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With ‘Recitatif,’ author Toni Morrison illustrates that nothing is black and white

Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Toni Morrison is known for her novels — landmark works such as “Beloved,” “Song of Solomon” and “The Bluest Eye.” But her storied career includes only one short story. First published in 1983, it’s been included in numerous anthologies. And this year, for the first time, it has been published as a stand-alone book.

“Recitatif” is the story of Twyla and Roberta, two poor girls who are wards of the state and spend four months as roommates at the St. Bonaventure shelter. We know that one of the girls is black, and one is white. But which is which? The story is told from Twyla’s point of view over many years. The girls lose touch as they grow older, but meet again at a diner, and then a grocery store, and again at a protest. But Morrison never identifies either girl’s race.

“Recitatif” is a masterpiece of language and perception. Morrison described it as “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters … for whom racial identity is crucial.” The title comes from an operatic term in which a singer adopts the rhythms and delivery of ordinary speech. Likewise, Morrison experiments with word choice, racial codes and readers’ assumptions, and the result is a powerful statement on the meaning of “blackness” or “whiteness.”

A quick word about the new edition: Both the print and audio include a lengthy introduction by author Zadie Smith. And while Smith’s point-by-point analysis of “Recitatif” adds valuable insight, I think it’s better read — or listened to — after experiencing Morrison’s story for yourself.

I came away marveling at Morrison’s skill as an author and wanting to read or reread more of her work.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.