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Recitatif

Recitatif is a writerly experiment that sees the acclaimed Toni Morrison toying with her reader as she frames an insightful commentary on racial categorizations. First published in 1983, it is famously the only short story the Nobel-laureate ever wrote. It was re-issued earlier this year, with an introduction by the wonderfully eloquent Zadie Smith, and if it’s never crossed your path before, it’s well worth checking out.

The story follows Twyla and Roberta, who meet as eight-year-old girls at a shelter, where each girl is sent to live for a spell because her mother is unable to care for her: Twyla’s “dances all night”; Roberta’s is ill. After an initial scepticism, the girls become staunch allies against the various dangers they face at the shelter, but they part ways and lose touch for many years. The narrative picks up at three further intervals, each time after some years have passed. First, when both are young women, Roberta appears at a diner where Twyla is a waitress. Several years later, the story finds them when their paths cross again at a grocery store, now both married. And finally, they encounter each other on the opposite sides of a political protest.

The trick that Morrison plays on her readers is that we are given to understand from the very first that the two girls are acutely aware of belonging to different racial categorizations, but she never articulates who is supposed to belong to which. It is so artfully refusing the reader this clarity that produces the astute social commentary Morrison offers in the short story. She herself 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.” Recitatif is Morrison’s literary-political craftspersonship at its finest – and it’s a quick read.

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