ZZ Tops

The name ZZ Packer sounds like the kind of pseudonym you'd find on the poetry slam circuit, and the title of her collection of short stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, does little to change that impression. But as it turns out, the name's no gimmick. "My real name is Zuwena, but my family always called me ZZ," Packer says.

Drinking Coffee is Packer's first book, but the literary world has been buzzing about her for some time. Packer published her first story in Seventeen magazine at the age of 19 and appeared in the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop anthology, Twenty-Five and Under, before even earning her writing degree. Then one of her stories was selected for The New Yorker's Debut Fiction issue, making Packer perhaps the most talked-about writer without a book.

Now that Drinking Coffee is finally out, you can see what all the fuss is about. The short story "Brownies" deals with a black Brownie troop that plans to beat up some white girls over a perceived racial slur -- that is, before they discover that the girls are retarded. And "Our Lady of Peace" recounts how a frustrated teacher ends up running over some of her students.

Packer is working on a novel, which is, of course, considered essential to a successful writing career. But she feels more at home with short stories. "A novel is more of a long ride," she says, "but a short story, that's a roller coaster, and it's got a lot of emotion that I really enjoy."

The author has avoided being labeled an "ethnic" writer by focusing on universal themes. "My characters are dealing with problems we all have," says Packer, even if the stories happen to deal with race, too.

And Packer has done her own part to keep from getting pigeonholed. "If I see a few copies [of my book] in the African-American section in a bookstore," says Packer, "I'll refile one in the literature section."

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Dylan Otto Krider