ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” a surprisingly honest anthology of eight short stories imbued with a masterly command of language, has dazzled, and continues to dazzle, audiences.
Packer, noted to be one of the youngest and most prolific new writers to watch, stumbled across creative writing after deciding to pursue engineering at Yale in 1994. In fact, her time at Yale, a topic she explores in her narratives, was marked by numerous changes, from academic to social pursuits. By her junior year, she was hooked, delving into a wholesome journey of literature and later completing the graduate Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins University, and then the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Though many of Packer’s works push our traditional conception of youth and racial context, “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” hinges these themes into spheres of college, sex, and coming-of-age experiences. Reading her piece in the New Yorker’s Debut Fiction feels like stepping into the silenced voices and stifled narratives of many students who arrive at prestigious institutions feeling like outsiders — like strangers lingering in places beyond comfort zones.
The title story of the collection begins with a description of an anticipated first day of college at Yale and “orientation activities” (a phrase which induces fear, dread, and social anxiety for many college first-years at any institution!). As readers and students, many of us have wondered what it would be like to be someone else, to be someplace else, to be drinking coffee somewhere else. Similarly, Dina, a Black honor student admitted to Yale and the main character of the title story, feels slightly out of place as she’s asked to open up to “four scrawny former high-school geniuses” on her first day of college. Instead of following suit and sharing her most vulnerable moments like the others, Dina chooses to behave erratically and admits that she’d be a revolver if she could be any inanimate object. This earns Dina nothing more than a whole year’s worth of counseling.
Dina’s narrative follows her experience in college, without focusing on academics, clubs, and other aspects which one might traditionally attach to college life. Rather, readers are brought into Dina’s ramen-packed dorm room and the psychiatrist’s office. Packer traces what it’s like to establish footing in a place layered in expectation and stampeded by others who don’t look like you. Though Dina chooses to keep to herself, her meetings with the psychiatrist reveal much about who she is and hopes to be. She grows to view herself as an outcast rather than an honor student, ultimately driving many of her conversations with the psychiatrist to encompass lies or falsified scenarios. She begins an unexpected platonic relationship with another girl, but rejects her once she finds out that the girl is a lesbian. She refuses to acknowledge other Black students on campus. She begins to isolate herself in hopes that others won’t notice her presence. The narrative boils down to an unconventional courtship between contemplation and confusion as Dina battles with herself and her new home in New Haven. Coming from a troubled home situation, poverty, and sexual and racial differences, Dina fights to maintain and erase dimensions of her identity which she has internalized for so long.
I’ve been thinking about what lured me into this narrative. The writing is intensely real, simple, and yet still evocative. But what carries it over the edge is that not all of the characters are Black, not all of the predominant themes touch on race, and that the story is not “exclusive” to any group or community. Rather, it seeps into everyday experiences and thematic concerns which many individuals — minority or otherwise — can relate to. By drawing on coming-of-age experiences such as the need to escape and find a niche, to seek independence, and to still not lose touch with one’s roots, Packer’s writing resonates with diverse audiences and constructs a common ground for many young adults who dwell on differences rather than appreciating diversity.
“Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” was breathtaking to say the least — it left me feeling like I just finished a teary-eyed, emotion-ridden conversation with my best friend. I met characters who complained and cried, listened to them deconstruct their lives, and challenged the assumption that race is alway the strongest factor influencing a given situation. Packer wields language as a means to dazzle, but not in the traditional sense. Her words are candid, honest, and unsentimental. They’re witty, yet direct and peppered with hints of humor. She pushes words so that they collide — in the most natural manner — with authentic voices. And, although I’ve been searching for what trick she uses in her writing to construct such enticing narratives, I’ve realized that it’s her clever and straightforward storytelling that reminds readers of moments we can all vividly recall.
This piece is part of Anti-Racist Reading Reviews, an ongoing series in which The Prospect features reviews of and reflections on anti-racist texts and media, as well as works by Black writers. These works are drawn from, though not limited to, the Anti-Racist Reading List created by Lauren Johnson ’21 and Ashley Hodges ’21 and the USG Anti-Racism Book Initiative.