Ordinary Light

A Memoir

Publisher: Vintage

One of the Best Books of the Year
The New York Times • The Washington Post • San Francisco Chronicle • Denver Post • Oprah.com

In Ordinary Light, Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Tracy K. Smith tells her remarkable story, giving us a quietly potent memoir that explores her coming-of-age and the meaning of home against a complex backdrop of race, faith, and the unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter. Here is the story of a young artist struggling to fashion her own understanding of belief, loss, history, and what it means to be black in America.


Prologue: The Miracle

She left us at night. It had felt like night for a long time, the days at once short and ceaselessly long. November-dark. She’d been lifting her hand to signal for relief, a code we’d concocted once it became too much effort for her to speak and too difficult for us to...

Read More


The questions, discussion topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light, a hauntingly poignant memoir and the first work of prose by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

1. How does the prologue of this...

Read More


“Engrossing in its spare, simple understatement. . . . Evocative . . . luminous.” —The Washington Post

“A subtle, elegant meditation that reveals the profound in the quotidian. . . . Exquisitely beautiful.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Honest, unflinching . . . an inspiring model for seeking the light in an ‘ordinary’ life—ask the tough questions, look in the hidden corners, allow yourself to understand and never stop searching for faith.” — O, The Oprah Magazine

“Transcendent. . . . Lovely, languid, and painful.” —Slate

“Smith writes as a daughter who has lost her mother and is thinking of her own daughter. . . . She offers her painstaking reflections on what went into the making of her.” —The New York Times Book Review

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. . . . 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.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[A] forceful memoir. . . . Rendered indelibly.” —The New Yorker

“A riveting read. . . . Smith writes about her childhood with humor and acute insight.” —Terre Roche, O, The Oprah Magazine

“[Smith’s] 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, author of Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems

“A lyrical reminiscence. . . . The memoir overflows with memorable stories.” —Pittsburgh Tribune Review

“Both precise and transcendent . . . [Smith’s] revelations about identity, religion, and family feel as momentous as anything Barack Obama once put between covers.” —Vulture

“A powerful meditation on being a daughter and, by the end, on being a mother, too.” —The Guardian

“[Smith’s] quiet, questioning memoir is an act of recovery and devotion.” —Newsday

“Stunning. . . . A lyrical, evocative and poignant memoir that is the best of that genre.” —Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone

“Smith unsurprisingly reveals tremendous grace and eloquence through her honest, unyielding consideration of the past.” —Time Out NY

“Deeply engaging and brilliantly written.” —Elaine Pagels, author of Beyond Belief

“Small and big moments are observed in elegant prose and in epiphanies that seem both surprising and inevitable.” —Los Angeles Review of Books

“Poetic. Each sentence is beautiful in its simplicity and readability, artistic in its craft, and deep with its insight and wisdom.” —Washington Missourian

“So emotionally engaging that a reader may wish to reach back through time and envelop the author in a warm parental hug.” —BookPage

“Big and significant because it reminds us that the everyday is where we experience our common struggles.” —Jamaica Kincaid, author of See Now Then

Ordinary Light is no ordinary book. . . . 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