So Caucasian

Emily Wilson

  • 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.

Arnetta, the ringleader of the troop, insists that one of the white girls has called one of the black girls ‘N-I-G-G-E-R’. It is clear from the start that she may not be telling the truth; she is a cow-girl, someone who enjoys an adventure and a fight, and isn’t interested in whether the facts justify aggression. When the narrator asks Arnetta what will happen if the white girls deny the charge, she says: ‘Don’t think. Just fight. If you even know how.’ Against their better judgment, the troop comply. They corner the white girls in the rest-rooms, but – inevitably – the confrontation does not go as planned. The enemy turn out to be mentally handicapped. The girl whom Arnetta identifies as the main culprit is a mute, while others suffer from echolalia. Packer handles her climactic scene brilliantly. It is almost funny, but in a painful, deeply embarrassing way. One of the white girls approaches Arnetta, ‘full of self-importance’, saying: ‘See, I’m a Brownie.’ The emotional impact is intense enough for the reader to accept what might seem a rather obvious lesson: white girls can be Brownies too. On the bus home, some of the Brownies try to hang onto their status as victims: ‘Why did we have to be stuck at a camp with retarded girls? You know?’ But the narrator is subdued by the knowledge that the black girls were the bullies, not the victims.

The simple lines of this peripatetic narrative are beautifully filled out by Packer’s evocation of life in a Brownie camp: the pressure to conform; the ‘craft sessions’ spent constructing useless objects out of Popsicle sticks; the dreadful songs the girls have to sing to comfort poor Mrs Hedy who is going through an upsetting divorce. The encounter with the white girls is offset by more complex tensions within the black girls’ group. Everyone laughs at naive Janice, who says in her hokey country accent: ‘I love me some Michael Jackson.’ Even lower down the social scale is Daphne, the poor child of a cleaning woman. She hardly ever speaks, but once wrote a prize-winning poem containing the lines: ‘You are my father, the veteran/When you cry in the dark/It rains and rains and rains in my heart.’ The narrator, Laurel – nicknamed ‘Snot’ – occupies an intermediary social position. She follows Arnetta’s lead, but longs to make friends with Daphne. The confrontation between white and black is in many ways less important than Laurel’s changing relationship with Daphne, and with language.

The first sentence establishes a wonderfully vivid child’s voice: ‘By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909.’ But we realise as the story continues that Laurel is here, as often, speaking in a voice which is not quite her own. It is borrowed from the street-smart high-school language of the group. Laurel is fascinated by other people’s language; in particular, she is obsessed with Daphne’s poem. Her interest in it anticipates her most important political realisation. Those who seem like history’s winners (veterans, white girls) may be weaker and less alien than you think. But on a more basic level, her obsession marks a simple appreciation of the sounds of words. No literary child can resist a dactylic trimeter. The names ‘Laurel’ and ‘Daphne’ signal that these girls are loved by Apollo. The echolalia of the handicapped white girls is paralleled by Laurel’s desire to absorb and repeat the sounds she hears. But Daphne inspires Laurel not only by her supposed poetic gift, but also by her moral integrity. Daphne is the only one who resists Arnetta, and she is the only one who understands that white people can hold servile positions. Daphne knows that they, too, sometimes wish everyone could just ‘be nice’. On the bus, Daphne, without saying anything, gives Laurel the journal she won for her prize poem. Its pages are empty, ready for Laurel to fill. As a writer, Packer values the qualities that Laurel finds in Daphne: precise and evocative language, combined with the awareness that, white and black, we are all individuals.

Packer’s stories express a deep mistrust of communal action. Her central characters are never team players. Group action, such as that of the black Brownies who confront the white girls, is usually misguided, unsuccessful, and based on oversimplifications. The heaviest satire is directed against male authority figures (clergymen, policemen, psychiatrists, fathers), who are never trustworthy. Several stories describe smarmy Pentecostal preachers, who rouse the people with terrible extended metaphors. Brandishing an ill-gotten telephone, one of them insists: ‘There is Someone! Who won’t accept your call-waiting! There is Someone! Who won’t wait, when you put Him on hold!’ The ridiculous emptiness of the image is horribly well conveyed, and the congregation loves it. Groups, in Packer’s world, are always stupid.

The most difficult problem raised by the collection is the tension between Packer’s intense individualism and her equally intense commitment to black civil rights. She hates the idea of a group which acts as a single person; but how can black Americans fight for equality unless they set aside their differences, at least temporarily? Packer tries to solve the problem by presenting personal integrity as the moral centre of the civil rights movement. Generalisations are always wrong; the political struggle is built from an infinitely complex set of different people’s decisions. In a story set against the background of the Million Man March, a father and son come to Washington for what seem entirely non-political reasons. The premise of the story is like the beginning of a joke: a man walks into a bar carrying a cage full of exotic birds. The man, Ray, has a quirky, misguided scheme to sell birds to the marchers, and he dragoons his sensitive adolescent son, Spurgeon, into driving him to the march. Predictably, the scheme fails; Ray stays in the bar drinking for hours, and eventually drives off in Spurgeon’s car, leaving him to make his way home alone. As in many of these stories, comedy gives way to pathos. On one level, the difficult relationship of this father and this son represents the problems facing all black men in America. But Packer is careful to correct the impression that any individual can stand in for the whole group. Not all black men are bad fathers, she reminds us, and not all black children are under-privileged. At the end of the story, Spurgeon meets another father at the railway station, with his little boy. He is almost overwhelmed by tears, seeing the man’s tenderness towards his son. Hope for the future seems to lie less in marches than in the intimacy of family life.

The final story, ‘Doris Is Coming’, is the most overtly political in the collection, but it confirms Packer’s commitment to the idea that all important actions must be performed alone. It is the only story set in the past, at the turn of the year 1962. Doris, our heroine, is the only black girl in her high school, but she knows all about Martin Luther King and the sit-ins around the country, in buses, restaurants and cafeterias. Doris finds herself unable to agree with her bullying pastor who asks her whether she really wants to join Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement, with ‘all those girls and boys who’d go to jail in a second’. ‘The answer seemed to be no, but it got caught in her throat, like a hummingbird.’ Doris stubbornly speaks up for social justice, all on her own. She finds no support either from her fellow blacks or from her Jewish acquaintances: Livia, a rich girl whose liberalism is only a pose; Mr Stutz, a Lithuanian immigrant whose self-pity is blind to the fact that social mobility is sometimes possible even for poor whites, but never for blacks, however hard they work. Doris decides not to point out to Mr Stutz that things are different for whites, and instead says: ‘And I suppose you had to walk to school, twenty miles, uphill, in the snow.’ ‘Aha! I see you are familiar with Lithuania!’ he replies. His self-absorption is funny, but it also confirms the problem Doris is up against: although she is capable of empathy, none of the white characters in the story will ever know how she feels. She goes to a white diner, Clovee’s Five and Dime, and sits down at the counter. She doesn’t get served, but she keeps her place, and the waitress gives her the remains of her own milkshake, with its lipstick-stained straw. This is hardly auspicious for the future of black America. But Doris believes she can fight for freedom and change the world all on her own. Packer suggests she might even be right.

The deliberate solitude of Packer’s central characters can sometimes make them seem merely brattish. Their world excludes love, friendship, even affection; their fragile sense of self can be maintained only by keeping other people out. Dina, the narrator of the title story, is an aggressive, moody young woman who instinctively rejects all offers of intimacy. The story is one of the weakest in the collection, and Yale, where it is set, never quite becomes real. Packer relies on place names to create mood, but Atticus, Linsly-Chit, the Whiffenproofs and Harkness Hall will mean little to non-Yalies. The status of black students in Ivy League colleges is perhaps too close to home. Dina’s hostility remains underexplained, because Packer so strongly resists the idea that white-dominated Yale inevitably excludes or damages poor black students. Dina’s counsellor says that her problem is being ‘black living in a white world’, but this glib analysis is immediately dismissed. Packer seems to share Dina’s desire to see her isolation as a metaphysical condition, not the result of social and economic factors. But Dina’s existential angst allows Packer no room to think through the more complex political and personal problems of participating, as a black woman, in a privileged white institution. The insistence on remaining an outsider makes the story seem dishonest and disappointingly thin.

The rejection of whatever is available seems to be intrinsically attractive to both Dina and Packer. Indeed, the idea of a mental ‘elsewhere’ becomes the defining metaphor for imaginative experience. The shrink accuses Dina of ‘pretending’, a word which rings true amid the psychobabble. But pretence, it seems, is a good thing. Dina remembers being given milk on the morning of her mother’s funeral: ‘I’d pretended it was coffee. I imagined I was drinking coffee elsewhere. Some Arabic-speaking country where the thick coffee served in little cups was so strong it could keep you awake for days.’ ‘Elsewhere’ always seems to have more vigour and more specificity than the bland, milky present.

It is no coincidence that the colours of the two drinks are white and black. Dina longs for an authenticity, a total blackness, which is unavailable in her white-dominated world. She can imagine it only outside America. Dina is slow to see that even the white world of Yale, or the numbness of early grief, can be a kind of ‘elsewhere’. The image of ‘drinking coffee elsewhere’ suggests a fantasy of total purity, a hope for solitude and integrity untouched by the dilution of other people. Packer needs to imagine drinking café au lait.