Tracy K. Smith, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012 for "Life on Mars," tells her life story, so far, in "Ordinary Light." Her memoir traces her girlhood in a mostly white suburb in northern California to her years at Harvard, where she developed "an intimate proximity" with her African-American identity.
"Ordinary Light" shines bright not because of extraordinary events that occurred in Smith's life but because of the warm glow the memoir casts on the simple everyday life of a young girl yearning to do great things. "What I really wanted was to be gifted," she writes, "someone with the ability to discern important things."
Smith's childhood wasn't unusual. She was beloved by her parents. Her deeply religious mother, who had been part of the Montgomery bus boycott, always told her she could be whoever she wanted to be. Her fiercely patriotic father taught her the importance of hard work and the power of books.
"I thrilled at the way simple words on a page could lift me up and carry me away from myself, away from being a nine-year-old black girl in Northern California in the 1980s and set me down in any kind of elsewhere," Smith writes. "I could be Jo March, writing plays for her sisters to perform in, but at the turn of a page, I could just as easily become her sister Amy, declaring 'I want to be great or nothing.' "
Smith's black identity trickled slowly into her life. Visiting relatives in the South awakened her to the racially infused culture from which her parents came. And as she got older she grew more conscious of what it is to be black in the U.S. thanks, in part, to the uninformed comments of others. "Don't you wish you were white?" a tall blonde asks her. When she receives a college acceptance letter, a classmate comments "of course you'd get in," implying it was only because of affirmative action.
Books continued to shape Smith's life at Harvard, where she immersed herself in the works of African-American authors. She writes of how these books made her feel like two parts of herself were coming together: "the part that lived in and understood blackness as a thing apart, a thing unto itself; and the part that lived in and understood language as a vehicle for deep feeling and complex thought."
"Ordinary Light" is as poetic as "Life on Mars." Smith's 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's reviews also appear in the Chicago Tribune and Washington Post.