The epigraph to Drinking Coffee Elsewhere comes from Alex Haley's Roots: 'The histories have been written by the winners.' The implication is that this collection will give us the voice of the losers. But ZZ Packer looks like an outsider only if you concentrate exclusively on racial identity. She went to Yale and then to the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her writing is more complex and more conscious of individuality than the epigraph suggests, and Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is an intelligent and memorable meditation on what it means to be a victim. Although each of the stories shows the importance of race, they all challenge the assumptions that to be black must mean feeling like a loser, and that feeling like a loser is always caused by being black. Blackness does not always imply defeat, and alienation can't always be explained by race. In several stories, a black character encounters an alternative form of social isolation: a college student meets a fat lesbian, a nurse with menstrual trouble meets a man with no legs. The central characters themselves are fully alive, and each story shows that race is only one element in their sense of themselves as people apart.
LRB 1 April 2004 | PDF Download