Coffee Talk

The stories of ZZ Packer have appeared in The New Yorker, The Best Short Stories of 2000 and The Best American Non-Required Reading 2003. She has the academic pedigree of a Rockefeller: Yale, Johns Hopkins, the Iowa Writers Workshop and Stanford. Last year, her picture graced the pages of practically every grocery-store glossy as literature's Next Big Thing.

In other words: We hate her.

Well, we would hate her, if she weren't so blasted fantastic. Her debut, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, is an absorbing and quite funny collection of short stories written with an eye for satire but a heart that can't help but embrace humanity in all its broken, baffled states. In "Brownies," a troop of African-American girls plots revenge against a white troop. In "The Ant of the Soul," a shy high school debate star drives his deluded, deadbeat father to the Million Man March. Packer cracks open a window into their flawed lives and the way their poor behavior often belies their better intentions. Look at the way Packer opens "The Ant of the Soul": "Opportunities," my father says, after I bail him out of jail. He's banging words into the dash as if trying to get them through my thick skull. "You've got to invest your money if you want opportunities."

Born Zuwena (ZZ is a nickname), Packer grew up in Atlanta and Louisville and published her first short story at 19, in Seventeen magazine. Like Toni Morrison and Terry MacMillan, Packer has been neatly branded a "black writer," although, as she recently said in an interview with online magazine Identity Theory's Robert Birnbaum, "I am writing for black people, but I am also writing for whites, for Chinese, for Americans." Indeed, Packer's writing speaks to the soul rather than the skin. She does what only good writers can: She indicts us and, eventually, forgives.


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