ZZ Packer’s 2003 collection of short stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere , entered my life at around the same time I was reading my way though my tumultuous 20s. (They’re like the "terrible twos," except they last longer and are profoundly more complicated by things like college, sex, employability, and Pinterest projects.) The collection was assigned reading in one of my undergraduate creative writing courses, and as Packer was touted as one of the youngest and most prolific of the new young writers to watch — aka, what every single one of us enrolled in the course wanted be become ourselves — I dove right in, hoping some of the genius would rub off.
But instead of discovering a writer whose tricks and manipulations of literary theatrics I could borrow as my own, what I discovered in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere was a writer who wrote to me like a friend. Packer’s writing honored coming-of-age experiences; instead of mocking them as banal, as so many writers I was reading did, or with pretension, as did others. Her characters, though young, were living lives as complex and varied as my fellow 20-somethings and I felt we were as well — they were not defined solely by their youth, or their race, or their economic backgrounds, but were multi-dimensional beings that didn’t fit seamlessly into any one stereotype. Packer’s voice on the page was refreshing, and exactly what so many of us needed in a course filled with Caulfield-inspired 20-something characters who had been reproduced with enough frequency to make us feel as though "disgruntled" were the only emotion accessible to us before our 30th birthdays. Basically, ZZ Packer rocked.
1. ZZ Packer Herself Is Just Totally Inspiring.
From a debut publication in Seventeen magazine at the age of 19, to being selected as one of The New Yorker magazine's "20 Under 40" best fiction writers, to being listed as a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award, ZZ Packer's resume boasts a seriously impressive list of young accomplishments. (Plus, you know, she attended Yale, John's Hopkins, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and Stanford.) Maybe some of that I-can-do-anything energy will rub off on you as you read Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. It's worth a shot.
2. Because You've Definitely Had Those Days When You Wish You Were Drinking Coffee Elsewhere.
This collection of stories is filled with characters who perfectly capture the feelings of being an outsider — those feelings of vague wonder about what life would be like if you were someone else, or somewhere else, or able to fast forward/rewind/skip over certain coming-of-age experiences. The title story of this collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, even begins with a description of first day of college “orientation games” (a phrase I think we can all agree strikes dread, fear, and paralyzing social anxiety into the hearts of college freshman everywhere, always.) We’ve all had those days when we wished we were drinking coffee (or perhaps something just a bit stronger) elsewhere. Packer just gets it.
3. It'll Make You Challenge The Assumptions Of Stereotypes.
Although each of the stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere presents a discussion of race, and the impact race has on our relationships with ourselves and others, Packer challenges the assumption that race is always going to be the strongest influencing factor in a given situation. From church ladies to handicapped campers to homeless teens, none of Packer's characters fit into any one particular mold. Most of her black characters encounter characters of different races who are enduring forms of social alienation other than blackness — physical and mental disabilities, gender discrimination, poverty — often flipping the script of the assumed paradigm.
4. You'll Realize You're Not Alone On Your Journey Of Self Discovery.
You'll encounter most of Packer's characters in the immediate urgency of a defining coming-of-age moment. Even if the characters aren't in their 20s themselves, their journeys of self discovery will speak sympathetically to your own 20-something winding road. Whether they're experiencing culture shock, meeting people from backgrounds that are polar opposite to their own, or revealing some unpleasant truths about themselves, the characters in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere are all immersed in discoveries from which they will emerge changed.
5. You'll Be Reminded That Your Parents Are Just People Too.
If you haven't been disappointed, at least a little, by your parents by the time you reach your 20s, then this will probably be the decade when you finally receive the wake up call that the 'rents, saintly as you may find them now, are really just people too. And sometimes, they mess up. A lot. But perhaps not quite as bad as the father in Packer's story The Ant of the Self, whose son bails him out of jail, for which he thanks him by getting him drunk, beating him up, and then stealing his car. Hopefully your own "parents are people too" moment isn't quite as dramatic.
6. You'll Feel Like You Just Had The Best Conversation With Your Very Best Friend.
Each of the stories in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere feel wholly lived in — as though you've met these characters, of some familiar version of them, before. Packer's voice is candid, unsentimental, clever, and peppered with surprising moments of quiet humor. There are no tricks to her writing; it's just straightforward storytelling with which you'll feel an immediate connection, and probably recognize a bit of your 20-something self. Packer will meet you exactly where you are and remind you that we've all been (or will be soon) there.
Images: Stocksy; Giphy (6)