"Memory is a flawed lens," says Tracy K. Smith, author of the widely acclaimed Ordinary Light, heralded as one of the most anticipated books of 2015 by Time Out New York. "And it was exciting to be an investigator of my own life."
Smith's memoir is her fourth book, and her first of prose. Her three others have been poetry collections; she's won multiple awards in the genre, including the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and an Essence Literary Award. The Princeton professor of creative writing will discuss the book and her experiences as part of the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series.
For Smith, probing her life meant coming to terms with the times she felt something was just slightly amiss. As a child, she was aware that she was somehow different, although it wasn't something she could pin down.
"These were things I had a sense of, but never a name for," she says about her childhood. "So the ideas of race and religion went unspoken. And they were definitely things that you couldn't quite express to a non-black person. Teasing out those thoughts, and realizing the kinds of things my parents must've gone through, was interesting."
For Smith, telling the stories of her family meant looking deeper at her own experiences. She was surprised when she would mention an event to her brothers and sisters, only to discover that they recalled it in a completely different manner.
"My siblings and I are close," she says. "So, they trusted my truth and the way I would relate it. This was a way to affirm our family."
Ordinary Light looks deeply at the dual shadows racism and religion cast over Smith's growing up in the 1970s. Her mother's family had roots in the Jim Crow South, and in her book, she examines her mother's death and life.
"There's so much [about race] that we haven't figured out yet how to say," she says. "But there is a grief to it, this idea of what happened to people who look like me."
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She'll explore those themes at her reading, presented in association with Rice University's Multicultural Community Relations and the Boniuk Institute for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance. It is part of the celebration of 50 years of black undergraduate life at Rice University. Smith says she plans to acknowledge that milestone and says she recognizes that race is a central theme on campuses across the country now.
"I think that we have to think about how students can feel validated, and we can draw all their potential out," she says. "And these are good things to think about and talk about in public."
"I teach my students that in writing, you have to be risky, you have to be willing to fail," she says. "It was exciting for me to come in touch with all of these memories, to think about why they felt the way they did at the time, and compare them to my knowledge as an adult."
Tracy K. Smith's reading and discussion of Ordinary Light is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. February 29 at Rice University's Stude Concert Hall, 6100 Main. For information, call 713-521-2026 or visit inprinthouston.org; $5.