A rare short story from Toni Morrison to be released in book form



This combined photo shows “Recitative” by Toni Morrison, left, and an image of Morrison in New York City on February 27, 2013. (Alfred A. Knopf via AP, left, and AP Photo)


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

But the Nobel Laureate did not limit herself to just one type 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 seldom seen over the following decades, follows the lives of two women from childhood to their contrasting fortunes in adulthood. Zadie Smith provides an introduction and the audio edit 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 the Howard University and Cornell University, although she 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 lessons from this story (‘Recitative’) is that you will begin to think of her as someone who has experienced the form. You will move away from the idea that she was only a novelist and see her as someone who tried all kinds of writing, ”Womack said.

“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 that Morrison often suggested. 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 in a blue and white triangular waitress hat – the other with a male companion on his way to see Hendrix. Now we have been behaving like sisters separated for far 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 blurring used by Morrison 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 spoken of 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 is not playing.” 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 “A black or a 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 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 this is precisely what Morrison will not deliberately and methodically allow me to do. It is worth asking why.


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