This week, Don reviews “Recitatif” written by Toni Morrison.
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison during her lifetime published 11 novels and three collections of essays. Surprisingly, she only published one short story: this one, now published posthumously as a standalone book with an introduction by novelist Zadie Smith. “Recitatif “was written in 1980 and was first collected in “Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women.”
Her novels are a wide-ranging study of the Black experience in America. We read of the slave mother Sethe, in “Beloved,” living on the north shore of the Ohio River, and of life in Harlem in the ’20s in “Jazz.” Throughout, Morrison was always sensitive to the “white gaze,” the idea that people perceived as Black are understood differently, even if all other details are the same.
In “Recitatif,” Morrison schemes to make it impossible for the reader to tell which of the two main female characters, both 8 years old when the story opens, is black and which is white. Twyla and Roberta are put into an orphanage even though they have living mothers, both essentially unfit to raise their girls. We briefly meet those mothers. Twyla’s mother we are told, dances all night. Roberta’s is “sick.” Twyla’s mom is “beautiful, even in those ugly green slacks that made her behind stick out.” Roberta’s mom is wearing a gigantic wooden cross and carrying a Bible. Which mother is African American?
There have been many terrific experiments in prose fiction and in drama, aimed at disrupting the relationship between artwork and audience. Bertold Brecht from time to time jars the audience, reminding them they are watching a play, not observing life through a transparent fourth wall. John Barth and other meta fictionists remind readers they are reading a book, not living in an alternate universe, which is often WHY we read. In “The End of the Road,” the narrator, Todd, pauses to tell the reader that yes, he knows his name means death in German, but no, he is not suicidal. Morrison, on the other hand, is not creating disruptions or inserting devices; as a way of enticing readers to think about race, she has trimmed OUT of her story all clues of racial identity: speech, accent, dress, and so on.
Twyla and Roberta meet from time to time over the years. In one scene, Twyla is working in a diner in the Hudson Valley and Roberta comes by, sporting big hair, on her way to a Jimi Hendrix concert. Is Roberta a Black or a white Hendrix fan? They are both upset about how their children are being bused out of their neighborhoods. Both!
Each reader will be, perhaps, more swayed by some clues than others. Roberta marries a high-ranking IBM executive. Was that man white, married to a Black woman, or was he a rare-at-the-time Black executive? Either way, Roberta could be black or white. The effect on the reader is determination and frustration. I will figure this out. I can’t.