In her introduction to Toni Morrison’s short story, Zadie Smith offers insight into the Nobel prize-winning author’s intentions. Recitatif, Smith explains, was planned by Morrison 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”. In telling the tale of Twyla and Roberta, who meet as eight-year-old roommates in an orphanage, Morrison never reveals which girl is Black and which is white, an omission that forces us to confront our racial biases. “When [Morrison] called Recitatif an experiment, she meant it,” Smith says. “The subject of the experiment is the reader.”
Actor Bahni Turpin goes on to narrate Morrison’s story, which was first published in 1983 and which charts the lives of the girls through a series of chance encounters. It opens as they meet for the first time and discuss how they ended up in an orphanage. “My mother danced all night and Roberta’s was sick,” Twyla says. Turpin expertly captures the bluntness of the protagonists’ childhood selves: “All I could think of was that she really needed to be killed,” Twyla says when her mother groans loudly in church.
In adulthood, they discuss a kitchen worker at the orphanage named Maggie who was mute and “bow-legged”, and an object of ridicule among the children. Roberta remembers her as Black while Twyla insists she was white. Memory is selective, Morrison tells us, often yielding incomplete pictures of the past. That Twyla and Roberta can remember the details of Maggie’s disability but can’t recall her race shows how bias comes in many forms.
• Recitatif is available via Penguin Audio, 1hr 54min
Mean Baby: A Memoir of Growing Up
Selma Blair, Hachette Audio, 9hr 43min
The Cruel Intentions actor narrates her memoir, looking back on her years in Hollywood and her life-changing multiple sclerosis diagnosis.
Jonathan Franzen, 4th Estate, 24hr 22min
David Pittu reads Franzen’s sixth novel – the first volume in a trilogy – about a midwestern family navigating secrets and social change.