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In Conversations with Berkeley episode 159, Dr. Adriana Green, a student in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and Nadia Ellis, an associate professor in the Department of English, discuss Sarah Broom’s story Yellow House, winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Set in a shotgun house in East New Orleans, the memoir tells the story of her family’s hundred years and their relationship to home.
“I’m a diaspora expert, and I’ve had to explain to a lot of people what I do,” says Ellis, who specializes in Black diaspora, Caribbean, and post-colonial literature and culture. “Sometimes people don’t seem to understand what the word ‘diaspora’ means. And I think it’s such a wonderful book that you could use it as an example of what it means to feel as if you’ve been both from one place and from there – to feel as if the place you most speaks to you, there was also a place you couldn’t live in, which is an unusual, painful, and very, very peculiar feeling. This is very characteristic of black life and black life in America.
“There’s a moment when he’s in Burundi that I really want to highlight because it’s a beautiful way of thinking about the tension between where you come from and where you can’t be.
“So she says this – she works for non-profit organizations at the time – she says, ‘My time in Burundi helped me put New Orleans in a more global context as part of the oft-neglected Global South, where basic human rights to safety and security, healthcare and decent living conditions’ of housing remain unsatisfied. But the distance only cleared up; could not be forgotten. My trip to Burundi was to try the elasticity of the rubber band, stretching it to the point where it should break, but it didn’t. The team retreated sharply and I found myself in the bowels of the city I was looking for.”
Green replies, “I think there are two quotes that speak to me, one that I think says directly what you’re talking about – how you can be physically away but not move at all and vice versa.
“He says, ‘It’s hard to talk about going back to a place you haven’t left mentally.’ And yes, there is something like space-time dilation going on with it, and that’s what it’s like to be in the diaspora, especially the black diaspora, which is not only moving in terms of distance but also time-to-time.
“One of the times I really had to sit down and think about why what she was saying resonated with me so much on so many different levels was when she was talking about what it’s like to be in Harlem during [Hurricane] Katrina took place in New Orleans.
“And she said, ‘I was watching everything that was going on, just from a distance. What right did I have to react so harshly? And I think that made me reflect on my own experience. My father and his entire family are from New Orleans. And yes, that led me to a time when I was in southern Virginia, watching my father watch TV, watching him panic, and I felt this distance, not only between me and New Orleans, but also between me and my father, and I watched, how he overcomes the distance, but also what it means to be in the diaspora and meet moments in history.
“Many times I read a book, a textbook, and I read about something that happened many years ago, and I react very strongly to it. And you have this moment of thinking, “What do I have to do to react so strongly? I who only watch from a distance? And I think that says a lot about being diasporic – when your place in the world and your family’s place in the world has changed, but maybe your identity in the world hasn’t changed. And you move through all these different times and spaces from a single point, which is yourself. And it’s, I mean, yes, it’s a clunky fit that’s hard to navigate. And a lot of this book is about navigation.”
Listen to the full discussion at Conversations with Berkeley episode 159, “Adriana Green and Nadia Ellis discuss Yellow House“.
This interview took place on September 8, 2020. It is part of the Townsend Center for the Humanities series titled So what have you been reading? Students and teachers discuss important books.
See more events hosted by the Townsend Center for the Humanities, including upcoming chats and book talks.
Watch the video of the conversation below.
September 8, 2020. Nadia Ellis, Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and Dr. Adriana Green. student of African American Studies and African Diaspora Studies, discussed the 2019 National Book Award winner Yellow House.