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ISSUE 117 VOL 15 PUBLISHED 4/9/2004

A book one won't find 'Elsewhere'

By Lisa Gulya
Staff Writer


Friday, April 9, 2004

It's hard to talk about race, but, author ZZ Packer confronts race, class, gender -- one might say "the works" -- in her book, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere." These issues are unavoidable for characters, and Packer ensures that readers contemplate them, too.

"Coffee," Packer's first book, is a collection of short stories. A graduate of Yale, Packer has been published in "The New Yorker" and "Harper's." In 2002, she was a Jones lecturer at Stanford University. Although it appears she's been traveling in privileged circles as of late, her characters most decidedly do not.

The protagonists of the stories are all young and black. With the exception of one, they are all female. Their worldviews are often obstructed by the fact that they are black in the white society of America. Even outside of the US, Packer's characters are acutely aware of race.

"Geese" is a story about Dina, a young black woman who is living with six other gaijin in Japan. Japanese businessmen proposition her with the English phrases they have learned, such as, "Verry chah-ming daaark-ku skin." At one point she says, "[Dina] didn't want to sweep floors, that too many Japanese had already seen American movies in which blacks were either criminals or custodians."

Several stories are set in places familiar to St. Olaf students like those living abroad, teaching unwilling high school students and wandering through the cafeteria. In the title story, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," Dina wanders through Yale's cafeteria, taking stock of the homogenous groups that crowd each table -- Koreans, singers, crew team members.

Packer's voice is fresh. Her images and similes are evocative. She can make even the most tired image, the night sky, delicious, "The stars sprinkled the night sky like spilled salt." Her characters have attitude and depth. Her stories set in the mid-20th century, have themes and situations that resonate with the present. Some of them are set in historic contexts: the Million-Man March, the civil disobedience of the 1960s.

Others refuse to become stereotypical tales while taking place in stereotypically black settings: the ghetto, the Pentecostal church.

Packer's work reminds us -- sometimes subtly, other times blatantly -- that tension stemming from race and class still exists. However, it seems that the privileged can more easily forget about the existence of these tensions than Packer's protagonists or Packer herself. With this message and a gift for packing pith into her short stories, Packer assures that her readers will not soon stop contemplating her work.





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