Toni Morrison's only short story is available in book form for the first time
Updated February 1, 2022 at 12:21 PM ET
Toni Morrison — the late author and Nobel laureate whose work focused on Black life and culture — published 11 acclaimed novels, several essay collections, about half a dozen children's books and just one short story: "Recitatif."
"Recitatif" was originally published in a 1983 anthology that has since gone out of print and was rarely seen in intervening decades, as The Associated Press has reported. But it's making a comeback, this time in book form.
The republished story is hitting shelves and online stores on Tuesday in what Knopf Doubleday says is the first-ever hardcover edition. The book includes an introduction by writer Zadie Smith, and the audio edition is read by actor Bahni Turpin.
Its title refers to the French word for "recitative," which Merriam-Webster describes as a "rhythmically free vocal style that imitates the natural inflections of speech."
"When you think about the short story, there's always this sort of humming under the surface," said Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, a poet who teaches at the University of Oklahoma. "And that humming under the surface is race, in America."
The story follows two girls, Twyla and Roberta, who spend several months as roommates in a children's shelter and run into each other on occasion as adults. One is Black and one is white — but Morrison doesn't tell the reader which is which.
Morrison once described the book as "an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial." She refers to things like hair length, social status and family memories throughout, keeping readers guessing — and thinking.
Jeffers told Morning Edition that she noticed the story challenged stereotypes she herself held about Black and white people.
She described searching for clues about the characters' races, only to eventually step back and ask herself: "Why did I need to know so badly?" When she stopped focusing on race, she said, she saw the story in a different light.
"You begin to see a domestic story emerge, about how girls grow up in our society, about how women are shuttled into these smaller categories, many times," Jeffers said. "And then it becomes, or at least it became for me, a story about gender."
Autumn M. Womack, a professor of English and African American Studies at Princeton University, told the AP that "Recitatif" speaks to themes found in Morrison's novels, like the complicated relationship between two women in 1973's Sula and the racial blurring she used in Paradise in the late 1990s.
But she also noted the important differences between the short story and Morrison's longer works.
"One of the main takeaways from ["Recitatif"] is that you'll begin to think of her as someone who experimented with form," Womack said. "You'll get away from the idea that she was solely a novelist and think of her as someone who was trying all kinds of writing."
Jeffers says republishing also offers another opportunity to examine the way Black writers are critiqued.
"These issues of race constantly come up in ways that they don't come up for white writers," she explains. "White writers are never asked why they wrote about white characters, white writers are never asked to justify the importance of what they're writing. Only writers of color and, in particular, African American writers, are asked to do that."
Audio for this story was produced by Ziad Buchh and Ben Abrams.
The digital version of this story originally appeared in the Morning Edition live blog.
NPR has compiled a list of stories, performances and other content that chronicles the Black American experience for Black History Month. See the whole collection here.
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