Friday, July 15, 2016
July 15, 2016: 20th Century Women Writers: Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif”
[This Wednesday, my summer hybrid grad course on 20th Century American Women Writers kicked off (we started with a discussion of Sui Sin Far’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy some exemplary such writers, leading up to a weekend post on some of what I’m most excited for with that summer course.]
On a few reasons to read the only published short story by one of our greatest novelists.
I can’t imagine that I have to spend much time on an AmericanStudies blog making the case for Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and professor and scholar and speaker and icon who is without much argument the single most significant American literary figure of the last half-century (or at the very least would have to be a starting point for that debate). Despite those many achievements and successes, she’s still best-known for her novels, and for good reason: between The Bluest Eye (1970) and last year’s God Help the Child (2015) she’s published 11 novels, and with each has significantly contributed to and redefined the forms, themes, and trajectory of American fiction, literature, and culture. If those novels (and of course those yet to come) were Morrison’s sole literary legacy, they would be more than enough to cement her position as one of our greatest writers.
They’re not, though—and because they’re her most consistent and central body of work, they can sometimes overshadow her efforts in other genres, such as her one published short story, 1983’s “Recitatif.” “Recitatif” is unique, not only among Morrison’s works but in American literature more broadly, in the clever and provocative way it unsettles our ideas about race and identity: Morrison creates two central characters, the narrator Twyla and her girls’ home roommate Roberta, who are overtly defined as black and white; but we are never informed which character is which race, and our reading of the story becomes a continued exercise in examining and engaging with how, where, and to what end we identify racial and cultural identities. That might sound like more of a parlor game than a literary text, but I assure you that it’s not, or rather that it’s both—that while we do participate in a sort of game while reading and re-reading Morrison’s story, in the process we are thinking in unique ways that no other text (to my knowledge) prompts about those questions of identity, identification, and what they do and don’t reveal about individuals and communities. That effect alone makes Morrison’s story a must-read for any AmericanStudier, I’d say.
Like any great short story, however, Morrison’s has multiple layers, and as we move through a handful of stages in the lives of those two mysteriously racialized protagonists we’re also being led through a compelling historical journey in two distinct but interconnected ways. We move forward chronologically with the protagonists, from what seems to be an early 1960s starting point through the height of the 60s counter-culture, the shifts into the 1970s, and a busing/segregation crisis, among other flashpoints. And at the same time we are continually moving backward into the protagonists’ memories, as they return again and again to the mysterious, traumatic, and defining story of what happened to a disabled, seemingly abused woman who worked at the girls’ home. Race is only one factor in any individual’s identity, of course, and through these parallel journeys Morrison’s story likewise engages at length with how both the sweep of history and the intimacy of memory inform and influence and amplify and shift each and every identity and life as well. All great reasons not to leave this singular short story aside in our readings of an American legend.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other women writers (20th century American or otherwise) you’d highlight?