Ordinary Light (Hardcover)
Knopf, 9780307962669, 368pp.
Publication Date: March 31, 2015
National Book Award Finalist
From the dazzlingly original Pulitzer Prize-winning poet hailed for her “extraordinary range and ambition” (The New York Times Book Review): a quietly potent memoir that explores coming-of-age and the meaning of home against a complex backdrop of race, faith, and the unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter.
The youngest of five children, Tracy K. Smith was raised with limitless affection and a firm belief in God by a stay-at-home mother and an engineer father. But just as Tracy is about to leave home for college, her mother is diagnosed with cancer, a condition she accepts as part of God’s plan. Ordinary Light is the story of a young woman struggling to fashion her own understanding of belief, loss, history, and what it means to be black in America.
In lucid, clear prose, Smith interrogates her childhood in suburban California, her first collision with independence at Harvard, and her Alabama-born parents’ recollections of their own youth in the Civil Rights era. These dizzying juxtapositions—of her family’s past, her own comfortable present, and the promise of her future—will in due course compel Tracy to act on her passions for love and “ecstatic possibility,” and her desire to become a writer.
Shot through with exquisite lyricism, wry humor, and an acute awareness of the beauty of everyday life, Ordinary Light is a gorgeous kaleidoscope of self and family, one that skillfully combines a child’s and teenager’s perceptions with adult retrospection. Here is a universal story of being and becoming, a classic portrait of the ways we find and lose ourselves amid the places we call home.
About the Author
Praise For Ordinary Light: A memoir…
“This forceful memoir by a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet relates her experience of growing up in a bookish family, and the dawning of her poetic vocation. It begins and ends with the death of her deeply pious mother. The hurts (and caresses) of life are rendered indelibly.” —The New Yorker
“Transcendent . . . deceptively simple, deeply affecting. Most of the time, Ordinary Light seems to be a coming-of-age story about a middle-class black girl with a relatively idyllic life. If this were all that her memoir were, Smith would’ve succeeded in publishing something revolutionary: a book about a happy, financially solvent, high-achieving black family—more specifically, the story of the healthy, nurturing bond between a black mother and daughter. Too few books that fit this description exist. Black family memoir more often explores overcoming poverty, bad parenting, substance abuse, and trauma related to racism. Stories about black mothers and daughters are even scarcer. . . .Though I don’t get the sense that Smith was concerned about the ways in which her memoir might serve to ‘normalize’ the black parenting experience, it succeeds at doing so—for those who would need the existence of healthy black families confirmed—just by focusing on her parents’ presence and encouragement. But the memoir is most powerful when it returns to the subject of her mother’s illness and Smith’s slow-dawning realization that she will not recover . . . It seems that, in writing about her [mother], she’s combing through the minutia of her childhood, adolescence, and early womanhood, searching for things she wishes she’d shared, instances when she might have been more honest, moments when she could have revealed more of her doubts or challenged her mother’s authority. And only in viewing those earlier, prosaic scenes through this retrospective lens does the ordinary become sublime. These later descriptions of small discoveries are profoundly moving—finds that threaten to unravel the reader . . . Ordinary Light is lovely, languid, and painful, at turns—much like the memory of a beloved and long-deceased relative. Grief breaks open in the smallest of moments, but it can result in gorgeous revelation and in an acceptance that can almost mimic peace.” —Stacia L. Brown, Slate
“Engrossing . . . subtle and evocative . . . a luminous memoir about Smith’s early years with her own mother and protector, and the rites of passage a daughter and mother must endure as the child grows and finally breaks free. You don’t have to know Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry to appreciate her ability to interpret life in a way that feels both unique and universal . . . Smith is the youngest child among five in a loving black family suffused with a father’s dignity and a mother’s faith. She has the gift to see herself clearly, without apology or judgment. In her visits home from college, she developed disdain for her upbringing . . . Some two decades have passed since Smith’s mother left her. Smith now has three children of her own. When they were born, she began to pray again, and this memoir feels like part of that prayer. There are many things we say and wish we could take back. Ordinary Light is about finally uttering what we left unsaid for too long.” —Carlos Lozada, The Washington Post
“A lyrical reminiscence of an almost idyllic childhood in Northern California. The memoir overflows with memorable stories: a trip to Alabama; a trip to a ranch to pick fruit for her mother’s preserves: the love of books instilled by her father, an engineer with the U.S. Air Force who would go on to work on the Hubble telescope.” —Rege Behe, Pittsburgh Tribune Review
“A memoir of race, faith and a mother’s devotion, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet . . . The youngest of five children, Smith grew up like an only child, her siblings already away at college by the time she began to think about her place in the world. In Ordinary Light, she offers her reflections on what went into the making of her, from the chapters of Little Visits With God she used to read with her mother, to Seamus Heaney. . . An awareness of herself as a black girl breaks in on Smith by degrees. She would have her militant phase at Harvard. Her reading list was much like the one Barack Obama described in Dreams From My Father: Ellison, Hughes, Hurston, Baldwin, Wright. But in Ordinary Light her understanding of herself as a black American cannot be separated from her knowledge of herself as a woman and the experiences that contributed to it . . . No doubt the greatest influence on Smith’s maturity as a woman was her mother. She writes as a daughter who has lost her mother and is thinking of her own daughter . . . Her inclusive lists of influences—Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Philip Larkin, Yusef Komunyakaa—testify that black identity these days is way past black and white.” —Darryl Pinckney, The New York Times Book Review
“Compelling . . . It’s rare that a memoir is so emotionally engaging that a reader may wish to reach back through time and envelop the author in a warm personal hug. But that’s the impulse Smith engenders in this account of growing up as a dutiful daughter in a small town in northern California during the 1970s and ‘80s. But she’s more than a compliant child—she was preternaturally attuned to everything happening around her, and determined to find a place for it in her rich imagination . . . The fact that she is black does not immediately loom large on her mental horizon, but little by little, idle remarks from white friends and overheard family conversations knit themselves into a perspective that keeps her aware and on guard . . . At Harvard, she revels in the ‘small freedoms’ of being on her own. But always at the center of her life is her overwhelming love for her mother, who dies soon after Smith graduates.” —Edward Morris, BookPage
“Evocative, moving, thought-provoking . . . a subtle, elegant meditation that reveals the profound in the quotidian—the layers of meaning in everyday events . . . The star here is the writing itself: Like a Noguchi table, Smith’s prose is sturdy, functional and at the same time exquisitely beautiful . . . The two big themes of Ordinary Light are race and religion, but Smith avoids the clichéd treatment these hot-button issues too often receive. Smith is black and proud, but she doesn’t so much tackle issues of race as resolutely face them down. As a result her account of the corrosive power of subtle racism rings truer than more overtly politicized treatments . . . Her reflections on religion are even more illuminating and unexpected. The child of an especially devout mother, she accepts the gospel and the conventional moral strictures that accompany it for most of her childhood. But as a young adult, she must attempt to reconcile her more cosmopolitan sensibilities and experiences with a religious faith that, for her, has always come with short apron strings attached. She does not reject the church in favor of easy liberated atheism; instead she quietly insists of a faith replete with human complexity . . . Ordinary Light glows not from the flare-ups of dramatic conflict and trauma, but from the steadier supply of insight derived from the habits and gradual transformations of everyday life.” —Richard Thompson Ford, San Francisco Chronicle
“At the heart of Ordinary Light lies a loss that shakes Smith’s faith in the solidity of the world. Her mother has been gone two decades, and her quiet, questioning memoir is an act of recovery and devotion. [In] her mother's last hours, Smith finds herself ‘both frightened and reassured,’ and ‘both crushed and heartened’ that death does indeed look and feel the way it's described in hospice literature, even as it remains a mystery and a miracle. Throughout the book she often returns to this kind of paradox. Her journey from childhood to Harvard and to poetry is also a journey from her mother's version of God to her own more expansive and characteristically questioning concept. ‘Is God each of the many different things we seek in life?’ she asks herself after the birth of her own daughter. ‘Family for a short time, and then independence, and then love?’ Her book is full of such questions, always reaching across the gap from daily life to the eternal.” —Joanna Scutts, Newsday
“One of the most-anticipated books of 2015. Though best known as a poet (and a damn good one), Smith never felt the medium allowed her to fully reflect on her family, her upbringing or the loss of her mother just after she finished college. So she turned to memoir. In Ordinary Light, Smith imparts tremendous grace and eloquence through an honest, unyielding consideration of her past . . . Revealing.” —Time Out New York
“Exquisitely written . . . eloquent, poignant. Smith grabs you from the first sentence. Her memoir is a search for her mother, through memories—visiting grandparents, interacting with much older brothers and sisters, encountering poetry for the first time, always aware of her mother’s presence. Smith folds us into her reveries and reminiscences with enormous grace, revealing the particularly vulnerable moments she experienced when she became a motherless daughter, and the lingering, everlasting question of what might have been, had her mother been with her into her own experience of becoming a mother herself. Ordinary Light is a lament, an homage, a discovery, a blessing.” —Jane Ciabattari, BBC.com, “Ten Books to Read in April”
“Smith, who won the Pulitzer for poetry, tells her life story so far, tracing her girlhood in a mostly white suburb to her years at Harvard, where she developed ‘an intimate proximity’ with her African-American identity. Ordinary Light shines bright because of the warm glow the memoir casts on the simple everyday life of a young girl yearning to do great things . . . Her spare yet beautiful prose transforms her story into a shining example of how one person’s shared memories can brighten everyone’s world.” —Carol Memmott, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Ordinary Life begins with a harrowing scene at the deathbed of Smith’s mother, [then] circles back to Smith’s early childhood, tracing her growth not just as a writer, but as someone who must learn the hard lessons of puberty and early adulthood, as well as what it means to be a black woman growing up in suburban California. Her discovery of poetry is part of this. But the most remarkable moments in this book are the ones in which Smith deals with ordinary trials, which she treats with rare insight and heart . . . This is not a chronicle of shock of loss. Rather, it is a celebration of Smith’s life, a chronicle of a big family with five children, and a story of coming of age amid deep and abiding love.” —Craig Morgan Teicher, Publishers Weekly
“Smith’s memoir is about a life in many ways ordinary—suburban California upbringing, elite college education, upward mobility and black assimilation. Even her mother’s untimely death isn’t all that anomalous. But her writing is both precise and transcendent, so that when Smith digs deeper into her black rural roots—origins her parents were eager to put behind them—her revelations about identity, religion, and family feel as momentous as anything Barack Obama once put between covers.” —Boris Kachka, Vulture, “8 Books You Need to Read This March”
“An emotion-packed narrative . . . Since Smith is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, one expects eloquence in her prose, and she adroitly delivers . . . Her story, of a young girl intent on discovering her own identity while trying to be the person her mother wanted her to be, is a timeless one full of love, worry and the need to call a place home.” —Lee E. Cart, Shelf Awareness
“Sublime—a feast of startling insight . . . When good poets write memoirs, we get the benefit of experiencing actual events as filtered through a transcendent art form . . . Smith writes about her childhood with humor and acute insight; though raised in a military family with Christian values, she accepts nothing at face value. Her childhood self sees through human hypocrisy with laserlike precision . . . A trip to Alabama, where her mother grew up, brings an awareness of what went before: the Civil Rights movement, segregation, slavery itself. Smith’s attempts to reconcile this legacy with her own journey into the hallowed halls of the highly educated makes for a riveting read.” —Terre Roche, O, The Oprah Magazine
“A nuanced memoir, with a quiet emotional power. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Smith reaches around the deep Christian piety of her Alabama-born mother to the author’s own questions about faith and her black identity. The work opens with the death of her mother shortly after Smith graduated from Harvard; then it looks back to the 1970s, when she was growing up in California near the Travis Air Force Base, where her father was stationed as an engineer. Each chapter takes a memory of youth and holds it to the light for scrutiny . . . Throughout, there is the strong sense that Smith’s mother’s love and faith held the family together. And, though God could not cure her mother, Smith finds her own way back to her faith by searching for a more expansive way to understand her relationship with her mother, which she found in writing poetry.” —Publishers Weekly
“Smith, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, has now crafted a book of prose, which travels from the comfort of the California suburbs back to the cotton culture of Alabama, and through her mother’s terminal illness. It begins with an exquisitely detailed narration of [that] ending, perhaps echoing A Death in the Family by James Agee.” —Harvard Magazine
“An extraordinary new memoir by the Pulitzer-Prize winning poet . . . a book of excavation and navigation [that] returns to the wrenching loss of Smith’s mother in light of her father’s death . . . In Ordinary Light, Smith embraces a fuller sense of herself as a writer while cementing the connection between her children and her ancestors using the best glue she knows: words. She opens her memoir with the family’s vigil during the final hours of her mother’s life, remembered twenty years later. From that solemn moment, she circles back to her childhood as the adored and indulged baby in a family of five children and, further back, to her parent’s coming of age in Alabama at the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Dedicated to her daughter, Ordinary Light began as a way for Smith to bring her parents back to life, ‘to reconstruct them’ as characters for her. . . . Smith is known for sharpening a political edge in her poetry, whether she’s writing about science fiction, pop culture, or current events, and Ordinary Light is no exception . . . Through writing it, Smith has come to peaceful terms with the fierce religious faith that guided her mother’s life; [it] helped her to speak honestly about how she sees God—and to decide what elements of her religious inheritance she wants to offer her children. [It also] helped her appreciate the key role of the African American church of her parents’ era in fostering a sense of family, community, and discipline ‘in a world full of disparities’ . . . Smith explores for herself and her own children the moment when we hear the tiger at the door.” —Renee H. Shea, Poets & Writers
* “A gracefully nuanced, strikingly candid memoir about family, faith, race, and literature . . . meticulously structured, philosophically inquisitive. Smith grew up in Northern California, snuggled close to her elegant and devout mother; challenged by her engineer father; and enthralled by books. As one of few African Americans in their community, she navigated a ‘sea of white faces,’ in stark contrast to the world she discovered when staying with relatives in Alabama. Smith holds our intellectual and emotional attention tightly as she charts her evolving thoughts on the divides between races, generations, economic classes, and religion and science and celebrates her lifesaving discovery of poetry as ‘soul language.’ Smith’s intricate and artistic memoir illuminates the rich and affecting complexity of ‘ordinary’ American lives.” —Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)
“Deeply engaging and brilliantly written, Ordinary Light tells how a young woman, encountering ‘the miracle of death,’ explores and expands her own vibrant life—and discovers her voice as a gifted writer.” —Elaine Pagels
“Smith’s memoir takes us so far into the dimensions of experience that the reader feels a remarkable intimacy with this narrator, who brings to all life has to offer a tenderness and intelligence rarely so closely intertwined. Her self-scrutiny, her empathy, and her lifelong quest to figure things out—in particular our bedeviling national aches, religion and race—make for an indelible self-portrait: moving, utterly clear and compulsively readable.” —Mark Doty
“With an abundance of love and wisdom, and in a poet’s confessional prose, Tracy K. Smith has recalled her life and the lives of the people who made her into the person she now knows to be her own true self. The title of her book is Ordinary Light, but that is a conundrum, for there is nothing at all ordinary in its beautiful sentences, its beautiful paragraphs, its beautiful pages. This memoir is big and significant because it reminds us that the everyday is where we experience our common struggles, and that the everyday is at once common and ordinary, while also being singular and unique. A poet is uniquely positioned to know this, and now the remarkable Tracy K. Smith has shown us just that.” —Jamaica Kincaid
“A candid, gracefully written account of a daughter’s journey to claim her identity [and of] a dawning black consciousness. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Smith grew up in a solidly middle-class California suburb sheltered by her community and family. She had little sense of her black identity until she spent two weeks visiting relatives in Alabama. Her grandmother still cleaned for a white family; her own house smelled of ‘cooking gas, pork fat, tobacco juice, and cane syrup.’ Suddenly, Smith was confronted with a new image of her parents’ Southern roots, and it frightened her. Back in California, though, that visit receded into memory. Teachers encouraged her, including one who remarked that as an African-American woman, she should ‘take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.’ Smith resented the idea that her success would be based on anything other than her own talents, but when she was accepted at Harvard, the comment gnawed at her . . . Smith’s memoir probes her relationship with her mother, whose illness and death from cancer darken the edges of this light-filled memoir.” —Kirkus
“Ordinary Light is a lyrical, evocative and poignant memoir that is the best of that genre. Tracy K. Smith has created a poem in stunning prose, a book in which she holds the child she was in her adult hands, examining the things that bridge the two: memory, parents, siblings, time—and of course her extraordinary eye. The result is something quite beautiful.” —Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone
“When a poet of Tracy Smith’s considerable lyric talent turns her attention to prose, she sets the bar ever higher for those of us who consider ourselves lifelong practitioners. Emily Dickinson once claimed that she wouldn’t think of exchanging poetry for prose, for ‘she dwelt in possibility,’ poetry being ‘a fairer house than prose.’ All I can say is that she didn’t live long enough to read Smith’s new memoir. Ordinary Light is no ordinary book. Moving, engaging, full of flashes of insight and passages that could be poems, this is the kind of keeper memoir you don’t just read to get to know more about the private life of an author, but to illuminate your own understanding of the world, our country, our communities, our selves. Smith is a first-rate storyteller, and when lyricism and storytelling come together, expect Dickinson’s delight as a reader: gathering paradise in your hands as you turn the pages. Along with her place as one of our best young poets, Smith can now claim a place among the best writers of prose.” —Julia Alvarez, author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents