2015 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction

Tracy K. Smith

Ordinary Light
(Alfred A. Knopf)
ISBN: 978-0307962669

Ordinary Light Tracy K. Smith, credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths


Tracy Smith’s hypnotically lyric memoir navigates through the author’s childhood with a series of extraordinary ruminations on life’s ordinary trials, ultimately arriving at an unsettling birthright: the pain of her parents’ own childhoods in a segregated south. Smith embraces this pain reluctantly as one that "has been borne by the people we love.” Ordinary Light is about historical trauma and Smith’s decision to let it shape her but in no way define who she is.

National Book Foundation: In the process of writing your book, what did you discover, what, if anything, surprised you?
Smith: For decades, I wanted to write about the loss of my mother, but each of my attempts to do so in poetry felt only partial, perhaps because there is always a little distance between the speaker of a poem and the poet herself. After becoming a mother myself, I wanted to come closer to exploring the totality of that loss, if such a thing is really possible. And so I chose to tell this story in prose.
What did I discover? That many of the questions that are alive and felt--but often unspoken--in a poem suddenly, because I was working in prose, demanded to be explicitly addressed on the page, before the reader's eyes. Why do I remember this? What does the adult me think about this story from my childhood? What does it sit behind or in front of in my mind? How does it frighten me? What other questions does it house, and how do they speak to a world beyond this private story? In unraveling those questions, I was surprised to discover just how much I wanted to talk about race, and how much anxiety still characterized my relationship to the faith I grew up in. Those themes surprised me, but once I submitted to them, they became some of the story's central concerns.


A memoir about the author's coming of age as she grapples with her identity as an artist, her family's racial history, and her mother's death from cancer.

About the Author

Tracy K. Smith is the author of three acclaimed books of poetry, including most recently Life on Mars, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, a New York Times Book ReviewEditors’ 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.


- poetryfoundation.org/bio/tracy-k-smith
- arts.princeton.edu/people/profiles/tksmith/


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Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths