Reviewed by Elaine Chiew
There are only eight stories in ZZ Packer’s debut collection, every one of which has previously appeared or reappeared in esteemed literary publications like The New Yorker, Ploughshares, Harper’s, and Zoetrope All-Story.
What struck me as I reread this collection was how apt the word impotence is in conveying the state of mind of most of the protagonists. Impotence, powered by a subterranean rage. In the title story, Dina is a black honor student admitted to Yale, and for the first time in her life, she behaves erratically during orientation games by admitting that if she could be any inanimate object, she’d be a revolver and wipe out all mankind. This earns Dina a year’s worth of psychiatric counseling.
Brownies involves a confrontation in a restroom between a troop of black vis-à-vis white Girl Scouts over a perceived racial slur. Ironically, the black troop discovers that the white girls were in fact, delayed learners, and the irony is doubled when the black girls have no qualms at calling the white girls “retarded” while bristling over the term “nigger”.
ZZ Packer’s light ironic humor here is also a philosophical observation: this line from the story, “When you’ve been made to feel bad for so long, you jump at the chance to do it to others”, seems to encapsulate so much of that subversive rage leading to unflappable, even regressive, impotence. Impotence that ultimately leaks out in passive, repentant aggression – Sister Clareese, a staunch born-again, abandons an amputee without so much as a heartlong glance as he crashes to the floor in Every Tongue Shall Confess; Lynnea, a school-teacher driven by impotence and rage over her inability to make a difference to her black students, drives away after running over two boys in a bad neighborhood in Our Lady of Peace; Dina allows a hardened patina of indifference to glaze over her friendship with a white girl whose mother had just died in the title story; and Spurgeon, a boy taken by his loser father to the Million Man March with a hare-brained scheme to sell exotic birds, finally loses it in The Ant of the Self in a match of fisticuffs with his father, only to end up in a train station, lost, penniless, with little by way of finding his way home.
If there’s anything to quibble, the last two stories, Geese (which takes place in a foreign Japanese setting and is to be commended for its effort to diverge beyond expected dioramas) and Doris is Coming (a historical narrative that engages with the segregationist politics of the United States in the 1940s and 50s), strike a less convincing note than the rest of the collection. Doris’ rage at the fact that coloreds had to be separate felt more conceptual than real, somehow, and her separate friendships with the white daughter of her mother’s employer and with a Lithuanian Jew who owned a television store both felt forced, an intimacy derived where no connection was evident. In Geese, the thematic ploy of “Asian prejudice against blacks” seems to overtake the story in a grand cliché when Dina finally succumbs to the imperative against starvation and prostitutes herself to a Japanese sarariman, these men who liked to proposition black girls, because “Verry chah-ming daaark-ku skin.”
Overall, these are well thought-out stories, the writing pared down but not simplistic, the tone rounded, rhythmic but matter-of-fact, but I think what lends these stories an extra edge is not that all the protagonists are African American, nor that the storylines may deal with predominantly African American thematic concerns e.g. evangelical or Pentecostal church ladies or fathers who aren’t around or black-white relations, but that in fact, they are not uniquely African-American "stories" – after all, who cannot relate to the young girl, Tia, in Speaking in Tongues, in her odyssey to discover her own sexuality, even if the odyssey involves characters – pimps and prostitutes – that might arguably more likely people a minority experience? Who, after all, doesn’t understand the need to pretend, to mouth insignificant nonsense even when one wishes to express something true, like Dina in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, a black girl surviving in a white preppy elitist environment?
The critical acclaim that sometimes surrounds a debut of minority fiction (as it did here) can sometimes obscure the measure by which it should be judged – which standard should be no different than that used for "white" literature – are these stories any "good", do they stand up to critical scrutiny, do they evoke the universal? I believe ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere resoundingly does all of the above.
Read one of the stories from this collection in the New Yorker
(originally published by Riverhead (Penguin) in 2003)
Publication Date: 2005
First collection?: Yes
Awards: Winner, 2007 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction
Author bio: The well-traveled ZZ Packer was born in Chicago and raised in Atlanta and Louisville. She attended Yale University and the Writing Seminar at Johns Hopkins University, The Writers' Workshop at Iowa University and was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. The title story of her recently published short-story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, was included in The New Yorker's Debut Fiction issue in 2000, and her work has also appeared in Seventeen, Harper's, The Best American Short Stories (2000), Ploughshares and has been anthologized in 25 and Under: Fiction. ZZ Packer lives in San Francisco, and she is diligently at work on a novel.
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