Bar one, the protagonists who populate ZZ Packer’s debut short story collection are young women on the brink of discovering something about themselves, life or both. They push boundaries and challenge authority often hiding the vulnerability they feel from those around them but not the reader.
In the title story, a young woman, Dina, is one of the few black students at Yale. During an orientation exercise, students have to state which inanimate object they wanted to be. Having grown up being ‘good in all the ways that were meant to matter’, Dina says she wants to be ‘a revolver’ and ends up with a year’s worth of psychiatric counselling.
“You’re pretending,” Dr. Raeburn said…”Maybe it’s your survival mechanism. Black living in a white world.”
…Dr. Raeburn would never realize that “pretending” was what had got me this far. I remembered the morning of my mother’s funeral. I’d been given milk to settle my stomach; I’d pretended it was coffee. I imagined I was drinking coffee elsewhere. Some Arabic-speaking country where the thick coffee served in little cups was so strong it could keep you awake for days.
Race is mentioned in several stories: in ‘Doris Is Coming’ there’s a discussion about the phrase ‘flesh coloured’ and its inaccuracy; in ‘Speaking in Tongues’ as teenagers Marcelle and Tia meet in the bus station before Tia runs away, Marcelle says the bus driver won’t notice them, “We all look the same to them anyway”, and in ‘The Ant of the Self’, the young male narrator and his father attend a race rally in Washington, selling birds. However, besides ‘Brownies’, the first story in the collection, where a girl from a troop of black brownies, accuses a girl from a group of white brownies of calling her ‘a nigger’, the stories aren’t centered on race. They seem to root themselves equally in being female in a male world and on the protagonists finding their own path, or not. At the end of ‘Brownies’, the narrator, Laurel, says, “…and suddenly [I] knew there was something mean in the world that I could not stop’.
In ‘Every Tongue Shall Confess’, Clareese Mitchell, member of the choir at Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized, curses the Brothers’ Church Council who’ve decided the choir must wear white every Missionary Sunday ‘when her womanly troubles were always at their absolute worst!’ That’s the thin end of the wedge for her though as far as the behaviour of the Brothers and her patients she tends to at the hospital. While in ‘Our Lady of Peace’, Lynnea comes up against the barriers in the education system, the care system and those exploited by a police officer.
Two things stand out about the collection: the first is that the stories don’t rely on the jazzy, unexpected twist at the end. There are twists but they mostly feel more organic as though the stories could be real. ‘Speaking in Tongues’, in particular, feels as though it could be the real life story of a young girl who takes a bus to Atlanta searching for her mother and ends up in a world she wasn’t aware existed.
The second is Packer’s use of language which is precise and illuminating with regards to the human condition. In ‘Geese’, the group of young people sharing a room in a country that’s foreign to them struggle: Things simply made all of them cry and sigh. Things dredged from the bottom of their souls brought them pain at the strangest moments and the protagonist has a plan: Or rather, it wasn’t really a plan at all, but a feeling, a nebulous fluffy thing that had started in her chest, spread over her heart like a fog. While Tia, the runaway in ‘Speaking in Tongues’ describes her aunt’s love as: …a smothering sort of love: love because you had to, never getting the chance to find out whether you wanted to or not. And sometimes, she simply tells it straight, like in ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ where Dina’s expected to take part in the trust exercise where you fall back into someone else’s arms: Russian roulette sounded like a better way to go.
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is an impressive collection: eight distinct stories with distinct voices, considering life (mostly) in America for a range of (mostly female) young people. Packer’s been working on her debut novel for over a decade now, on the strength of these stories I’m adding myself to the queue of people anticipating it.