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READERS GUIDE

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.

Introduction

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.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. How does the prologue of this memoir establish the themes of the book, including Tracy’s relationship with her parents and siblings and the tragedy that will come to shape her adulthood? 

2. How is the family’s grief over her mother Kathleen’s death experienced, both individually and collectively? And how did you feel, reading these sections, about such events as experienced in your own family? 

3. How did Tracy, when she was a little girl and young adult, use books as a means to forge bonds with her parents, especially with her father when he was away from home?

4. Tracy’s parents had very different “belief” systems: her father’s was rooted in science, her mother’s in religion and the tenets of Christianity. How did these attitudes both in and of themselves, and in how they differed from one another, foster curiosity in Tracy from a young age?

5. How did her parents’ respective jobs—her father’s as an engineer and her mother’s as a teacher—also shape Tracy’s understanding of their impact on the world outside of their home? And how did these non-parental identities affect Tracy’s own upbringing?  

6. How does the adult Tracy K. Smith who is writing this memoir now acknowledge the limits of her own understanding of her experiences as a child and teenager? How does this retrospective telling affect your own reactions to how she shares these memories in Ordinary Light?

7. Tracy says of her mother that “beside her, I felt what the presence of beauty makes a person feel” (18). How might you imagine that Tracy has channeled her mother’s “presence of beauty” into her own art and life? 

8. Why did Tracy’s mother choose to make her daughter’s first Halloween costume (in the chapter “Spirits and Demons”) resemble a Ku Klux Klan robe? How might this reflect the kind of unspoken ideas and beliefs that Tracy’s mother held throughout her life and that Tracy slowly, in the course of this book, becomes aware of?

9. When Tracy goes to Leroy, Alabama, to visit her grandmother, whom everyone refers to as “Mother,” during the summer after first grade, she leaves with a very different sense of her family’s roots from that ofwhen she arrived. How does this experience shape her understanding of what it means to be black in America? What does her name suggest about Mother’s place in Tracy’s family? 

10. How do Tracy’s aunts and mother unite and disagree when it comes to Mother’s care? What do those interactions illustrate about the bonds between the generations of women in their family, and are there similar bonds in your own family? How does Tracy reflect on those bonds between her mother and herself, and then herself and her own children, going further into the book?

11. Is there a specific moment when Tracy realizes how her race is seen by people outside her family? How prominent does this aspect of her identity become as she grows older, including after she goes to college?

12. What among her family’s routines, traditions, and habits—including favorite meals and foods her mother prepares—stand out in Tracy’s memories about growing up? What impact did those things have on her understanding of what home and family really mean?

13. When the year turns to 1980, Tracy writes the date in her school notebook and recalls how she “looked at the zero, the fresh, round, empty hole of it, and I imagined that every life, lived every day, everywhere, would go into filling up that space . . . [that] my presence would matter . . . not because of who I was but rather that I was” (68). How does this self-awareness of her place and importance in the world develop with time? Does that mind-set come from any of what her family has taught her?

14. Why do you think poetry, among the many kinds of artistic and creative expression in the world that Tracy pursues, including music and dance, speaks so strongly to her? What do the works and ideas of certain poets she loves, such as Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, and Seamus Heaney, reveal to her about the kind of poet she’d herself ultimately become?

15. Tracy’s romantic experiences as an adolescent and young woman sometimes feel forbidden or taboo to her. How did you interpret these relationships and Tracy’s own attitude toward them? 

16. Would you describe Tracy as more rebellious during any point in her youth and adolescence, owing to her strict upbringing, or are her attitudes typical, in your view, for a teenager? Does she now express guilt or remorse for any of her decisions and actions when she was younger, including when she discovers the truth about her mother’s illness and must come to terms with it?

17. What is unique about Tracy’s relationship with her four siblings? How does she rely on each of them for different needs and on different occasions?

18. What did going to college allow Tracy to realize about herself and who she “really” was, including new possibilities for her independence? What was special about her being at Harvard in particular?

19. Discuss the various facets of Tracy’s relationship with religion and God and how they change as she grows up. How do you think she was affected by her mother’s belief that when she becomes unwell “God would deliver her—not only from the illness but from the fear of whatever it was He had decided to deliver her to” (231)?

20. How does Tracy’s understanding of death change throughout her life? Consider what she thinks when she’s young and her grandfather dies, that “my mother’s world has been touched by death,” and then how her own world is similarly touched later on (206).

21. Discuss the meaning of the kerosene lamp that is recollected toward the end of the book—a lamp through which Tracy describes feeling her mother’s presence as “a column of threat and promise and light” (329). What does this suggest about the meaning of the book’s title, Ordinary Light, and the nature of the memory of her mother? What does Tracy say that writing this book and having her own children have helped her realize about her mother even after she’s passed? 

About this Author

Tracy K. Smith is the author of three acclaimed books of poetry: The Body’s Question, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize; Duende, winner of the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets and an Essence Literary Award; and, most recently, Life on Mars, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, 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. Other honors include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Whiting Award, and an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. A professor of creative writing at Princeton University, she lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her family.
 
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