‘Recitative’ by Toni Morrison, a rare short story, to be published in book form


In much of the world, the end Toni Morrison was a novelist, famous for classics such as “Beloved”, “Song of Solomon” and “The Bluest Eye”.

But the Nobel Laureate did not limit herself to just one genre of writing.

Morrison has also completed plays, poems, essays, and short stories, one of which will be released in book form on February 1. “Recitative,” written by Morrison in the early 1980s and rarely seen over the following decades, follows the lives of two women from childhood to their contrasting fortunes in adulthood. Novelist Zadie Smith contributes an introduction and the audio edition of the story is read by actor Bahni Turpin.

According to Autumn M. Womack, professor of English and African American studies at Princeton University (where Morrison taught for years), the author had written short fiction films at least since his college days at Howard University and Cornell University, although it never published a collection of stories. “Recitative” was included in the 1983 release “Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women”, co-edited by poet-playwright Amiri Baraka and now out of print.

“One of the main takeaways (‘Recitative’) is that you will start to think of her as someone who has experienced the form,” Womack said. “You will move away from the idea that she was only a novelist and see her as someone who tried all kinds of writing.”

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“Recitative” refers to a musical expression defined by Merriam-Webster as “a rhythmically free vocal style that mimics the natural inflections of speech,” a style often suggested by Morrison. The story tells of a series of encounters between Roberta and Twyla, one of which is black, the other white, although we have yet to guess which one is which.

They meet as girls at the Saint-Bonaventure Children’s Shelter (“It was another thing to be stuck in a strange place with a girl of a whole different race,” recalls Twyla, the narrator of the story. ). And they do meet on occasion years later, whether it’s at a Howard Johnson’s in upstate New York, where Twyla used to work and where Roberta arrives with a man who is due to meet Jimi Hendrix, or later. in a nearby Food Emporium.

“Once, twelve years ago, we passed like strangers,” Twyla says. “A black girl and a white girl meet in a Howard Johnson on the road and have nothing to say. One with a blue and white triangular waitress hat – the other with a male companion on her way to see Hendrix. .

“Now we were behaving like sisters who had been separated for too long. “

As Womack notes, “Recitative” includes themes found elsewhere in Morrison’s work, whether it was the complicated relationship between two women that was also at the heart of his novel “Sula” or the racial vagueness that Morrison used in “Paradise”, a 1998 novel in which Morrison refers to a white character within a black community without specifying who it is. Morrison has often referred to race as an invention of society, once writing that “the field of racial difference has been given an intellectual weight to which it has no right.”

In his introduction, Smith likens “Recitative” to a puzzle or game, while warning that “Toni Morrison does not play.” The mystery begins with the first lines: “My mom danced the night away and Roberta’s was sick:” Well, now what kind of mom tends to dance the night away? “Smith asks” Black or white? Throughout the story, Morrison will refer to everything from hair length to social status, as if to challenge the reader’s own racial assumptions.

“Like most readers of ‘Recitative’, I found it impossible not to be hungry to know who the other one was, Twyla or Roberta,” Smith admits. “Oh, I urgently wanted this rectified. I wanted to sympathize warmly in one safe place, get cold in the other.

“Feel the someone and reject the person. But that’s precisely what Morrison won’t deliberately and methodically allow me to do. It’s worth asking why.”

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