I’m a reader who’s getting harder to reach. I don’t mean that it’s difficult to impress me—I think what I find to be well written is, largely, what it always was. No, what I realized while reading Tracy K. Smith’s autobiography Ordinary Light was that these days, sure, I read and admire, or dismiss, or quibble or whatever reaction seems to fit…but I’m hard to “reach”. There’s an abstraction that’s crept into my reading, an emotional distance I hold, that instead of feeling the feelings the author is generating for me, I find myself one step removed, noting the writer’s effort or affect, as opposed to just letting go and feeling it. This came into sharp contrast for me reading Ordinary Light.
Smith’s writing is deceptively simple. Her prose is intimate, so much so, that it feels like the book is really just a long conversation with an old friend—someone self aware and clearheaded, generously spirited and deadly smart. I suspect that I found myself seduced early on, largely because we are almost the same age—much was familiar. Of course, her story is black, religious, Californian, and female. Yet, the references, observations, and keenly felt childhood reflections resonated with me because they felt humanly true, notwithstanding obvious differences to this reader (white, atheist, Australian, male). And even when they weren’t familiar, Smith tames the distance with an invitational tone that welcomes her readers to, for example, the First Baptist church and her mother’s particular religiosity, or the most intimate of moments, that of her family gathered around her mother’s bedside in the final weeks of the woman’s life.
Like most writers I suppose, I’ve occasionally wondered about writing autobiography. Even if I could convince myself that it’s not about the life itself, but rather the telling of it, I quickly shut the idea down. For one thing, who says my version of the truth would be the right one? How would those whose paths have intersected with mine react to being written about? Smith has courage. She tells it as she remembers it. Almost never hedges. Except when she must. And by that point it only served to strengthen my trust, thinking that she’d probably nailed it.
A few times though, she didn’t name names. Her affair, even if it was only an emotional one, with her high school English teacher was poignant and handled deftly. He was spared being named (although easily recognizable, surely.) Did the publisher’s lawyers seek a redaction? Or did she choose to leave him with a touch of peace as an act of forgiveness, or grace? (Perhaps she’s addressed this in an interview somewhere? Not to self: seek out interviews.) Conversely, her first serious boyfriend for whom she traveled all the way to Portugal to visit before she was dumped, first was not named. And, did we readers not scold her? Shame that bastard! we howled. And, then, happily, and unexpectedly because it was so close to the end of the section, she did. (The narrative journey to a distant land for a lover, only to be heartbroken upon arrival is such a familiar one. We readers saw it coming miles off, of course…but it took so long to read the section because we were forced to pause, and relive, our own similar ancient versions of that story, be it on the giving, or receiving, end…or both in my case.)
Perhaps it’s because of the current political climate in the US—but reading Tracy K Smith slowed everything down for me. She reminds that there’s more to American thinking, to American lives, than polemical slogans. She turns a phrase, she writes with such ease, it was a book I didn’t want to end. No wonder she wins, no earns, all the big awards. Finally, I honestly had this thought towards the end of the book: I hope her close friends know how lucky they are. Yep, I was reached. And I’m grateful for it.