I have just finished reading ZZ Packer’s debut collection of short stories Drinking Coffee Elsewhere which I came across after reading a piece of hers in The New Yorker’s best 20 under 40. The collection is predominantly filled with stories about modern-day, young black women in America. Her writing seems utterly natural and ZZ seems to possess that most enviable talent of being able to just tell a story without appendages or tricks or trying to show how clever she is. Her use of dialogue is brilliant and reading it you can hear the sounds of her character’s voices as ZZ is a master at teasing out the most minute of inflections in the vast array of American accents. The title story is good but my favourite was Speaking In Tongues which tells of a fourteen year old runaway, Tia, who finds herself in Atlanta and the object of affection for a disarmingly likable pimp named Dezi. After believing that she has been raped by her pimping pal, she seeks help in Marie, a prostitute who she has met earlier. Marie calms her down, does an inspection of Tia’s nether regions and then sets about collecting money for Tia, instructing her to return home to her Grandmother and devoutly Christian community.
“Give her twenty,” Marie said. She unpried Tia’s hand from her skirt pocket and made her hold it out as if begging for alms.
Lydia said no.
“I’ll pay you back, ho. Now, hand it over.”
While Lydia undid the Oriental topknot where she apparently kept her money, Marie called over two unsuspecting girls from across the street.
“Marie,” Tia said, “I’ve got thirty-two dollars, I don’t need any more.”
But Marie inhaled grandly, and Tia understood that Marie liked doing this: bossing everyone around, demanding money from people unwilling to give it. For a moment, she felt a deep pity for the woman. She would have made a great executive, manager, fundraiser, but here she was, on Northside Drive, walking the streets.
Marie shows Tia a kind of care and lesson in self-respect that is all too lacking in her own home. However the church and her Grandmother are where Tia must go for now and Marie makes sure she gets there. Her last words to Tia are “Run, honey. And don’t let nobody lock you in no closet no more.”
Many of the stories are so good you wish they were novels, you want them to go on, you love her characters even if they are down right hypocritical or if their decisions are lacking in good judgment. ZZ writes a lot about the South and as such many of her stories take the reader in to the lives of devout church goers who sing gospel songs and place all their eggs in God’s basket. Her descriptions of white teenagers in America are particularly enjoyable for me and I couldn’t stop wondering, as I read the stories, how they would be enjoyed by young black girls living in these contexts. The Seattle Times notes that “ZZ Packer’s is an African-American voice attuned to the ironies of race, and desperately (as well as humorously) trying to sort out truth from rhetoric in the long shadows cast by the glories of the Civil Rights Movement. Packer has a fine eye for impossible characters and the paralysis they induce in those who have to deal with them. She also has a shrewd sense of how genuine social grievance can fuel and abet outlandish, irresponsible behavior.” Of course she is so good that you don’t need to get political in order to enjoy her.
Packer was born Zuwena, which means “good” in Swahili, but she prefers her childhood nickname ZZ in order to avoid mispronunciations.
Fortunately for her fans she is now working on a first novel about the adventures of the Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black military units that were stationed in the West after the Civil War.