Ordinary Light: A Memoir (Hardcover)

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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

Tracy K. Smith is the United States Poet Laureate. She is the author of four acclaimed books of poetry, including Wade in the Water and Life on Mars, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, and a New Yorker, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. A professor of creative writing at Princeton University, she lives in Princeton with her family.

Praise For…

Advance praise for Ordinary Light

“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

Product Details
ISBN: 9780307962669
ISBN-10: 0307962660
Publisher: Knopf Publishing Group
Publication Date: March 31st, 2015
Pages: 368
Language: English