arts

One of Toni Morrison's only short stories is getting published as a book

Published 12th January 2022
Toni Morrison's short story "Recitatif" is an examination of Blackness and Whiteness and the social cues that shape them.
Credit: Daniel Boczarski/FilmMagic/Getty Images
One of Toni Morrison's only short stories is getting published as a book
Written by Harmeet Kaur, CNN
Toni Morrison spoke often about the incoherence of race.
"When you know somebody's race, what do you know? Virtually nothing," Morrison mused in one such instance during a "60 Minutes" interview in 1998. "You add to it all the stereotypical information and all the baggage that goes with race. But you don't know anything about that person, just because you know race."
While maintaining that there is no such thing as race, the acclaimed writer and Nobel laureate explored extensively through her work how living in a society structured around this artificial category shaped the lives of her characters.
Those very ideas are at the heart of "Recitatif," a rare short story by the late author that is being released as a book next month. It also features an introduction by Zadie Smith.
Initially published in 1983 as part of an anthology, "Recitatif" 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 as they grow older.
The story is a puzzle of sorts, as Smith writes in the introduction, because Morrison never explicitly reveals the racial identity of either character. Instead, the reader is left to decipher it from an array of racial cues that ultimately prove ambiguous: Is Roberta a Black name or a White one? Does Twyla's childhood love of Spam, Salisbury steak and Jell-O signal that she is Black or White? When Roberta has 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, that exercise is precisely the point. In her essay collection "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination," she called "Recitatif" an "experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial." So try as the reader might, the puzzle itself is unsolvable, as Smith acknowledges in the introduction.
"Still, like most readers of "Recitatif," I found it impossible not to hunger to know who the other was, Twyla or Roberta. Oh, I urgently wanted to have it straightened out. Wanted to sympathize warmly in one sure place, turn cold in the other. To feel for the somebody and dismiss the nobody," Smith writes. "But this is precisely what Morrison deliberately and methodically will not allow me to do. It's worth asking ourselves why."
By obscuring the racial identities of Twyla and Roberta, Morrison challenges the reader's impulse to neatly categorize people and forces them to consider other markers: disability, gender, class.
The short story is "just one of innumerable manifestations of Morrison's genius as a writer," said Riché Richardson, a professor of African American literature at Cornell University (where Morrison earned her master's degree).
"In this story, her emphasis on the plight of two girls -- Twyla and Roberta -- prompts readers to consider their material conditions and the forms of neglect that they have experienced, regardless of who they are, and to recognize, question and challenge such systems," Richardson wrote in an email to CNN. "'Recitatif' reminds us of what people share, the common denominators that connect us to others, regardless of our differences."
Morrison's "Recitatif" treats race with the complexity and nuance signature in her novels and questions other oppressive systems that influence her characters and their actions, Richardson said.
"It is significant that the story incorporates exploration of moments that have been politically charged, such as the tensions related to busing, while emphasizing the commonality in her characters and what connects them," she added. "It is a story that spotlights class, reminding us of how much it matters as a variable in shaping human experiences, regardless of race."
"Recitatif" is one of two short stories ever published by Morrison (the other, "Sweetness," was published in The New Yorker and is an excerpt from her 2015 novel "God Help the Child"). While readers may be more familiar with the author's 11 novels or her literary criticism, a new edition of the short story means it might now be discovered by a new generation of readers, Richardson said.
Because though "Recitatif" was written decades earlier, the themes it deals with and the questions it poses, remain relevant as ever.