I should at this point be reviewing Morrison’s Paradise (1998), which I listened to and enjoyed one or two weeks ago. I should in fact be reviewing something else altogether, and have reviewed Paradise last month, but I have dropped behind and my North America project will have to end on eleven books rather than twelve. Not that I haven’t been inspired to go on reading much more Black and First Nations North American Lit. than I have been hitherto.
Paradise will get its review eventually, when I have listened to it again, have time to do it justice, and hopefully, have some material to quote from. So, on to Recitatif.
Recitatif is Toni Morrison’s only published short story, first published in Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women (1983). The volume I have, pictured above, is a hardback published this year by the Penguin/Random House group, and includes an introductory essay – at 45pp, 8 or 9 pages longer than the story itself – by Zadie Smith, a Black English writer and professor in creative writing at NYU.
The fact that there is only one Morrison short story seems of a piece with with her oeuvre. There are no dashed-off Morrison pieces, no filler novels, no treading water, no exit off the main road. There are eleven novels and one short story, all of which she wrote with specific aims and intentions.Smith, Introduction
It seems the “aim and intention” of this story was to tell of two girls growing into women, one African American and one white, without specifying which was which. I guess that was the aim, and the intention was to spark debate about how we tell one group of people from another.
I read the story two or three weeks ago, without thinking it might be the focus of my review. So last night I read Smith’s essay and this morning I re-read the story and if I didn’t take actual notes, I at least marked pages I might like to quote from. Smith writes a great deal – it’s interesting and worth reading – about how specific sentences of Recitatif might be read and the difficulty of drawing conclusions from them.
Briefly, two girls, Twyla and Roberta, are placed in a home, St Bonny’s, on the same day, share a room, and are forced by the situation they share to become friends for the four months they remain there. The opening lines of the story are: “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick.” So we understand that the girls are not orphans, but that their mothers are unable to care for them. Then, within a page, Morrison writes: “.. it was something else to be stuck in a strange place with a girl from a whole other race.”
We were eight years old and got F’s all the time. Me because I couldn’t remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn’t read at all and didn’t even listen to the teacher … We didn’t like each other much at first, but nobody wanted to play with us because we weren’t real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky. We were dumped.
I must say that it was my assumption throughout my first reading that it was Twyla who was black and Roberta who was white, and that this assumption came from their names, and from Twyla being the narrator – in my mind, standing in for the author, who is of course African American, though Smith says that Morrison’s fiction tends not to be autobiographical. Smith also says that most Black readers think it is Twyla who is black, and most white readers think it is Roberta.
One of the problems for (white) foreigners like me is that the cues Morrison uses – names, food, behaviours, suburbs, speech – convey a lot more to Americans than they can possibly to anyone else.
Most of the girls at St Bonny’s were bigger: “put-out girls, scared runaways most of them. Poor little girls who fought their uncles off but looked tough to us, and mean.” They hung out in the orchard where they played their radios, smoked and danced. And chased off the little girls.
In an incident which in retrospect is central to this story, the kitchen woman, Maggie, who is odd and apparently mute, falls down in the orchard on her way to catch the bus, and no-one helps her get up.
Years later …
I was working behind the counter at the Howard Johnson’s on the Thruway just before the Kingston exit. Not a bad job. Kind of a long ride from Newburgh ..
That is a couple of lines full of race and class cues which mean nothing to me. I should look up every capitalized word. Smith discusses Newburgh at some length. It is apparently a once thriving locality outside New York city, hollowed out by the flight of industry to the south and overseas.
Twyla sees Roberta sitting at a table with two male friends. They speak only briefly. Roberta and the guys are on their way to the ‘Coast’ where one of them has “an appointment with Hendrix”.
Another twelve years later, Twyla is married, still living in Newburgh and bumps into Roberta shopping in a new mall. Roberta, also married, is living nearby in Annandale, “a neighborhood full of doctors and IBM executives.” This time they are happy to see each other. They reminisce:
Remember Maggie? The day she fell down and those gar girls [gargoyles – the older girls] laughed at her?
Roberta looked up from her salad and stared at me. “Maggie didn’t fall … Those girls pushed her down and tore her clothes.”
Bussing starts, Twyla and Roberta end up on opposing picket lines. They get into an argument:
“Maybe I am different now, Twyla. But you’re not. You’re the same little state kid who kicked a poor old black lady when she was on the ground…” What was she saying? Black? Maggie wasn’t black… “Like hell she wasn’t, and you kicked her. We both did. You kicked a black lady who couldn’t even scream.”
The next time, the last time in the story, they meet, Roberta apologizes. She’s no longer sure Maggie was black. The gar girls did the kicking. They, the little girls, were watching, wanting to join in.
So did Morrison want us to enter into a guessing game, which girl is black? I don’t think so. I think she wanted to say that there are other things which join us, separate us. Circumstances. Class. Either way, she tells an amazingly detailed story in just 40 pages.
Toni Morrison, Recitatif, first pub. 1983. This edition, with Introduction by Zadie Smith, Chatto & Windus, London, 2022