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African-American author ZZ Packer is best known for works of short fiction, for which she has received much critical acclaim. She has published one highly lauded collection of short stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. In her stories, Packer explores issues of racial identity, troubled family relationships, and being an outsider.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Emphasis on Education
Zuwena Packer was born on January 12, 1973, in Chicago, Illinois. Her father owned a lounge and bar, while her mother worked for the Social Security Administration. When she was five years old, the family moved to Atlanta, Georgia. After her parents’ divorced when she was twelve, she and her mother moved to Louisville, Kentucky. By the time she was in junior high school, Packer became so frustrated by people pronouncing her first name wrong that she adopted her family nickname, LL. Throughout her childhood, she was exposed to the Pentecostal Church, to which some in her family belonged. The church is known for the strict personal discipline of its adherents and an emphasis on ”speaking in tongues” to demonstrate that one is possessed by the Holy Spirit.
While Packer would later draw upon some elements of Pentecostalism in her short stories, it was not until her high-school years that she discovered her literary gifts. Her focus until this time had been math and science, but one teacher made her write short stories for class and she realized that the goal of writing well was by no means out of her reach. Still, after graduating from high school, Packer entered the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she studied electrical engineering for a time. In the early 1990s, Packer transferred to Yale University, where she changed her major from science to literature. Shortly before she earned her BA in 1994, she published her first short story in Seventeen.
Published in the New Yorker
After earning her degree, Packer moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where she taught English in a public high school and began working toward an MA program at Johns Hopkins in 1995. Packer then entered the writing program at the University of Iowa, where her mentor was the African-American short-fiction author James Alan McPherson. She earned her MFA there in 1999. That same year, she earned both the Ms. Giles Whiting Award and Bellingham Review Award.
In 1999, Packer was also named a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. The two-year fellowship is designed for emerging fiction and poetry writers, and gave the young author time to work on what became her first short story collection. In 2000, she published a short story, ”Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” in the New Yorker’s annual ”Debut Fiction” issue. The magazine honor sparked interest from publishers, and led to a hefty advance for her first book.
Highly Praised First Collection
Before Packer’s debut was completed, she married software engineer Michael Boros in 2001. The couple has since had two sons. Like many Americans, she also was forced to deal with the events of September 11, 2001. On that day, Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. Thousands of people lost their lives in the attacks, and the event had an unsettling effect on American society in the years following.
In 2003, Packer published her first short story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. The anthology of eight stories was highly acclaimed, named by both the American Library Association and the New York Times as a notable book. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was also lauded by the San Francisco Chronicle as the best book of the year in 2003.
Continued Work on Novel
As Packer continued working on her fiction, she also began teaching at various universities. From 2003 to 2004, she was a visiting assistant professor at her alma mater, the University of Iowa s Writers’ Workshop. In 2005, she held a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction. She also has held a Truman Capote fellowship at Stanford University. In 2008, Packer served as the editor of a collection of twenty short stories about Southerners, New Stories from the South.
By 2008, Packer was residing in Pacifica, California. She continues her writing career and holds various writer-in-residence and visiting professorships, including a 2008 term at San Jose State University. She also continues to work on her first novel, about the adventures of Buffalo Soldiers set in the aftermath of the American Civil War. The work is tentatively entitled The Thousands. (Buffalo Soldiers were part of six all-African-American army regiments created by an act of Congress in 1866 immediately after the Civil War. They served primarily in the western United States and its territories in struggles against Native American, and in Cuba during the Spanish-American War.) The British magazine Granta ran an excerpt of this novel in 2007. The magazine also named Packer one its ”Best Young American Novelists.”
Works in Literary Context
Much of Packer’s fiction focuses on the African-American experience and issues of race, primarily between blacks and whites. She often focuses on uncomfortable topics like racial tensions and the difficulties of being black at a time when race has supposedly become insignificant. Packer handles such dilemmas and problems with empathy, frankness, humanism, and a sense of humor. Some of her explorations of racial identity and related political issues are considered a new kind of comedy of manners. Many of her characters suffer from self-hatred, a sense of not belonging or of being outsiders in their own lives. Packer’s influences as a writer included her mentor, McPherson, as well as Toni Morrison, Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Ralph Ellison, Marilynne Robinson, and James Baldwin.
The short stories included in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere and New Stories from the South focus on African-American characters dealing with racial discrimination and race-related tensions. In ”Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” Dina is a college student at Yale who is confused by both her sexuality and the racism she encounters at the mostly white school. ”Brownies,” also included in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, takes place at a sleep away camp for Brownie troops. There, a group of African-American Girl Scouts becomes obsessed with an all-white troop and plans an act of revenge for what they believe is a racial slur. Also found in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is ”The Ant of the Self,” which focuses on a young man forced to drive his deadbeat father to the Million Man March where he hopes to sell some exotic African birds. The young man and his father get into a fistfight and the boy is abandoned by his father in an unfamiliar city.
A number of Packer’s short stories also touch on the theme of Pentecostalism. The author neither condemns nor praises the religion, but uses its perceived extremes as a catalyst. In ”Speaking in Tongues,” included in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, fourteen-year-old Tia runs away from her Pentecostal family after resisting the efforts of her sternly religious aunt who wishes her to ”get saved.” She goes to Atlanta in order to search for the drug-addicted mother who abandoned her, but instead allows a hustler-and-prostitute couple to become her substitute family for a time.
Works in Critical Context
Packer is extolled by critics for her stories that emphasize social context and starkly illuminate the African-American experience. Reviewers also praise her for scene descriptions, word choices, toughness, and realism. While commentators admire how Packer unflinchingly and provocatively takes on uncomfortable issues about race with a sense of humor and humanism, they also acknowledge that her stories have universal appeal.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
Packer’s first short-story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, received many critical accolades upon its publication in 2003. In the Village Voice, Joy Press admired the stories, noting that ”Packer specializes in goody-goodies—most of her heroines are young, wholesome African American women caught at a formative moment, ducking bitterness as it settles in around them.” New York Times writer Jean Thompson hailed Packer as a fresh new literary voice, commending her talent for creating ”a world already populated by clamoring, sorrowing, eminently knowable people, and with the promise of more to come.” Publishers Weekly believed that Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was particularly noteworthy because the stories’ conclusions fail to resolve ”neatly or easily. Packer knows how to keep the tone provocative and tense at the close of each tale, doing justice to the complexity and dignity of the characters and their difficult choices.” In Independent on Sunday, David Isaacson concluded that ”each study has a universal, human dimension that subtly transcends the immediate subject.”
- Isaacson, David. Review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Independent on Sunday (March 14, 2004): 35.
- Press, Joy. Review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Village Voice (February 26, 2003): 58.
- Review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. Publishers Weekly (December 16, 2002).
- Thompson, Jean. Review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. New York Times (March 16, 2003).
- Birnbaum, Robert. ”Interview: ZZ Packer.” IdentityTheory.com. Retrieved December 7, 2008, from http://www.identitytheory.com/interviews/ birnbaum103.html. Last updated on April 29, 2003.
- Janssens, Jeff, and S. Zoe Wexler. ”Being Part of the World: An Interview with ZZ Packer.”nidus. Retrieved December 7, 2008, from http:// www.pitt.edu/~nidus/current/packer.html.
- ”A Writer’s Life: ZZ Packer.” London Telegraph. Retrieved December 7, 2008, from http://www. telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2004/04/25/bopacker.xml&sSheet=/arts/2004/04/25/bomain.html. Last updated on April 18, 2004.
- ”ZZ Packer.” WordSmitten. Retrieved December 7, 2008, from http://www.wordsmitten.com/author_ zzpacker.htm.
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