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In Berkeley talks Episode 159, Adriana Green, Ph.D. student in the Department of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley, and Nadia Ellis, associate professor in the Department of English, discuss Sarah Broom The yellow housewinner of the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The memoir, set in a shotgun house in East New Orleans, recounts one hundred years of his family and their relationship with the house.
“I’m a diaspora scholar and I’ve had to explain my field to a lot of people,” says Ellis, who specializes in black diaspora, Caribbean, and postcolonial literatures and cultures. “Sometimes people seem to not understand what the word ‘diaspora’ means. And I think it’s such a wonderful book that one can offer as an example of what it means to feel both from a place and also out of place from that place – to feel like the place that claims you perhaps most is also where you can’t live, which is an extraordinary and painful and very, very idiosyncratic feeling to have. It’s actually very characteristic of black life and black life in America.
“There’s a moment when she’s in Burundi that I really want to highlight because it’s such a beautiful way to think about this tension between where you come from and where you can’t be.
“So she says this – she works for a non-profit organization at the time – she says, ‘My time in Burundi helped me put New Orleans into a more global context as part of the Global South often neglected, where the basic human rights of safety and security, health care and decent housing, are not fulfilled. But the distance only grew clearer; she could not make people forget. On my trip to Burundi, I tried the elasticity of the rubber band, pulling it to the point where it should have snapped, but it didn’t. The group violently retreated and I found myself in the bowels of the city I had gone to look for.
Green replies, “I think there are two quotes that speak, one that speaks directly I think, about what you’re talking about – how you can be physically distant but haven’t moved at all and vice versa.
“She says, ‘It’s hard to talk about going back to a place that you haven’t psychically left. And so there’s this kind of time and space dilation that happens for her and that’s what it’s like to be in a diaspora, especially the black diaspora, that doesn’t just move in terms of distance, but also temporally through time.
“One of the times I really had to sit down and think about why what she was saying resonated so strongly with me on so many different levels was when she was talking about what it was like to to be in Harlem while [Hurricane] Katrina was set in New Orleans.
“And she said, ‘I had only observed everything that happened from a distance. What right did I have to react so strongly? And I think that made me think about my own experience. My dad and his whole family are from New Orleans. And so, it took me to the time when I was in southern Virginia, watching my dad watching TV, watching him panic and feel this distance, not just between me and New Orleans, but with me- even and my father and watching him travel his distance, but also what it means to be in the diaspora and to encounter moments of history.
“There are many times when I read a book, a manual, and I read something that happened years in the past and I will react to it so strongly. And you have this moment of reflection: ‘What? do I have to react so strongly? Me just watching this from afar? And I think that speaks a lot about being diasporic – when your place in the world has changed and your family’s place in the world has changed, but maybe your identity in the world hasn’t. And you navigate all of these different times and spaces from one point, which is yourself. And that’s , I mean, yeah, it’s an unsightly adjustment that’s hard to navigate in. 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 September 8, 2020. It is part of a Townsend Center for the Humanities series titled So what did you read? Students and teachers discuss which books matter.
See more events by the Townsend Center for the Humanities, including upcoming book talks and conferences.
Watch a video of the conversation below.
On September 8, 2020, Nadia Ellis, associate professor of English at UC Berkeley, and Adriana Green, Ph.D. student of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies, discussed the winner of the National Book Award 2019 The Yellow House.