The only short story from Toni Morrison

Editions Bourgois published at the start of the school year the only short story ever written by the American novelist Toni Morrison, Recitative.

Nobel Prize in 1993, author of the very famous Beloved in 1988, which won him the Pulitzer Prize, Morrison wrote this short text in 1983. Very clearly, this “short story” sparkles in his work with a very particular brilliance. So much so that the French edition has added an afterword by the British novelist Zadie Smith, written specially to make these few masterfully elliptical pages of the American even more transparent.

A black and a white

The story begins with the meeting of two eight-year-old girls, Twyla, the narrator, and Roberta, in an orphanage called St-Bonny, located in deep America. They become friends, separate, and see each other again randomly, not without a certain ambivalence in their relationship. It is not a pure friendship, free from all contingencies: “One day, twelve years earlier, says Twyla, for example, we had crossed paths like strangers. A black and a white woman in a Howard Johnson on the highway and who had nothing to say to each other”. Thus, moods fluctuate over time.

Toni Morrison is careful not to reveal everything to us, and is content only to make it clear that the two girls are of different colors. One is white, the other black, but we don’t know exactly who is who. It is up to the reader to make up his own mind, based on the clues given by the text. This process might seem artificial, but in fact, from Morrison’s pen, it seems perfectly self-evident. To insist on the skin color of the girls would have seemed rude. The storytelling in Recitativedevelops on the contrary with the greatest harmony, and Twyla and Roberta are described, not starting from their belonging to a race, but in the truth of their being.

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The issue of racism

It’s not that Morrison is dodging the issue of racism. In fact, he is in the foreground at almost every time this story takes place. We can even say that Morrison evokes her with insistence, which will not surprise the reader who knows her, but she always does so through the prism of her characters. In reality, she tries to situate herself beyond racism, in the relationship that every individual has with his neighbour. Zadie Smith, in her afterword, clarifies this idea as follows: “If it is a humanism, it is a radical humanism, which fights for solidarity in otherness, for the possibility and the promise of unity beyond difference”.

This is where the character of Maggie comes in, to illustrate this moral dimension. Maggie was a poor, mute woman who worked in the orphanage kitchen, a distant sister in some ways to Dostoyevsky’s Smerdyakov in The Karamazov Brothers. One day, she is jostled and falls to the ground under the blows of the children. This image of misery and misfortune will upset Twyla and Roberta as adults. They will remember, years later, this Maggie and will evoke it with each new meeting. They’ll even wonder if Maggie wasn’t black. “She wasn’t black,” I said. A little, that she was black, and you kicked her. Both of us did it. You kicked a black lady who couldn’t even scream. The memories aren’t as precise as they used to be, but the guilt remains.

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A lesson in ethics

For Zadie Smith, whose comment ties in with great evidence to what Morrison’s stripped-down fiction leaves out, things seem clear: “Morrisonshe writes, wants us to be ashamed of the way we treat those who are helpless, although we too feel helpless”. How can you disagree? It is an injunction to open up to others, which recalls the parable of the Good Samaritan, in the Gospel of Luke, a learned apostle. In a sense, this message can be perceived as going against the current, because it is very far from everyday reality, in our society where the law of the jungle and “every man for himself” reign.

But in describing his two fragile heroines, who end up turning on the emblematic fate of poor Maggie, Toni Morrison seems to indicate to us that every human being retains, deep within himself, a watchful conscience and a pure heart. . From this very simple ethical lesson on love towards one’s fellow man, Toni Morrison, once again, gives us a superb illustration.

Recitative, by Toni Morrison and afterword by Zadie Smith, ed. Christian Bourgois, €14.


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The only short story from Toni Morrison