- Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
Canongate, 238 pp, £9.99, February 2004, ISBN 1 84195 478 0
The epigraph to Drinking Coffee Elsewhere comes from Alex Haley’s Roots: ‘The histories have been written by the winners.’ The implication is that this collection will give us the voice of the losers. But ZZ Packer looks like an outsider only if you concentrate exclusively on racial identity. She went to Yale and then to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her writing is more complex and more conscious of individuality than the epigraph suggests, and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is an intelligent and memorable meditation on what it means to be a victim. Although each of the stories shows the importance of race, they all challenge the assumptions that to be black must mean feeling like a loser, and that feeling like a loser is always caused by being black. Blackness does not always imply defeat, and alienation can’t always be explained by race. In several stories, a black character encounters an alternative form of social isolation: a college student meets a fat lesbian, a nurse with menstrual trouble meets a man with no legs. The central characters themselves are fully alive, and each story shows that race is only one element in their sense of themselves as people apart.
Packer can be very funny, making us see and laugh at the gulf between our expectations, prejudices or rhetoric, and reality. Racial politics might seem too heavy a subject for short stories, and certainly the writing sometimes seems like that of an op-ed piece, not quite transmuted into fiction. But at her best, Packer combines her political vision with an impressive lightness of touch.
She shows her range not by depicting people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, as Zadie Smith does, but by exploring the complexity of the black experience. There are several non-black characters in the collection, and one of the stories is set in Japan, but the non-blacks are always described from the outside, and they are interesting not in themselves, but as mirrors or foils for the protagonist. Each of the eight stories concentrates on a lonely young black person; in seven out of the eight, a girl. The stories show how that character’s perception of herself and the world changes as she encounters people different from herself.
The first story, one of the most effective, is about a troop of black Brownies (irony intended) who encounter a white troop at camp. The white girls emerge from the bus clutching Disney or pseudo-Disney sleeping bags and ‘stuffed toys like pacifiers’, comfort objects for which the black girls are already far too sophisticated. Babyishness seems to be a symptom of being white; these girls even look like toddler food, ‘their complexion a blend of ice-cream: strawberry, vanilla’. The black Brownies come from the southern suburbs of Atlanta, where ‘it was easy to forget about whites.’ ‘Whites were like those baby pigeons: real and existing, but rarely seen or thought about.’ ‘Caucasian’ is the standard insult, so common that it has almost lost its racial meaning. Any dumb action or utterance is said to be ‘so Caucasian!’ – even by the one white kid in the school. Packer has a sharp sense of comic paradox.