(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

ZZ Packer is a young African American woman whose rise to big-city buzz and momentary media stardom began with the summer 2000 special Debut Fiction issue of The New Yorker. Accompanying her story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” was a full-page photograph of Packer sitting on some rough city steps beside a cracked, graffiti-covered wall. Dressed simply in black slacks and a white top, her hair in cornrows, she stares at the camera with a sullen, even angry, look. Given this projected persona, it is not surprising that reviewers of her first book of short stories, of which The New Yorker story is the title piece, called her a fresh voice of outsiders and the disenfranchised.

However, ZZ Packer is no child of the ghetto who has risen up shaking her fist in righteous anger at white economic oppression. Her parents were a middle-class small business owner and a schoolteacher. She is a Yale University graduate who has also attended the prestigious Writing Seminar at The Johns Hopkins University as well as the influential Iowa Writers Workshop.

After her story appeared in The New Yorker, Packer’s recognition gathered speed at a relatively fast pace. In the same year that “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” saw print, Harper’s published her story “Brownies,” which was later chosen by E. L. Doctorow for the 2000 edition of Best American Short Stories. The buzz picked up when Riverhead Books, part of Penguin Putnam publishers, won a bidding war for her first book, paying her an advance of approximately $250,000. Almost inevitably, Packer then won several prestigious awards, was given a Wallace Stegner Fellowship to teach in the Stanford University creative writing program, and was asked to teach at one of her alma maters, the famed Iowa Workshop. When her first book, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, was published in early 2003, Packer went on a whirlwind thirteen-city book tour, with spreads appearing in Vogue and O magazines. In May, 2003, writer John Updike picked her book for the Today Book Club.

Packer has succeeded in creating African American characters who are not defined solely by their race or economic status. For example, “Brownies,” whose narrator is a young black girl at summer camp with her Brownie troop, begins as a typical race prejudice story with her friends vowing to kick the butts of a troop of little white girls who have come to camp with complexions like a blend of strawberry and vanilla ice cream, packing Disney character sleeping bags. The African American girls are tough-talkers who laugh that the white girls smell like wet Chihuahuas and who scornfully call everything dumb or distasteful “Caucasian.” The immediate cause of the conflict develops when one of the African American girls hears a white girl use the hated “N” word. Although the talk of retaliation is tough, it comes from the mouths of very young children who are not quite sure what would be the appropriate revenge, except maybe putting spiders in the white girls’ sleeping bags and then beating them as flat as frying pans when they wake up.

By the time the black girls decide to corner the white kids in the bathroom, the narrator says that the revenge was no longer about one of them being called a derogatory name, for the word that started it all now seems to have turned into something deeper and unnamable. However, it should be noted here that Packer does not suggest what this ominous unnamable thing is, except perhaps the inevitable tension that results from “difference.” When the little white girls are actually confronted, the black girls discover that they are mentally handicapped, evoking the derogatory name “retarded” and suggesting an easy sort of turning-the-tables discrimination. Furthermore, the black girls are told that the white children are echolalic, which means they say whatever they hear, like an echo. The story thus ends as a sort of cautionary fable about prejudice and about how older generations pass down racial intolerance. Although the young African Americans are hard to resist, with their little girl streetwise talk, they are really middle-class kids, posturing the way they have seen others do. Like the white girls, they are small children who say things they have heard others...

(The entire section is 1754 words.)