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Z.Z. Packer makes her debut with 'Drinking Coffee Elsewhere'

| Sunday, May 4, 2003

Z.Z. Packer's short-story collection, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," is one of the most accomplished and promising debuts of the year.

Yet it's not quite right to categorize Packer with the Jay McInerneys, Michael Chabons, Zadie Smiths, Dave Eggers and other fresh-faced writers perennially anointed as the new literary standard bearers.

It's not that she doesn't have the requisite skills, charisma or photogenic appeal -- fairly or not, the latter quality is important in promoting young writers -- she does. It's just that Packer is ever-so-slightly beyond her 20s, the age when most young literary stars are introduced.

"I'd taken so long to get the stories into the shape I wanted them to be in," she says, "that by the time I turned them in, people were saying, 'You're 30 now, and when the book got accepted you were 28.' They kept thinking it was not even worth it. To me, I always think it was worth it, to take all that time. But you can see how someone would begin to have doubts, because so much of it is about youth: 'Oh, the next wunderkind is out, the next young writer.'"

Perceptions of age aside, Packer's collection is striking, and in a way, expected, as her talents have been previously recognized and acknowledged. Most of the stories in "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" have appeared in magazines and anthologies, including "Harper's," "The New Yorker," "Ploughshares" and "Best American Short Stories 2000." She also has been awarded Wallace Stegner and Truman Capote writing fellowships at Stanford University, and she studied at Yale, Johns Hopkins and the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Many of the characters in "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" are in transit, physically and emotionally. In "Our Lady Peace," a young woman leaves her humdrum existence in rural Kentucky for the bright lights of a big city, Baltimore. A young boy from Indiana chooses to go with his father, just released from jail, to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., rather than attend his high school debate team's match in "The Ant of the Self." Dina, a young, bookish woman from a tough neighborhood in Baltimore, finds it hard to fit in at Yale in the title story. The same character later reappears in "Geese," a story about out-of-work gaijin in Japan.

"It's one of those things where I myself have realized I am yet again writing a story about someone who is leaving or going away," says Packer, who admits to being a constant traveler. "I don't know if I like writing them, but I'm compelled to write them. I think maybe it just has to do with when people are in emotional turmoil, it usually ends up accompanying an actual flight. When the person realizes they can't live the same life they've lived before, their first impulse is to run away or go to another place. And sometimes, it's a very healthy impulse."

Race and isolation are themes that Packer combines and investigates in her work. In "The Ant of the Self," Spurgeon is the only black student in his school. The title character in "Doris Is Coming," a story set in the early 1960s, was inspired by the experiences of Packer's mother, who was the only black student in her advanced classes.

Packer herself was placed in gifted studies programs in school. She often wondered why there were so few black students -- "You're going to tell me that only 0.2 percent of the black population could work at that level?" she asks -- and subsequently felt detached from many of her peers.

"Yes, you make friends with whites, because they're your classmates -- and that's great," Packer says. "But what it also does is sort of cut you off from this community that you ordinarily have. It's always tearing you apart. At lunchtime, should you sit with these people or these people• It sets up these ways in which you are isolated on a minute-by-minute level."

Packer also explores issues of free speech and perception in her stories. Spurgeon's character particularly exhibits a headstrong independence when he speaks out at the Million Man March that goes against the mood of the day: I continued, delivering a hurried, jibbering philippic on the nuances between atonement and apology, repentance and remorse. What I'm saying is right and true. Good and important.

Packer has found herself in situations that are related, if not exactly similar. When she travels, she can see others categorizing her: She's black, young, alone. People assume they know things about her, who she is, what she's doing, where she's going.

Then, they talk.

"You watch their faces as they gradually learn more about you," she says, laughing, "and their view becomes so different than the one they automatically constructed. I see this happen all the time, and maybe I shouldn't be so humored by it. I should probably be more upset. It is somewhat humorous, but it's also very sad, and I guess people just feel they have to do this, and I experience it in terms of race and in terms of being a woman."

The danger, Packer adds, is that such monolithic viewpoints end up, on larger scales, as nationalism, jingoism and racism.

"I'm fascinated in the stories about how these things happen on smaller levels," she says, "and the natural progression into very dangerous things."

Additional Information:

Writers Read

Z.Z. Packer

She's reading ... 'War and Peace' by Anton Dostoyevsky and Manil Suri's 'The Death of Vishnu.' 'I'm on the epilogue of 'War and Peace,' and I'm a little disappointed by it, but the book itself is great.' Of Suri, she says, 'I love how he has this weird gravitas that most people don't have.'

She's listening to ... A compilation of Appalachian music and 'Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela,' a tribute album to African musician Fela Kuti.

She just saw ... 'City of God,' a Brazilian movie about poor teens living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. 'I went to see it with my mother and sister in Chicago, and I don't think either of them had ever seen a subtitled movie. Finally, I convinced them, and they liked it. It's a great movie.'

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