Self-named Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison (1931-2019) Recitative “an experiment in omitting all racial codes in a story about two characters of different races, for whom racial identity is crucial”.
Now that it has been published in book form, with an equally long and astute foreword by Zadie Smith, which is better read as an afterword, it appears Recitative a brilliant literary brain teaser. Concrete and confrontational, playful and deadly serious at the same time. It’s about Roberta and storyteller Twyla, who were both taken to the St. Bonny children’s home in New York at the age of 8 by youth care.
The girls soon form an (emergency) alliance, partly because the ‘real orphans’ with ‘beautiful dead parents in heaven’ do not want to play with them. They are ‘discarded’. And it is also immediately clear that they were ‘a kind of salt and pepper set’.
Only: we don’t get to read who is white and who is black. While the inevitable guessing about it mainly reveals which prejudices and stereotypes live in our heads, or which we suspect in the other person’s.
That happens in childhood, for example when Twyla’s mother, Mary, says that “they never wash their hair and they smell funny,” or we read about the same mother that popcorn with a can of chocolate milk was “her idea of dinner.” And in the scenes in which the two briefly see each other later in their lives.
For example, there is that moment when Twyla works in a roadhouse, where Roberta enters in hot pants, with a ‘large, savage head of hair’, accompanied by two hippie musicians. Is that described appearance (we live in the 80s) typically black or white? And what does it mean that Roberta makes fun of Twyla for not knowing who Jimi Hendrix is?
Or years later, when Roberta is married to a widower and lives in the upscale Annandale neighborhood. Twyla thinks, “Everything is so easy for them. They have the idea that the world is at their feet.’ But are ‘they’ white or rich people?
It is a refined exercise, which Morrison persevered with virtuosity. Optimistic (side) conclusion: that we are groping in the dark until the end, perhaps shows how much ‘us’ and ‘them’ actually have in common.
Tony Morrison, Recitative, De Bezige Bij, 101 p., 19.99 euros. Translation Nicolette Hoekmeijer.