“Recitatif” by Toni Morrison
My running partner (Beth) and I have a sort of book club going. As we run we talk about what we’ve recently read and recommend titles we think the other would like. This Toni Morrison short story written in 1983 (the only short story Morrison ever wrote) was a “you have to read this because we need to talk about it” suggestion of Beth’s.
Beth told me two things about “Recitatif” that caught my attention. First, the story was an experiment for Morrison. She wanted to see if she could write about two characters — one black, one white — without identifying who was who. (Here’s Morrison in her own words: “Recitatif” is an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.) I was INTRIGUED. I love placing limitations on my writing and seeing what comes of it, but when a genius like Toni Morrison tries something like this, as a reader and writer I have to experience it.
The other thing that caught my attention was the title “Recitatif.” Recitatif / recitative is a musical term meaning “a passage in an opera or oratorio that is sung in the rhythm of ordinary speech with many words on the same note.” A second definition reads “The tone or rhythm peculiar to any language.” Years ago as a young writer trying to understand pacing I found parallels between choral music and story. I remember thinking arias in music parallel places in story where listeners / readers linger, and recitative — those passages that move the music along at a clip — are the places the plot (and pace) quickens.
Morrison’s use of the word is tied to the rhythm of language, the conversations between two girls, Twyla and Roberta, as their lives intersect over the decades. This story left me feeling out of sorts because I kept finding myself looking for ways to “see” which character was black and which was white — which was precisely Morrison’s point. I wanted to categorize. I wanted to “make sense” of the characters I was reading about. Morrison wouldn’t let me. This is the power of the written word in the hands of a genius: we, as readers, are shown ourselves (and it isn’t always flattering). All of Morrison’s work does this through the way she portrays the human experience.
The version I read came with this powerful essay by Zadie Smith.
A Work in Progress by Jarrett Lerner
This middle grade novel is a combination verse novel and art journal kept by seventh-grader Will Chambers. For years Will has re-lived an encounter with a classmate who singled him out and called him fat. This comment transforms how Will sees himself, and he begins to isolate from his friends and see himself as unworthy of eating.
This is a tough book that is heartbreaking and vulnerable and real and needed and hopeful. I know every child will relate in some way, as we learn early on life is about measuring up / ranking alongside others. (Even though it isn’t, we ALL act like it is. Of course kids get this message.) The art adds another layer of communication to the reader, giving access to Will’s inner turmoil. A Work in Progress shows kids that it’s brave to share those scary and shameful pieces of ourselves, that parents, other adults, and trusted peers can support and bring light to those hidden places.
Jarrett wrote this book out of his own experience. Look for an interview with him here this September.
Sylvie and the Wolf by Andrea Debbink, illustrated by Mercè López
High in the mountains, / where shadow meets light, / lived a girl named Sylvie. / Sylvie was not afraid of anything … / until she met the wolf. This gorgeously illustrated book about a child’s worries and fears is a tender reassurance for anyone who has ever faced anxiety. Sylvie’s fear of the wolf feels foolish once she’s home, so she doesn’t speak of it. Instead the secret festers. Her world [becomes] small. Finally Sylvie tells Tante, and together they face the wolf.
I loved the bits of wisdom interspersed throughout the story, such as courage would take time — / and practice, and the adult support Sylvie received. If you haven’t yet read my interview with author Andrea Debbink, please remedy that. And if you’d like your own copy of Sylvie and the Wolf, leave a comment below mentioning the book.* Andrea and her publisher are giving away three copies! Giveaway closes Saturday, June 17.
*If you’re reading via email, please click through to the blog.
What have you read of late?