Recitatif by Toni Morrison

Review by David Starkey

“Recitatif” is Toni Morrison’s only short story, and as she is one of the greatest novelists of the past fifty years, it deserves the careful attention it is given by Zadie Smith in her introduction, “Somebody in There After All.” Indeed, at thirty-eight pages, Smith’s introduction is a page longer than Morrison’s story, which says something about the veneration in which Morrison is deservedly held.

Not wanting to be influenced by Smith’s interpretation of the story, I read “Recitatif” first. While it does not contain the linguistic pyrotechnics of Morrison’s later novels, it is engrossing. Two eight-year-old girls—Twyla and Roberta—are placed together in St. Bonaventure, a New York state institution primarily for orphans, but which also caters to children, like the two girls, whose mothers are incapable of taking care of them. The story is told from Tywla’s perspective, and she is a clear, observant, if sometimes fanciful narrator: “We didn’t like each other all that much at first, but nobody else wanted to play with us because we weren’t real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky.” Roberta’s mother, a big, Bible-thumping woman suffers from an unspecified “illness,” while Twyla’s mother, in her “green slacks” and “fur jacket with the pocket linings so ripped she had to pull to get her hands out of them,” is always dancing—at home, and when she is away from home, which is much of the time.

We are only at the orphanage for about twelve pages, but the imprint it leaves on Twyla and Roberta persists through the reminder of the story. When they meet again as adults, their bond is mostly severed. I’ll refrain from providing too many spoilers, but their divergent economic fortunes harm their relationship, and the situation is exacerbated by the public school busing of their children. Overall, “Recitatif” is a more-than-satisfying short story, with well-drawn main characters and vivid scene-setting. Is it the short fiction equivalent of Beloved or even The Bluest Eye? Absolutely not, but then again, Morrison’s gift was for longer narratives.

However, because Zadie Smith’s introduction is so long, “Recitatif” is only half of this very short book. There are times when Smith seems more concerned with making a political point than discussing “Recitatif,” but Morrison, of course, was an extremely political novelist, so Smith’s comments never feel too far from the story. The most important piece of information she introduces—one that she spends the bulk of her essay meditating upon—is Morrison’s professed aim in writing “Recitatif”: to attempt “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”

Reading Morrison’s goals for the story suddenly turns “Recitatif”–one definition of which, Smith notes, is “the tone or rhythm peculiar to any language”–from a very good story by a great novelist to a kind of mystery piece, “a puzzle of a story,” in which much of one’s energy is directed at figuring out who is white and who is black. As Smith points out, in order to make this conceit work, “you’d need to write in such a way that every phrase precisely straddled the line between characteristically ‘black’ and ‘white’ American speech…a high-wire act in an eagle-eyed country, ever alert to racial codes.” And yet that’s exactly what Morrison does. Without fully realizing it, I took the naïve position that because the author is black her narrator was, too. I would still be willing to argue that events in the story make that interpretation easier to support than the alternative, but on rereading “Recitatif,” I realized that a strong case could be made for Roberta as the African American character.

Morrison doesn’t appear to have made public her own ideas about the race of her characters, and that’s just as well. With “Recitatif” she has given us yet another reason to read, and reread, and reread yet again her always rewarding work.