Revisiting Recitatif View all 5 stories

The Education of Desire

On putting the world back together

Dionne Brand
March 21, 2022
Ivan Popovych

There is a work you find yourself doing, reading Recitatif, a mental labour, something at the level of working out a mathematical equation or a proof. Yes, a proof in which the assumptions logically lead to the conclusion. One in which it is not enough simply to arrive at the correct conclusion; one must arrive there having followed each of the steps in the right order.

Yet, there is so much indecision. So much indecision with something that requires decisiveness and accuracy. And what does it matter, you ask yourself, who Twyla is, or who Roberta is? Who is Black here, who is white? It seems important to decide. The stakes are very high. Your world seems to need an answer to continue, because if you are wrong the world is turned upside down. And that might be a good thing if you are you. If you are right, you’ve put the world back together as it is, as it should be, for some. Your body is tired with the labour of this decision because the work of deciding is taking place at the level of the cell. Because you are deciding who is human and who deserves your sympathy more. You are always at the point of deciding and then refusing your well-thought-out decision; back and forth your body accelerates and then accelerates again into this splitting of molecules and their possible racial consequences. “Race,” Ann Stoler writes, “is the education of desire.”

If a piece of writing makes you feel as if you are in the middle of a fissile action, it is this story. For a minute you think, Yes, I know Twyla, then Yes, I know Roberta. But you don’t. You know neither of them, but your way of living, the social architecture you live in, compels you to find the answer; to designate the beings. Recitatif locates and concentrates the fissile quality of your own days under the racist regimes of the social structure. You are exhausted with this work the mind/body insists on doing because you want to have the matter settled. (Who wears a cross? Who is irresponsible? Who insists on dancing? Who is ill? What makes whiteness? Or blackness?) You want these questions settled. First, so that you can go on with the business of dealing out your judgements and your sympathies as you are trained to do through the brutal logics of life in the world. And second, what is left of you, depending on where you stand in these logics, what is left of you wants to rescue these two from their mothers, from the children’s home, from the world ahead of them. You wish their mothers would be alright, that they would recover from whatever is imperiling them too. You never think about their fathers.

At St. Bonny’s, in room 406, Twyla and Roberta have more space, more room, than they have had in their eight years of living. They wander from place to place talking and doing as they like. The girls are also immersed in that education of race and desire, race as desire. But Roberta and Twyla are also immersed in a process of suspending that learning, entering a fitful process of unlearning. And so are we.

You welcome each time change in Recitatif because each period leaves you wanting to flee, to be relieved from the inevitability of the life of a woman, anchored in banal or pleasant domesticity or unthinkable desire, accessory to someone else’s un/living, or to something unknown, that even you yourself won’t know a way out of. But with each change, what you know is that they have survived, and your worst fears have not been realised. In Recitatif, each time Roberta and Twyla meet again they attempt to re-enter that room at St. Bonny’s where they were both at risk but oddly, precariously, also, free of risk. It was a room in which they were in something together. For readers, it is difficult to hold open that space of not ascribing and fixing racial meaning to the girls, the women. Yet that is what the story requires—the refusal of significations’ closure and permanence.

Recitatif was perhaps the study for Paradise. It begins, “They shoot the white girl first. But with the rest they can take their time.” And then Paradise abandons you to what is bigger than you but what is in your hands.

Dionne Brand is a poet, novelist, and essayist.