CAREER: Writer and educator. Stanford University, Stanford, CA, lecturer in English. Taught English and creative writing in Baltimore, MD.
AWARDS, HONORS: Whiting Writers' Award; Rona Jaffee Foundation Writers' Award; PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction nomination, 2004, for Drinking Coffee Elsewhere; Wallace Stegner fellow, 1999; Truman Capote fellow, Stanford University; Jones Lecturer, Stanford University.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (short stories), Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 2003.
Packer's short fiction has appeared in anthologies, including Best American Short Stories 2000. Contributor to numerous fiction magazines and literary journals, including Harper's, Story, and New Yorker.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A novel about the Buffalo Soldiers.
SIDELIGHTS: ZZ Packer's debut short-story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, has collected consistently high praise from readers, reviewers, and prominent literary figures such as John Updike. The eight "finely crafted tales" in the book make up "a debut collection that cuts to the bone of human experience and packs a lasting wallop," wrote a Kirkus Reviews critic. Updike chose the book as the June, 2003, Today Book Club selection on the NBC network's Today show. Packer has converted skeptical reviewers, such as Evette Porter, who observed on the Africana Web site, "ZZ Packer's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere lives up to its billing. More impressively, Packer handles the burden of being the next big thing by exceeding expectations."
And it is that level of quality that Packer consistently strives to maintain, or exceed. "Packer writes nearly every day and sets herself page number goals instead of time requirements," wrote Kim Curtis in a profile of Packer on the Monterey Herald Web site. "You have to nurture your talent or it's going to lie fallow," Packer said in the profile. On those infrequent days when Packer doesn't practice her craft, "the guilt of not doing so gets her to write the next day," Curtis remarked.
She was born Zuwena Packer; "ZZ" is a family nickname that evolved into Packer's professional name. "I didn't come up with that [nickname]," she said in an interview on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Web site. "My first name is Zuwena and my family nickname has been ZZ for ages. People say it's such a clever pen name since it's so memorable, but I've been ZZ since middle school."
Packer spent her childhood in areas around Appalachia, Atlanta, and Baltimore. She graduated from Yale and the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and always considered herself "bookishly uncool," she said in a profile in Book. She is a Jones lecturer at Stanford University in Stanford, CA, and despite her success and critical acclaim, still considers herself an apprentice in the literary world, still in awe of writers she admires. "I have not achieved what I want, but maybe I will someday," she said in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer profile. In an interview on the Barnes & Noble Web site, she named Toni Morrison's Beloved as the book that most influenced her life. "Beloved is a reflection of how our most horrid actions are wedded to our most noble desires," Packer remarked. "Few living authors are able to write in such a way as to give me the shivers," she commented. "I loved The Bluest Eye, but it was only while reading Beloved that I knew without a doubt that I was in the presence of greatness." Among other books she named as influences are Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.
In the title story of Packer's collection, Dina, a young black woman from Baltimore, is newly arrived at Yale University and is undergoing mandatory orientation games, trust-building exercises, and other trite and bland activities required of freshmen. When one such game requires Dina to decide which inanimate object she'd like to be, she chooses a revolver, a choice that guarantees her psychological counseling and status as a loner and outcast. A relationship begins to bloom between Dina and Heather, a fellow freshman who is Caucasian and unsure of herself. When Heather declares herself a lesbian, Dina flees from the relationship and the characterization it would impose on her. Dina's carefully maintained walls may be her way of coping with her mother's recent death, or they may be her way of dealing with the world when she can't escape by pretending she's drinking coffee elsewhere. Jean Thompson, writing in New York Times Book Review, called "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" a "superb story, its wry and mournful tones bound together by a complex psychological portrait." Laurie Meunier Graves, writing on the Wolf Moon Press Web site, remarked that the story "is as close to perfect as a short story can be, and perfection is a rare thing."
Linnea Davis, the main character of "Our Lady of Peace," is a teacher struggling to reach her students in a rough Baltimore public school. She sees her job as teacher as little more than a way to make a living, "but finds herself drowning amid a chaotic classroom filled with angry, disruptive, and violent inner-city students," Porter wrote. Her rescuer arrives in the unlikely form of a burly student transferred from another district. The characters in "Geese," a group of young American students abroad in Japan, are unable to find work or sustenance, and slowly and bitterly lose "the all-knowing arrogance of youth" as they spiral into frustration and desperation. In "Speaking in Tongues," teenage Tia resists all attempts by her sternly religious aunt to "get saved." One day she is locked in a church closet for the dubious sin of laughing in Sunday school. Packing her clarinet, Tia heads to Atlanta to search for her mother, a drug addict who abandoned her years before. Tia fails to find her mother, but becomes involved with Marie and Dezi, a streetwise hustler. "Packer knows how to turn up the volume and invest a narrative with shocking turns of events," Thompson remarked. "Ironically, it is a sexual experience with Dezi that brings Tia a moment of ecstatic, visionary feeling that she's been unable to achieve in church," Thompson wrote. Tia emerges from the experience the type of person who won't be locked in a closet by anyone again. In "Brownies," a troop of black brownie scouts plots revenge against a perceived racial insult committed by a fellow group of white brownie scouts. Bookish Laurel watches the self-appointed leaders of the troop, Arnetta and Octavia, plan retaliation, but it turns out that neither the alleged insult, nor the hated rival troop, may actually be what they seem.
"The Ant of the Self," featuring the collection's only male protagonist, puts Spurgeon into conflict with his ne'er-do-well father, who browbeats Spurgeon into driving him to the Million Man March in Washington. Tensions erupt in a fistfight between Spurgeon and his father. The boy is left abandoned in an unfamiliar city, where a sermon from the Million Man March urges him to cast off the ant of the self, "that small, blind, crumb-seeking part of ourselves," and rise up to greater things.
Packer "has distilled her writing so that in its 100-proof potency, it goes right to the back of the throat," wrote David Abrams on the January Magazine Web site. Ann H. Fisher, writing in Library Journal, called the collection "bright, sharp, promising, and recommended," while Allison Lynn, writing in People, declared it "a bottomless cup of longing, loneliness, and real, vital literature." Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is "truly a stunning debut," wrote Toni Fitzgerald on the Book Reporter Web site. "Here's hoping that Packer's next work, be it more stories or a novel, comes quickly."
"Remarkably, in the eight stories that make up Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Packer manages to capture the complexity of what it is to be black in a world where race, gender, sexuality, and class are all mutable," Porter observed. For Thompson, "Packer's collection reminds us that no stylistic tour de force—or authorial gamesmanship, or flights of language—can ground a story like a well-realized character. This is the old-time religion of storytelling, although Packer's prose supplies plenty of the edge and energy we expect from contemporary fiction. The people in the eight stories here form a constellation of young, black experience."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Book, January-February, 2003, Jesse Oxfeld, "The New Misfit: ZZ Packer," biography of ZZ Packer, p. 47.
Booklist, February 15, 2003, Brandan Driscoll, review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, p. 1044.
Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2002, review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, p. 1725.
Library Journal, January, 2003, Ann H. Fisher, review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, p. 162.
New York Times Book Review, March 16, 2003, Jean Thompson, "Notorious in New Haven," review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, p. 7; March 23, 2003, "And Bear in Mind," review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, p. 22.
People, March 31, 2003, Allison Lynn, review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, p. 37.
Publishers Weekly, December, 16, 2002, review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, p. 43.
Africana,http://www.africana.com/ (July 10, 2003), Evette Porter, review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
Barnes & Noble,http://www.barnesandnoble.com/ (July 28, 2003), "Meet the Writers," interview with ZZ Packer.
Book Reporter,http://www.bookreporter.com/ (July 10, 2003), Toni Fitzgerald, review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
Houghton Mifflin,http://www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/ (July 10, 2003), biography of ZZ Packer.
Houston Chronicle,http://www.chron.com/ (May 9, 2003), Andrew Guy, Jr., "Packer Tackles Complex Racial Issues," review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
January Magazine,http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (July 10, 2003), David Abrams, "The Undertow of Words," review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
Monterey Herald,http://www.montereyherald.com/ (June 20, 2003), Kim Curtis, "Writer ZZ Packer Has Literary World Buzzing," interview with ZZ Packer.
Onion A.V. Club,http://www.theonionavclub.com/ (January 29, 2003), Andy Battaglia, review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer,http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/ (March 29, 2003), "A Moment with . . . ZZ Packer, Author," interview with ZZ Packer.
Wolf Moon Press,http://www.wolfmoonpress.com/ (July 10, 2003), Laurie Meunier Graves, "The Weight of Circumstances," review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.*