wanted to let you know on behalf of the leaders of the Townsend Center for the Humanities, a bit about the impetus for this program. It was conceived because the Townsend Center wanted to spotlight the kind of passion that drives the intellectual conversation and community at UC Berkeley, and particularly the way in which that passion is demonstrated as a relationship between a student and a teacher over a particular book. We are, Adriana and I, really, really delighted to be apparently I think the first in this new series.
We are thrilled to be discussing Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House , which is a national book award-winning, extraordinary book that was published last summer and that I had a chance to read just as a person in the world because a friend gifted it to me last summer and was immediately captured with and decided to put on the syllabus of a course that I was teaching in the spring. That’s how Adriana and I had a chance to read this book together as part of a course that was co-taught between myself and my dear colleague, Professor Darieck B. Scott, who’s a professor in the Department of African American Studies here at UC Berkeley.
Darieck and I taught together a course just full of extraordinary and brilliant graduate students, amongst whom was Adriana. We had a chance together to read this book and to study it as part of a sort of collection of books on diasporic art and literature, and it was wonderful. And so when I was asked to think about being a part of this program, it was the book that came to mind first. I was thrilled that Adriana was able to join me and now I’ll turn over to her and ask her to let us know a little bit about her.
Adriana Green: Sure. Well, I’m very excited to be here today. My name is Adriana Green and I am a third-year in the African American and African Diaspora Studies Ph.D. at Berkeley. Personally, I’m interested in thinking through how the U.S. has conceptualized ideas of the future and how the Black community has wrestled with challenge and navigated those set ideas of a certain type of future. And I think that actually relates a lot to the thoughts of time and progress relate a lot to what’s happening in the book. So I’m very excited to chat about this text because it has definitely, we read it in February and I’ve thought of it quite frequently since then. So I appreciate the chance.
Nadia Ellis: Yeah, I’m so glad you’re here and it’s really never gone away ever since I picked it up. That’s part a big part of what I want to talk to you about today. And when we were first thinking about having this conversation and recording it and putting it out on the internet, we sort of batted around some of the ideas and some of the things that made this book hold.
And I talked about the idea that this book has a kind of architecture to it, that it’s called The Yellow House . It’s about literally a yellow house that Broom’s family sort of built together and lived in New Orleans East. But that magically it is both extraordinarily rigorous as to its sort of scaffolding and structure and also it has this extraordinary sort of luminous mood. It has an interiority. So you and I had talked a little bit about this idea of a book having both an exterior and in an interior and this book particularly having certain kinds of techniques and references that make it feel as if it has a kind of spiritual quality, a kind of singularity and interiority that can’t quite be pinned down. And I think that’s part of why it seems to linger, right?
Adriana Green: Yes. I think this is a book you walk through similar to a house.
Nadia Ellis: It is.
Adriana Green: Move through it in a very particular way.
Nadia Ellis: And so maybe that’s where I would start. I mean I know we’ve both pulled some quotes. We want to be able to give people who listen to this a sense of the beauty of the piece. And if I were to think about the book having a kind of interiority and balancing interiority with exteriority, I would have to begin with how she thinks about how Ruth thinks about New Orleans itself and about this particular place of New Orleans East, which she says at a certain point very, very early on, she says, “New Orleans East is cut off a point beyond a blank space on someone’s mental map.” And she goes on to say a little bit later in the book, and this is a little bit longer, but it feels like it really gets to the heart of what she’s doing in turn for the geography of this book.
She says, “The mythology of New Orleans that it is a place, always the place for a good time can sometimes suffocate the people who live and suffer under the place’s burden, burying them within layers and layers of signifiers or making it impossible to truly get at what is dysfunctional about the city.”
So the first thing that I think about when I think about introducing people to this book is to sort of point to this sort of twin dynamic that’s happening that, on the one hand she’s going to uncover, Broom is going to uncover, these layers and layers that make New Orleans and New Orleans East what it is, everything from canal structure, the sort of development structure that made New Orleans East seem as if it were an appendage on New Orleans proper, the management and misuse of the levees, which culminated in the disaster of [Hurricane] Katrina.
All of that is going to be rigorously studied and handled. And yet she’s maintaining this idea that her particular corner, her and her family’s particular corner of New Orleans East is this place outside of the mental map. What does it mean to try and capture a place and a feeling and an experience that is deliberately being curtailed from ordinary representation and the fact that that Broom does not one or the other, but both, I think we’ve both read accounts of places that are sort of rigorous and historical but don’t necessarily get at the sort of soul of a particular experience and vice versa that we get a kind of particular individualized experience without a much larger sense of the canvas. And it’s a kind of magical feed, but Broom is able to do both of these things.
And for me, that idea of holding a kind of fidelity to a very specific and singular experience of a young person coming into, as you’re about to say, I think, self fashioning. Coming into their own sense of who they are under the kind of arch and branches of a wide and large family tree. And holding to that perspective, even as she does all of the rigorous and political work of placing the geography of New Orleans and New Orleans East sort of in context, I think is pretty magical. And I continue to study this book as a model of how you can do both of those things at the same time. Is there anything that’s resonant there for you in just introducing the book and it’s purpose?
Adriana Green: I think just you’re talking about layers and how basically she’s moving through the different layers that have been placed upon the city, but also in this way towards this idea of self-fashioning. There’s this quote that I didn’t know if I would read, but I think I have to now, ’cause it reminds me so much of what you just said. So this is, she’s speaking about her family and her family’s relationship to presentation, self presentation. So she says, “Like her mother, my mother buried her rage and despair deep within, underneath layers and layers of poise. America required these dualities anyway and we were good at presenting our double selves. The house, unlike the clothes our mother had tailored to us, was an ungainly fit.” So there’s always this, at first I thought we were going to talk about femininity, that that’s what came up in our sort of behind the scenes conversation.
But as I read the text I realized it’s, what we might mark as femininity, sort of the sewing of clothes, the making of clothes, keeping of a home, the making of a domestic space translates across the whole family. So everyone is doing these things and sort of that quote where she’s talking about basically this tension between how you present yourself and how the world presents itself upon you or the layers of the world that you’re moving through, feels like what you’re saying that what’s happening on the macro level of the city, she’s also allowing us to see how that’s happening on the micro level of a family without sort of sacrificing either to each other.
Nadia Ellis: Yes.
Adriana Green: And not over conflating the two.
Absolutely. I mean it would be so easy to just collapse them down into each other so that the family is a metaphor for the society or vice versa. And you’re right that there is kind of precisely in this sort of metaphor of self fashioning or adornment, there’s this idea that there is a kind of self that one puts on and one takes off. And what’s so beautiful about this book and so mysterious about it is that you’re able to get to the New Orleans or the home or the Broom family that occurs when the veil is pulled back. And yet because there’s an emphasis on the notion of interiority in any number of registers, you still have a sense that there’s a way in which a certain kind of rigorous privacy is maintained in this text.
Yeah, I think about this a…
Adriana Green: Where do you see that most?
Nadia Ellis: Yeah, I think about this in a couple of ways. I’m thinking for instance about the ways in which she renders on the page the distinction between Carl and her mother, Ivory Mae and herself and anybody else. So she actually has typographical difference. There’s italics and actually diversification that’s used to render the language of Carl, her elder brother and her sort of much adored and respected Mother Ivory Mae Broom. And there’s a moment when, this is a bit of a spoiler for those who haven’t read the book before, but the yellow house that’s at the center of the sort of consideration does eventually fall down. And there’s a moment when Sarah’s told about this by Ivory Mae, and she says this, “My mother Ivory Mae called one day,” italics, “Carl said, those people then came and tore our house down. That land clean as a whistle, now. Look like nothing was ever there.” And that’s it. It’s almost like it’s own pristine little poem.
And what I find private about this is that everything that the book has been narrating thus far is about the centrality of this structure to the lives and identities of this family. It’s taken away because of [Hurricane] Katrina, which is to say it’s taken away because of structural neglect, all right on the part of this city in this country. And it’s a devastation. And yet we’re not given access to a certain, to the kind of passion that with which that family would’ve felt that devastation. Because at some level I think we are to understand that Broom is doing us a kindness by telling us this story in the first place and we don’t get to have everything. So we get a sort of formal poetic rendition of a moment in a private conversation between a mother and a daughter and in its, I think clean lines and in its lyricism and therefore in its slight formal abstraction, I think is a kind of retention of the difference between what it is to be in that family and what it is not to be in that family, to be a leader.
Another way that I think about that, and you and I definitely talked about this, was this really clever and fascinating way in which Broom references the fact that she speaks in tongues.
Adriana Green: Yes, we will. Yes. In that, actually, I think it’s in the chapter called “Interiors.” So it’s about…
Nadia Ellis: It’s in the chapter called “Interiors,” right? So it’s like this, yeah, Sarah knows what she’s doing and she’s very clear that there is an interior and exterior for this house, for book, and also for her own subjectivity. And that this sort of religious practice and experience of ecstasy, of being able to speak in tongues is a wonderful metaphor. Without hammering it home, she does this of what it’s like to be vocal, to be volleyball, but to not necessarily be understood at all registers, to retain a certain kind of opacity. I want to find a moment where she says this because it’s so cool, this is what she says. So she’s thinking about… She’s coming of age as a teenager and this book is so good. I know you’re interested in this as well. It’s so good about the coming of age of a girl who’s observing and who’s discovering what it’s like to be herself on the page. She’s really good at that.
And so she just again, sort of casually sutures together that coming of age on the page with the sort of privacy of religious ecstasy. And she says this, “By the time I was a junior at Word of Faith, I had gained an interiority, a place without strictures where I could live. And that inside space was the room I loved best. Writing I found was interiority and so was God. I spoke in tongues as did my mother and my sister, Karen. Although I have not tried, I can theoretically still speak in tongues. Tongues was interiority writ large.”
And I don’t know why she does it, because the discourse of this book, the language of this book is clarity writ large. It’s so beautifully, it’s so beautifully rought, it’s so precise in its language. And yet I do retain the feeling that there’s a kind of tongues being spoken here. There’s a kind of ness both in what’s being withheld, but also in the idea that the clarity of this language registers at multiple levels. And there’s a level at which it’s very, very difficult to pinpoint what’s happening, but it’s acting on you the same way it might be when you’re in the sort of context of someone speaking a different language. It’s very cool. It’s very cool.
Adriana Green: It is very cool. And I think it actually relates a little bit to, as a writer. I’m also very interested in how she does this, the actual mechanics of how she’s drawing us in, keeping us away, how she moves us through the book in this sort of beautiful way. An I think we talked about this a little before, but this idea of she gives us enough where we feel like we are almost sort of taking a memory from her and we’re almost remembering alongside of her. So she tells us, in the beginning she mentions her sister Karen’s accident, but she doesn’t say what it is, almost the same way that maybe a child herself being born last would know that something had happened but maybe not know the full story for years. And we like her, we enter, we get a little bit of information and it grows over time.
And I think the way that she sort of imparts these small tidbits of memory but doesn’t fully divulge, right, she’s not saying, she’s not giving the secret, she’s not passing this information along, she’s just letting some of it out and we are putting it together over time. I think there’s just one moment that I really had to put the book down because I could almost, I ended up feeling a loss rather than her sharing a loss. And there’s this part in the book where she’s describing her mother’s fear of lizards and how when a lizard would get into the house, she would go over and get their neighbor and Miss Octavia to come and chase it out and eat just one little tiny lizard. She would come and drag it out and bring it outside and her mother wouldn’t be able to feel easy or calm in her home until that was out. And then her Sarah’s father and Ivory Mae’s husband passes away. And where we start the next scene of the next movement of the book, which is about grief, is with a house full of lizards and those seeing those…
Nadia Ellis: So good.
Adriana Green: So far apart, but having met Ivory Mae and seeing her relationship to her space and the next moment we just are in a house full of lizards. It’s like you could feel the change that had to mean without her having to say anything about her mother or the space and you move through it with her. And I think that in these small ways she almost brings us, she lets us remember with her.
Nadia Ellis: It’s such a beautiful way you found to put that, that we remember with her, that we become endowed with her memory. It extraordinary. I think there’s another example of that you and I talked about that. I didn’t know if we would get to it, but it feels right based on what you just said. It’s that moment where she withholds what happened in a particular house that had a lot of meaning for her, but it’s clear that something did happen. I’m seeing if I can find it right now.
Adriana Green: And something will happen.
Nadia Ellis: And something will happen. That’s what it is. So this effect that you’re describing of her being able to endow her reader with the particularity of a feeling without necessary necessarily divulging the detail that wants to remain private. It’s a very particular structure. And I think, you’re right that it’s about a technique of interiority and the moment that you described of having to put the book down. I had that moment with this moment when she says this, looking over at this across the street from her house. And she says, “There would come a time when I would know very well the man who would stay in that house long after its charm had faded. Everything that I am writing here now leads to that.” And that’s all we get. We, it’s almost like the lizard moment. It’s not a moment that’s returned to in any kind of specificity, but it’s a moment that haunts for the rest of the story, precisely because she connects whatever feeling she’s having about that memory to the act of writing itself. It’s that infusion in the language of a certain kind of dread or disappointment that we’re able to take on, it’s extraordinary craft.
What else about space is happening here for you? I know there’s questions for you as a writer, as a poet around technique around self fashioning. I know I’ve been obsessed with the way in which this book is a house and is interested in the relationship between space and place between physicality and the immaterial. Is there anything about self fashioning and technique that relates to space for you when you think about this book?
Adriana Green: Well, I think the immediate thing that comes to mind is from that quote earlier where she’s discussing what it means to have to for her mother and many others to have to navigate the dualities of being Black in America. And she says, “The house, unlike the clothes our mother had tailored to us was an ungainly fit.” And I think that, an ungainly fit, that idea comes even though this book is beautifully put together, there is this… There’s a self fashioning and there’s a constant tugging and a trying to work through it and a trying to navigate an ungainly fit. And I think that comes through, maybe not necessarily in the writing itself, but in what she chooses to show about her own life. And I know this is important for you, the type of traveling she does.
Nadia Ellis: Yes.
Adriana Green: How she’s almost as a character and as a writer leaving to return as if the return would be different and it will fit differently if she returns. So there’s this sort of a very diasporic way of being in the world of trying to come always to come back, never able to come back. And I think that phrase gamely fit has resonance between…
Nadia Ellis: So good, so good. I mean, yeah, it’s so good. We’ve talked about this, we talked about it both in the context of the class, which was a Black diasporic class. And then you and I have talked about this as we were thinking about doing this conversation about how this book just fully embodies the Black diasporic, right? Structurally…
Adriana Green: Yes.
Nadia Ellis: And in terms of its writing. And it is precisely about this one Black family in this very specific place. New Orleans, New Orleans East specifically. And it is also at the same time about this one particular Black person who is moving. So she’s from, she’s grounded and related to New Orleans, but then she’s going to Texas, to California.
Adriana Green: And Harlem.
New York to Harlem, which has its own kinds of dense representations around diaspora, to Burundi at another point. And what she’s able to do so beautifully is in the tradition of Black diasporic art, which is to show that there is a kind of dynamic tension of belonging and affinity and insistence of multiple places that act upon a particular subject position so that many, many Black people in the world do not get to choose that they have one place that they belong to, but they’re constantly trying to sort through how multiple kinds of affinities make up who they are.
And so I love this idea of the ungainly fit, the idea that one nation or one story, one city, despite it being yours, right.
Adriana Green: One name.
Nadia Ellis: One name.
Adriana Green: Right? Because she has too many names in the book and in her life there it’s.
Nadia Ellis: Got the interior, the inside name, the outside name.
Adriana Green: And then also the inside the country. Outside the country.
Nadia Ellis: Absolutely. And I am a diaspora scholar and I’ve had to explain what my field is to many people. A lot of times sometimes people seem to not understand what the word diaspora means. And I think this is such a wonderful book that one can just kind of 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.”
And at a plot level, this describes her discovering that actually she’s not going to stay in Burundi and that that’s not going to be the new place where she finds herself and that in fact she’s going to return to New Orleans and work there for a stint. But structurally and emotionally, I think what’s moving about that is that what we know is that she doesn’t stay in New Orleans. So she snaps violently back, finds work, makes more roots, and then finds that she must leave again. And she’s writing this book that is in some ways a sort of devotional love letter as well as a critique and an exposure of this place that she’s far away from that place that she’d been snapped back to.
I was just, so… First of all, this is a very familiar kind of procedure as someone who has belonged in multiple places and has found that her excavation of the place that’s sort of maybe most responsible for her, in my case it’s Kingston, Jamaica. That investigation is happening when I’m furthest away from it. And that sense of longing and that sense of insistence seems to occur precisely because I’m in California where not enough Jamaicans are, where I can’t get a good party.
Adriana Green: You may have to go into that.
Nadia Ellis: And so yeah, there is a, there’s a subtlety with which she’s handling some of these very classic themes of diaspora and placing and placing New Orleans, which is a Gulf Coast place, which is a place that has a very, very rich history of Black diasporic circulation, placing it in a context of post-colonial and diasporic belonging and politics that I think more and more people are beginning to understand about more and more places in the United States, which is often sort of been kept separate from some of these places. So that’s part of what I think the magic of this book is, is its ability to unfold in a really delicate and subtle way. Some of these more traditional themes of Black belonging and multiplicity that some Black artists are looking at.
Adriana Green: Yes. I would say that more than anything, the number of quotes I’ve pulled that fit for diaspora is that’s the largest category.
Nadia Ellis: Yeah.
Adriana Green: I think there’s two quotes that’s that speak to, one that speaks directly I think to what you’re speaking about — how distance is and isn’t… 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 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 in New Orleans, 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, I mean, yes, that is an ungainly fit that’s hard to navigate. And a lot of this book is about navigation.
Nadia Ellis: Yeah. It’s so powerful what you’re saying. I mean, what you’re describing is the sort of spatiality of kinship, this idea.
Adriana Green: And the temporality.
Nadia Ellis: And the temporality of kinship. Exactly. I mean, this is a book that some people call a memoir and it begins three generations before Sarah Broom was even born with her describing what she calls the world that made me. And so what you are describing of watching your father, watching his city, and you are feeling this kind of, I want to call it a kind of secondary or tertiary trauma, but it’s much more direct than that, it’s as if you’re right there with him, has everything to do with an experience of kinship that can be really hard to describe. And that’s very, very potent as it pertains to questions of Blackness and Black diaspora, as you’re saying, precisely because of the mobility and displacement that’s occurred.
I’m actually just thinking there’s a quote where she gets at some of this. It’s this relationship between the space of a city or a house that’s destroyed and the space of a family and a body and a person, and how those things can collapse into each other. So she says, oh goodness, I’ve lost it. Oh, here it is. Yeah, she’s thinking about the house again and she says, “I had no home. Mine had fallen all the way down. I understood then that the place I never wanted to claim, in fact had been containing me. We own what belongs to us, whether we claim it or not. When the house fell down, it can be said, something in me opened up, I was now the house.”
And so it’s this thing about, it’s relating to this question of time for me that you’re bringing up because it’s this thing about whether or not you are at that moment inhabiting the place that is being taken away, whether or not you were there when it was built, whether you or not, you were there when your mother was being unfolded in the embrace of this kind of maternal line of extended kin that made her in New Orleans. Whether or not you were there, you are somehow that feeling is transferred to you and that claim of those women and of that house is made upon you, regardless or not whether you want it or not. So that it’s destruction, the pain it feels, the violation it feels, becomes your pain, your violation.
And part of what feels really courageous about this book is that it is possible to turn away from that claim and to try and ignore that trauma and to try and ignore the accountability that you can have to those feelings. And what’s so courageous about the book is that Broom doesn’t turn away. That she is displaced. For sure, she’s in a different spatial and temporal position, but she feels the claim of that home and of that family. And she takes it up as her responsibility to voice. It’s a beautiful model of the work that art does in the context of political trauma.
Adriana Green: She doesn’t… The house falls all the way down, but in some way they don’t allow it to fall all the way down. I mean, the title of this book is The Yellow House. And in so many ways, this is what is left. And she does make it, again, in a way that can’t be destroyed in the same fashion.
Nadia Ellis: It can’t be destroyed, Adriana. So it’s important. I’m sorry, that was, it can’t be taken away. It can’t be taken away.
Adriana Green: Yes. Certainly not the same way that it was before. It’s not vulnerable to the same things because, and that’s sort of part of the Black diaspora too. The worst has happened and everything else is, yes, I think Fred Moten says this, “The ships have already arrived.” The sci-fi disaster, the apocalypse has happened, it happened and everything after this is the living. And I think there’s this moment where she describes her relationship to her family. And I think this is so much of what it feels like to be in this time relating to pastime.
So she says, “When you are the babyiest in a family with 11 older points of view, all variations of the communal story, developing your own becomes a matter of survival. There can be, in this scenario, no neutral ground.” And I think of African-American history, African diasporic history as what is as 11th child coming in so far after the fact we’re all here trying to compete with all of these other points of view. And what does it mean? I think that’s so important that she says there is no neutral ground in that. And I think that you’re right, some people can think that there is a neutral ground and turn away, but she’s actually saying there isn’t a neutral ground. And what will we do with that?
Nadia Ellis: So good, good. What I also love about that is that she’s so clear that her work is to write, her work is to render the home in words, in language. But she’s also really, really clear about what Carl’s work is. Her older brother. And we’ll, remember, we’re given many visions of Carl sitting and watching the land after the home has been taken away.
Adriana Green: As if at wake, yes.
Nadia Ellis: As if at a wake, right? Yeah. And she’s able to evoke the aesthetic and emotional labor that he does on the part of the home, which looks different from hers, but is real. And she’s able to evoke the aesthetic and emotional labor of her mother’s tongue. She’s so curious about and careful with her mother’s words and is so aware that her mother too is an artist who is rendering the subjectivity and the history of this family and this life world. So that she sets down all of those interviews. She sets down with great transcript of detail, everything her mother says in exactly the way her mother says it. Because she has a sense that though she, Sarah Broom is the writer, she’s not the only artist in this family.
Adriana Green: Well, it’s her mother’s house. And I think there is this respect and this sort of-
Nadia Ellis: Absolutely.
Adriana Green: Yes. Because all she does you’ll see her have a page of dialogue and her mother’s in the room of that dialogue. But her mother’s words are in italics. And there’s something about that similar to the epigraphs and her piece, that it’s almost like her mother’s voice is presented as archival material as a material object.
Nadia Ellis: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Adriana Green: And yes, I think it’s because her mother’s, the house is the house, her mother… This is her mother’s house and also her mother is the house. And so…
Nadia Ellis: Her mother is the house, her mother… Her mother’s attentiveness to language and aesthetics comes from being raised in a home of Black women who attended to the aesthetics of cooking, the aesthetics of the body, the aesthetics of the curtains, that there’s a real care and lineage, that Broom is sort of suturing that is so respectful of the different ways in which history and art get made. And also the multiplicity of vocality.
I think you and I talked about this and we actually talked about this in the class as well. There’s a tradition, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust is a film we read alongside this book. And we were really interested in that class, I think to think about what the possibilities of narration are. If you displace the idea of the sort of singular genius through the whole story comes. And in both of these texts in Julie Dash and Sarah Broom and many others, we get this idea that to tell a story of Black life and Black survival in diaspora is to sort of draw on resources that are multiple, that are polyvocal. That decenter any notion that any one person can tell the story on their own. And again, what seems to me almost quasi mystical about this book is the idea that it can have, on the one hand such a strong and clear aesthetic voice and on the other yield itself very undefensively to the voices and to the aesthetics of other people in order to make it.
Adriana Green: Yeah. I was watching a clip of her speaking and she said that she was balancing some of the tension between representing other people and being the youngest and being the one to write the story of the family. And she said that she put herself on the line as much if not more than everyone else, and I that double play of putting oneself on the line, not just in terms of being your vulnerability, but how often you put yourself on a page and where is that line. And I think that was a really important way that she navigated that. And also this idea of time. In one hand, most narrators they narrate in real time in the real time of the story, but she narrates before her birth.
Nadia Ellis: That’s right.
Adriana Green: And so this idea of what is real time, what is traditional time, she plays with that as a way to navigate responsibility and yeah…
Nadia Ellis: As does Dash, right. So that Daughters of the Dust is… yes.
Adriana Green: Exactly. It’s the same … [inaudible] young girl narrating before her birth. Yeah.
Nadia Ellis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So beautiful. A whole tradition of Black feminist art. Yeah. Well we are, I think coming close to that moment where we start to summarize and to draw to a close, where would you want to land up? I know it’s a very hard question. This is a very rich tapestry of a book. I think maybe I would end with where it starts, which is the epigraph you drew our attention to the fact that she’s such a citational writer, that she’s pulling from so many writers and artists that come before her and walk alongside her. And again, as a diasporic scholar I was so, I’m just so thrilled every time I see her site, another Black diasporic writer who’s wrestling with questions of place.
And so the epigraph of this book begins with a citation from a poem by Kei Miller, whose book The Cartographer Tries to Map His Way to Zion was a book we also studied together in this class. And so it was this wonderful sort of surprise to have these two things together. And Miller’s poem has these lines that Broom quotes, she says, or he says, “Draw me a map of what you see. Then I will draw you a map of what you never see. And guess whose map will be bigger than who’s?” Right.
And yeah, I’m left with this idea that somehow Broom has been able to draw a map that is both visible and invisible, that she is painstakingly evoked the material details of a place of New Orleans, of New Orleans East. But she has also at the same time rendered the sort of invisible, luminous power and property of the life of a Black family and of a young girl coming into her aesthetic voice in a way that just balances together so beautifully. So that’s probably where I would end.
Adriana Green: That’s beautiful. I think my last thoughts about this book at the moment, because I’m sure I’ll have more, are about just what it’s taught me and what it has the capacity to teach others about navigating the diaspora and this country and the many other countries like it. And she says, I watched this clip of her basically talking about what it was like to live in quarantine. And Sarah Broom was saying, “I’ve been time traveling with all my books, time and place traveling.” And I think that she really does that. I mean, she time travels, she goes to, before she was born, she goes to different places in the world in her writing and in physically and relates that to us. And I think she makes it so clear that writing is a navigational tool. It is a self fashioning tool. It is a tool that she uses so actively. And I think as a sort of practical takeaway, no matter who we are, I think if we so choose, writing can be a way for us to navigate an ungainly fit that is a country or a home or a city or whatever self has been imposed upon us on a particular day. And so I appreciate her for speaking to writing as a tool so clearly throughout the text.
Nadia Ellis: So beautiful. Thank you so much, Adriana.
Adriana Green: Thank you.
Nadia Ellis: This has been extraordinary. I love being in the world of this book and it’s been great to share that with you one more time.
Adriana Green: Yes. Even though we are socially distanced, it’s been so nice to be able to make a way.
Nadia Ellis: Will we ever be in a room with another person again? Who knows.
Adriana Green: We don’t.
Nadia Ellis: But Sarah Broom is taught us…
Adriana Green: That’s why we have books.
Nadia Ellis: Both worlds. Exactly. We can sort of build a room without needing to sort of-
Adriana Green: Yes.
Nadia Ellis: All right, well thank you again and thank you to everyone who’s been able to watch this. Thank you to the Townsend Center for hosting this conversation. It’s been our pleasure to be a part of it. Take care everybody. Bye.
Adriana Green: Bye.
[Music: “Silver Lanyard” by Blue Dot Sessions ]
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