Recitatif is Toni Morrison’s only short story. Published in 1983, the version I read was republished in 2022 and featured an introduction by Zadie Smith (the introduction was longer than the short story). I often regret reading introductions before I read the main story because I usually prefer to have my own thoughts and impressions when reading something new. On the other hand, I probably notice and take more in when I’ve been primed by an introduction. Anyway, Zadie Smith’s introduction was very smart and thoughtful. And by the time I started reading the first page, I knew all the main plot points.
Recitatif is about the relationship between two girls who meet at a home for children (St. Bonaventure shelter) when they are eight years old. Twyla and Roberta spend four months sharing a room at “St. Bonny’s”, and then run into each other a few times when they are older. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of their relationship is that Morrison lets us know that they are of different races, but she doesn’t let us know which is which. “Morrison described it as ‘an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.'” Both girls are poor and have mothers who can’t take care of them. They both struggle at the shelter for being young and bad at school. And they both look down on others they see as below themselves.
Toni Morrison is something of a wizard, and she does a lot with not many words. Many reviews have said that readers inevitably try to figure out the races of the girls and it says more about the reader than the characters. I imagine characters in my head as I read, so I found myself arbitrarily making one of the girls white and one black, just so I could have an image. I think I changed my mind a couple of times throughout the story. I do wonder if Morrison assigned a race to them as she wrote, or if she just focused on describing the characters in a way that kept the question open.
Maggie was perhaps the most memorable part of this story. She was an older, disabled woman who worked at the shelter. Misshapen and mute, everyone looked down on her, and she was treated badly by the children, including Twyla and Roberta. It’s something the two of them struggle to remember accurately when they grow up. So, in this short story that addresses race in such a unique manner, Morrison also includes other layers of hierarchy and humanity.
I would definitely recommend this short story. It’s a quick read, but written by a master and very thought provoking.
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