Recitatif - Toni Morrison
A stunning, relevant short story written by Toni Morrison. This was the only short story written by Toni. The storyline captures the exploration of race, activism and prejudice, which is just as relevant today. An introduction by Zadie Smith.
Recitatif follows the lives of two girls, Twyla and Roberta, aged eight years old, who spent 4 months together in the St.Bonaventure shelter. The story is told within 40 pages and shares five encounters that Twyla and Roberta have with each other. First is the shelter, forced to share a room together and after some initial prejudices, being from a different race become close friends. Their friendship was inseparable. As they grew older, they lost touch with each other. After 4 months Roberta leaves the shelter. By chance, they encounter each other four more times at a diner, a grocery store, and again at a protest. The other encounters differed slightly from when they met years ago at the shelter. They attempt to revisit and adjust their memories of their past, however they can never agree with each other.
I must admit, this is the only story I’ve read that keeps us guessing about Twyla and Roberta. There are many things that are clever about Recitatif, one being that Toni Morrison keeps Twyla’s and Roberta’s race ambiguous throughout the book. Morrison quoted herself that this story is an “experiment”. Whilst reading questions will often come up about the race of the two girls, therefore the reader is constantly searching for clues. This could somewhat reveal our own prejudices. For example, the one that grew up in poor circumstances is she more likely to be Black?
As a reader, you become so distracted with wanting to know which girl is Black or white, which leaves the reader less focused on the character Maggie. I guess Toni’s point is made very clear. As a society, we are more preoccupied with the “race question”, so Maggie’s story moves to the background. Maggie worked at the shelter and had disabilities. A group of girls bullied her, including Twyla and Roberta. Maggie was a “dummy” because she was mute. I must admit that this part of the story was sad, no matter what race Maggie was, it was awful how she was treated.
During the other encounters with Twyla and Roberta, the discussion of Maggie comes up. Like the reader being preoccupied with Twyla and Roberta’s race, they are also discussing Maggie’s race. First Roberta claims Maggie was for sure Black, whilst Twyla thought she was white. I feel Toni Morrison is showing us how ridiculous it can be. The storyline about Maggie allows us to have sympathy for her, whether she’s Black or white.
I read the Recitatif in one sitting. I feel it’s truly challenging. During the entire story, you’re wondering who is Black or white, which shifts the character's story slightly. It’s effective because it makes you feel that you're part of the experiment.
Author Photograph © Micheal Lionstar
In celebration of Toni Morrison’s birthday month (February), special classic editions will be printed with new introductions and cover images.
Beloved, with an introduction by Bernardine Evaristo, The Bluest Eye, with introduction by Candice Carty-Williams, Sula with introduction by Namwali Serpell and Song of Solomon, with an introduction by Marlon James.
With thanks to Vintage for the copy of Recitatif. Available on 3rd February 2022.
About the author
Toni Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. She was the author of many novels, including The Bluest Eye, Sula, Beloved, Paradise and Love. She received the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize for her fiction and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, in 2012 by Barack Obama.