Welcome to Read This Book, a newsletter where I recommend one book that should absolutely be put at the top of your TBR pile. Recommended books will vary across genre and age category and include shiny new books, older books you may have missed, and some classics I suggest finally getting around to. Make space for another pile of books on your floor because here we go!
In 1980, Toni Morrison wrote her one and only short story. This book is that story as well as a phenomenal essay by Zadie Smith.
Recitatif: A Story by Toni Morrison with Introduction by Zadie Smith
This book is under a hundred pages. The essay is first, then the short story. However, my recommended reading? Skip forward and read the short story first, then read Zadie Smith’s introduction, then read the story again. In Morrison’s own words, Recitatif is “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”
The two characters are Roberta and Twyla and they are both eight-year-old girls from poor families. Their respective mothers dropped them off at the St. Bonaventure shelter, making them wards of the state. We learn many things about Roberta and Twyla. One has a sick mother, one has a mother who dances all night. One has a mother who is religious, one has a mother who wears too-tight pants. The girls are roommates at St. Bonaventure’s for four months and the story follows them there for a while, then they meet repeatedly when they are older.
One of the things we know about the two girls is that one is white and one is Black; however, we do not know which is which. Morrison deliberately does not tell us and this story is written in a way that it is impossible to tell. You can try to guess, but a few sentences later I promise your opinion will change and then flip flop again in the next paragraph. It’s very clear in the story that race is incredibly important to the tale and that crucial piece of information is deliberately kept from readers. Even details such as geographic setting don’t allow readers to determine the races of the two main characters.
I want to call out a big content warning for ableism and violence against a disabled character. The character is Maggie, who worked at the home where the girls were. The girls were very mean to Maggie and oddly, when Twyla and Roberta meet years later, they argue about what race Maggie was.
Recitatif is absolutely fascinating and Smith’s deconstruction and examination of the story is brilliant. It’s one of those stories that tells the reader more about themselves in the reading than it tells about the characters. I’m reminded of the phrase I’ve heard people use, the “I don’t see color.” Well, it’s not even an option in reading this story and it’s delightfully chaotic in that way.
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That’s it for now, book-lovers!
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