ZZ Packer’s “Drinking coffee elsewhere” is the story of a young African American girl named Dina who uses escapism and pretence as a survival tactic in a mostly white dominated university. While in Yale, Dina uses pretence to attract attention to her self and succeeds in getting the concern of the dean. Dina’s pretence, however, fails her in a way in that she does not realize that she is falling for her female lesbian friend.
She uses the pretence, as she has perfected it, to suppress the feelings. Even though ZZ Packer ‘s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ presents her as one who uses white characters in her stories to address the concerns of other ethnicities, Birnbaum’s ‘Identity Theory’, which is an interview, presents her as a ‘Black writer’ in that her works mainly target black audiences.
Most of ZZ Packer’s stories and mostly “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” are autobiographical. This follows the revelations of her background in the interview that ZZ Packer, just like the character Dina in the story, moved from a dominantly black neighborhood to a dominantly white University. As a black writer, Packer is in a way revealing her experiences in the University through the character’s voice and experiences at the university.
The vivid insight and humor used by the character Dina in her remarks and actions correlate to that of the author ZZ Packer as revealed in the interview with Birnbaum. The young female voice of the character can be equated with that of Packer during her days in Yale University. Dina uses pretence to distance herself from the realities that the white neighborhood brings upon her. Considering the age of the character Dina, Packer was undoubtedly referring to her own experiences.
This inspires other Black girls who are following her example when they come in to contact with the short story. This reveals that the intention she had in writing the story was to communicate with the African American teenagers who find themselves in similar situations.
The overt racial pride portrayed through the character Dina reveals that the story as written by Packer was for the Black readers who would better identify with the character. This acts as a way to get used to the racial stereotypes and prejudices held against the African Americans by the other races (Collins 229). When Dina announces that she wants to impersonate a revolver during the orientation exercises, she is compelled to have a series of psychiatric counseling sessions.
This highlights the stereotype of the angry and dangerous black man. The whites are suspicious and at the same time afraid of Dina as they term her as a potential homicidal psychic. Packer is using this character to portray that the personalities that are adopted by some black men are in most times merely survival tactics in circumstances where they feel outnumbered and not because they are potentially dangerous to others.
In ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’, ZZ Packer uses the skin color of her characters in addressing them. Dina says, “If I had not known the person was white from the peephole, I’d have known it from a display like this.
Black people did not knock on strangers’ doors, crying” (Packer 50). Black people also hold stereotypes against the other races as revealed in the above Dina’s statement. These make them feel superior to others especially in circumstances where they consider themselves surrounded by the other ethnicities.
As the interview reveals, it suffices to classify ZZ Packer in the category of Black writers in that her stories are interested in the private lives of African Americans (Birnbaum Para. 3). Most African American readers can identify with Dina’s experiences with ease, as opposed to how a white readership can identify with the work. This does not necessarily mean that Packer does not have white characters in her stories such as ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’.
It means that the white characters or others from other ethnicities are there to help readers understand the African American characters in the story by evaluating their relationships. In this case, even white writers who write specifically for a black readership can be classified as Black writers. This is by considering how the works address the issues that are most felt by the African Americans as opposed to the whites (Collins 227).
In the story “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”, Heidi is a white girl who happens to be the only friend that Dina has in Yale. Heidi is a lesbian and Dina is trying to suppress the affection that she has towards her. The character Heidi is merely in the story to help the Black reader understand the actions of Dina in relation to Heidi.
The character Dina is struggling with mistrust that surrounds her as a Black girl in a dominantly white environment. In most cases, this reality befalls most African Americans who find themselves in similar environments. However, they do not suffer direct discrimination. Nevertheless, their actions and unpretentious gestures attract the keen attention of the other ethnicities (Collins 235).
Dina is struggling to define for herself who she is and seek acceptance in the society though this is misunderstood following her overreliance on pretence. The only person who eventually notices this defense mechanism is the shrink Dr. Raeburn. He is the only person who certainly understands Dina but after numerous futile attempts.
Packer tries to pass a message across to her few readers of other ethnicities that if they seek to understand the black people and coexist peacefully with them, they should not give up at all. The character’s struggle and eventual success are what attracts the African American to prefer the works of Packer compared to the white readership. The African American consider themselves as continuously involved in a struggle to fight a system that oppressed them once directly and now indirectly(Collins 235).
In Packer’s interview with Birnbaum, she, however, disregards these claims that she is a Black writer in that sense. However, through a keen analysis of the themes that dominate her stories such as ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’, it is obvious that she fits the category (Birnbaum Para. 20). The characters such as Dina are involved in a constant struggle to prove their humanity and demand for an end of some sort of discrimination.
ZZ Packer’s words in the interview acknowledge the vivid emotional content in her stories. The kind of language that she uses in the stories can be identified with the African Americans more that it can with other races. In fact, in the interview, Birnbaum attributes this to the unresolved and troublesome issues related to race.
Emotional content is a significant characteristic of African American literature. By addressing this issue in most of the stories in her collection, Packer automatically qualifies as a black writer. Other defining characteristic of African American literature or Black literature noticeable in Packer’s work is the use of poetic language in between prose.
Packer uses Frank O’Hara’s poem “When I was a child,” the person said, “I played by myself in a corner of the schoolyard all alone. I hated dolls and games, animals were not friendly, and birds flew away. If anyone was looking for me, I hid behind a tree and cried out ‘I am an orphan” (Packer 49). The use of explicit language in the text also qualifies Packer to fit in the category of the Black writers.
ZZ packer may not consider herself as a Black writer from the perspective that her works target the Black audience. However, by considering her background and relating it to her works such as “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere”, there are evident pointers that she targets such audiences.
The themes that dominate her stories, the style of writing and the nature of the characters collectively point to this fact. Writers, however, have the tendency of denying facts such as these for fear of being regarded as racist or even losing the favor of the other ethnic groups, which can influence negatively on them financially (Collins, 224).
Whether consciously or unconsciously, the fact that the product assists in coming up with such classifications is inevitable. One might not be intending to write for a particular audience, but then the product addresses the issues of a particular group prompting them to favor the work more than the other groups. ZZ Packer’s short story in this regard addresses the most felt issues of African Americans and, therefore, this automatically qualifies her as a Black writer and even a Black feminist writer.
Birnbaum, Robert. Identity theory: Interview by Robert Birnbaum, 2009. Web. 15 Feb. 2012.
Collins, Patricia. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment and Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Packer, ZZ. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction: Fifty North American stories since 1970. New York: Touchstone Books, 2000. Print.