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Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.

by ZZ Packer Riverhead Books, March 2003 $24.95, ISBN 1-573-22234-8

With the release of this highly anticipated collection, ZZ Packer is well on her way to joining a rich African-American literary legacy in the tradition of James Baldwin and Pulitzer-winning short story writer, James Alan McPherson. These are memorable stories, with a presence that lingers like perfume long after the wearer has left the room. In contrast to short stories like Andrea Lee's virtually race-neutral collection, Interesting Women (reviewed July-August 2002), Packer's stories are decidedly "black."

Although Packer has penetrated the predominantly white literary inner circle of prestigious journals, lofty awards and distinguished writing programs, she has done so on her own terms. Like Baldwin, Packer has received crossover acclaim for exploring issues of race, religion and sexual identity.

While none of the stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere rise to the level of controversy in the movie Barbershop, Packer's characters at times feel stereotypical, though their experiences ring true. Her stories are populated by the usual "ghetto" archetypes--a pimp, a drug dealer, an unwed teenage mother, an ex-con and even a church lady. But those stereotypes are offset by a more upstanding cast that includes a classical musician, an Ivy Leaguer and a Japanese exchange student. The net result is an array of fully dimensional African-American characters expertly handled in the writer's compassionate hands.

Packer's characters inhabit a world of insensitive whites and paranoid blacks--in other words, America. The protagonist of the title story--Dina--is a college freshman struggling to adjust to the elitist, white world of Yale University, which, not surprisingly, is where Chicago-born Packer went to college. During orientation games, when she is asked what inanimate object she would like to be, Dina replies "a revolver." As a result, she is referred for psychiatric counseling and assigned a "suicide single" dorm room. Though keenly aware of her blackness, Dina does not feel at home, even with black students: "Most of them were from New York and tried hard to pretend that they hadn't gone to prep schools. And there was something pitiful in how cool they were. Occasionally, one would reach out to me with missionary zeal, but I'd rebuff the person with haughty silence."

Dina envisions herself drinking coffee elsewhere--in other words, leading a "Starbucks" existence away from the pain of her mother's death and the boarded-up row houses in decaying inner-city Baltimore. Not denial in the strictest sense, nor is it escapism. Rather, it reads as a deep longing for deliverance to a better existence.

The race question looms large in these stories. So much so that at times it seems Packer's characters think of little else. The reader may feel a twinge of race fatigue as we witness virtually every black character's laser focus on whites. Fortunately, Packer uses humor to offset ponderous material. In "Every Tongue Shall Confess," her satirical depiction of the Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized explores how the faithful can suffer under the constraints of religious fundamentalism.

Not so influenced by pop culture as the postmodernists, the stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere entertain on a familiar, almost nostalgic level--like Sunday dinner with all the fixin's at grandma's house. While Packer pulls back the curtain on a dark side of the African-American experience, she holds much affection for the quirky, yet recognizable characters that populate the African-American community. My advice is to settle back with a cup of coffee and let ZZ Packer's stories take you away.

BIBR talks to ZZ Packer

With stories in The New Yorker's debut fiction issue, Harper's and in The Best American Short Stories 2000, ZZ Packer has already achieved what most writers only dream about--and all before the publication of her first book. A graduate of Yale and writing programs at Johns Hopkins, Iowa and Stanford, Packer is a recipient of the Whiting Writers' Award and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award.

Like her characters, ZZ Packer has led an eclectic life. Born in Chicago, her family moved to Atlanta when she was only five. After her parents divorced, she moved to Louisville at age 12, where she lived until leaving for Yale. After college, Packer spent three years in Baltimore attending a graduate writing program and teaching public high school. She has also lived in Japan.

BIBR: What does "ZZ" stand for?

ZZP: It doesn't stand for anything--they're not initials. I always went by Zuwena--which is Swahili--in an official capacity, but not many people knew how to pronounce it. By the time I to junior high, I'd heard so many teachers mispronounce my name that I finally just said to family and friends that they could call me "ZZ." There was a sigh of relief, and I've been called ZZ for as long as I can remember.

Do you feel pressure to live up to the pre-publication hype and reported six figure ($300,000) advance for your first book?

It took a long time for me to be satisfied with these stories. I did as much as I could do, not because I wanted the book out quickly, or because I got paid lots of money. If others aren't satisfied, I'll be disappointed but it won't be the end of the world.

Your protagonists are outsiders, struggling with alienation, repression and self-hatred. Thematically, your work reminds me of James Baldwin.

I'm drawn to mentally flawed characters and intrigued by the notion of what a person internalizes, and how a person doesn't see one's position in the larger world. Like Baldwin, much of that comes from a double consciousness being raised African American in the church, as well as within the larger community of America.

Did the church play a large role in your up-bringing?

My grandmother and mother grew up in the church, so it couldn't help but be a powerful influence. I became a witness as well as a participant.

I admire churches that understand that people need to first exist and not be impoverished, instead of preaching fire and brimstone.

Have you always wanted to write?

On some level I've always written, but thought writing was something other people did. In my senior year in high school, I had a teacher who was very encouraging. She had us write short stories and present them to the class. I started thinking, "I could do this if I wanted to."

How influential was your writing professor at Iowa--James McPherson--on your work?

He's still very influential--as a father figure, and as a link to another era of African-American writers. His being at Iowa was wonderful for me. Coming from a different generation, he's had to deal with way more than I can imagine. Ralph Ellison played a similar role in his life.

Where does your work fit in with your black post-modernist brethren, writers like Colson Whitehead and Zadie Smith?

I love Colson's stuff, but I know that I won't be writing like him. Some people do the post-modern thing well. But for others it becomes a belabored exercise.

I think the writer has a responsibility to the reader to tell a good story. I think it's more important to be good first and original later.

Who are your literary influences?

McPherson for short stories: I changed when I read his Elbow Room and Hue and Cry. I first read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye in one night in a Yale library cubicle. Language is an instrument Morrison plays with perfect pitch. I also love Baldwin. I'm most intrigued with his earlier writing like Go Tell It on the Mountain. As far as the "canon," I find myself drawn to the Russians--Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Dostoevsky and Tolstoy have a sense of nation as an idea. In The Brothers Karamazov, each brother is a facet of Russia.

These writers were not afraid to make big statements about a big country, whereas contemporary American writers equivocate due to a dire need for objectivity.

How do you feel about black writers airing dirty laundry in public?

There's a long line of African-American writers who do that: McPherson, Morrison, Ellison, Alice Walker, Albert Murray, Gayl Jones, John Edgar Wideman, and so on.

I believe we can't deal with our problems unless they are first brought to light. While I don't want to contribute to negative stereotypes, I also don't want to write stock characters.

It is one of the reasons it's harder to be an African-American writer. White writers don't have a sense of duty, and are not honor-bound to show African Americans in all their true brilliance, wit and insight.

I also want to show the ugly side--our self-hatred as slave descendants in a country that told us that we don't represent an ideal of beauty.

What are you working on now?

I'm working on a novel about the Buffalo Soldiers, the post-Civil War African-American cavalry in the western plains.

--Interviewed by Lynee Gore

--Lynee Gore is a writer living in Brooklyn.

Lynee Gore, a former film and television executive, is a freelance writer who hails from Brooklyn, New York. She is currently hard at work on a memoir. Her review of newcomer ZZ Packer's collection of short stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, along with an interview with the writer, begin on page 40.
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Author:Gore, Lynee
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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