Thursday, March 12, 2015

A Lyrical Memoir Written by a Poet

Tracy K. Smith has written 3 books of poetry, including Life on Mars, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 along with a whole slew of other awards.  She is obviously a very accomplished poet.  So how good is her 1st-non-poetry book?  Ordinary Light, A Memoir, is very well-written.  As I indicated in the title, it has a very poetic feel to it.  Or I should say that it has what I believe to be a very poetic feel to it.  Because the truth is...I'm not really into poetry.  I think the last poem I read was Casey at the Bat, in 4th grade (have I used that one before? - it sounds familiar).

Despite by reluctance to read books like this (you know how I avoid anything that is Pulitzer Prize-winning or worthy), and even though I only read it because a Penguin Randomhouse rep sent it to me, Ordinary Light did hold my interest.  Tracy recounts her life from childhood right on through early adulthood.  She tells us what it was like for a black family to grow up in Fairfield, CA (not far from Oakland and San Francisco).  And, yet, there are many times in the book where I was not aware of race unless she pointed it out.

Here's what Tracy says about being black in a white world.  And remember that this is in the '70s and '80s - in Northern California, not the South.  For those of us who are caucasian, I think this gives us some real insight into the issues that Tracy and her family dealt with.

I don't think we every truly forgot about whites, even when we were alone amongst ourselves in the thick of family.  I doubt any blacks do.  There's always a place in the mind that feels different, distinct; not worse off or envious but simply aware of an extra thing that living in a world that loathes and fears us has necessitated we develop.

But lest you think that this memoir is a pity party, it is far from that.  It celebrates family and, especially, her mother.  Tracy certainly tells us about the trials and tribulations of her childhood.  But she holds it all up as part of the growing/learning process.  Even when she talks about her mom dying (don't worry, this is not a spoiler alert; we learn about that in the 1st couple of pages), it's not about making us feel bad for her.  It's part of the whole story.  A few pages before the end, Tracy is telling us about herself and several others who lost their mothers.  But here's what she says:  "We all knew what it felt like having a dead mother."  Isn't that an interesting way of saying it?  It certainly feels different than saying that they all had "lost" their mothers.  I was really impressed with that.

Bottom line?  It's a good book, and I'm glad I read it.  But let me say this - I think Ordinary Light is going to be a big hit.  I know there are tons of people much more enlightened than me who will absolutely love it.  Watch for it, people.

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