One of Toni Morrison’s only short stories is published in book form | Way of life


Toni Morrison often spoke about the inconsistency of race.

“When you know someone’s race, what do you know? Virtually nothing,” Morrison said of one such instance during a “60 Minutes” interview in 1998. “You throw in all the stereotypical information and all the baggage that comes with race. But you don’t know anything about that person, just because you know the race.

While arguing that there is no race, the acclaimed writer and Nobel Prize winner has extensively explored through her work how living in a society structured around this artificial category has shaped the lives of her characters.

These very ideas are at the heart of “Recitative”, a rare short story by the late author which will be released in book form next month. It also features an introduction by Zadie Smith.

Originally published in 1983 as part of an anthology, “Recitative” centers on two girls, Twyla and Roberta – one black and one white – who become friends at a shelter as children and reconnect at various points in their lives. life as they grow.

The story is something of a puzzle, as Smith writes in the introduction, as Morrison never explicitly reveals the racial identity of either character. Instead, the reader must decipher it from an array of racial clues that ultimately prove ambiguous: Is Roberta a black or white name? Does Twyla’s childhood love of spam, Salisbury steak, and Jell-O signal she’s black or white? When Roberta plans to see Jimi Hendrix and Twyla has never heard of him, who can we assume is black and who can we assume is white?

For Morrison, this exercise is precisely the goal. In her collection of essays “Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination”, she called “Recitatif” an “experiment in removing all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom the identity race is crucial”. So try as the reader might, the puzzle itself is unsolvable, as Smith acknowledges in the introduction.

“Yet, like most ‘Recitative’ readers, I found it impossible not to be thirsty to know who the other was, Twyla or Roberta. Oh, I wanted to get it straightened urgently. Wanted to sympathize warmly in a safe place, become cold in the other. Resent someone and reject nobody,” Smith writes. “But that is precisely what Morrison will not deliberately and methodically allow me to do. It is worth asking why.

By obscuring the racial identities of Twyla and Roberta, Morrison challenges the reader’s impulse to carefully categorize people and forces them to consider other markers: disability, gender, class.

The short story is “just one of countless manifestations of Morrison’s genius as a writer,” said Riché Richardson, a professor of African-American literature at Cornell University (where Morrison received his master’s degree).

“In this story, its emphasis on the plight of two daughters – Twyla and Roberta – inspires readers to consider their material conditions and the forms of neglect they have suffered, no matter who they are, and to acknowledge, question and challenge such systems,” Richardson wrote in an email to CNN. “‘Recitative’ reminds us of what people share, the common denominators that connect us to others, regardless of our differences.”

Morrison’s “Recitative” deals with race with the complexity and nuance of his novels and challenges other oppressive systems that influence his characters and their actions, Richardson said.

“It is significant that the story incorporates the exploration of politically charged moments, such as the tensions surrounding the bus, while highlighting the commonalities between its characters and what connects them,” she added. “It’s a story that shines a light on class, reminding us how important it is as a variable in shaping human experiences, regardless of race.”

“Recitative” is one of two short stories ever published by Morrison (the other, “Sweetness”, was published in The New Yorker and is an excerpt from his 2015 novel “God Help the Child”). While readers may be more familiar with the author’s 11 novels or her literary review, a new edition of the short story means it could now be discovered by a new generation of readers, Richardson said.

Because if “Recitative” was written decades earlier, the themes it deals with and the questions it raises remain topical.

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