Around the end of last year, in one of those post Xmas sales, I picked up a copy of ZZ Packer's short story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. I figure she's probably fairly well known on the mainstream literary circle in the States, since the inside of the cover lists the stories as having appeared in the New Yorker and Harpers, but I'd never heard of her before. Still, I wasn't put off by the lurking history of those publications, though the truth is there was more threat from the brick sized quote by Zadie Smith on the front cover, and John Updike's decision to turn 'is' into izz in his quote. Still, author quotes don't mean much, and I thought the title of the collection was really neat, and the opening lines of the first short story, 'Brownies', fantastic.
Those lines were
By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909. Troop 909 was doomed from the first day of the camp; they were white girls, their complexions a blend of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla.
Now, I admit, one of things that interests me is fiction that explores race. I'm the kind of guy who is going to find the idea of a story that begins with a bunch of black girls wanting to beat the shit out of a bunch of white girls interesting. That doesn't mean that the story gets an automatic pass into being interesting or good since there are bad authors everywhere, but it is one of my interests.
(As an aside, one of the things that constantly disappoints me about speculative fiction is how white it is. Like the future is Naziland or something. We'll get into space and we'll all be white and blonde and blue eyed and powering our starships with other races. "Put in a black man to make the hyperspace jump, Johnny!" So, it's no real surprise when you walk into a room full of speculative fiction authors and find that they are predominantly white. Now, understand, I'm not saying this is a bad thing, since I'm one of those white guys walking into a room... but in a country like Australia, which has a huge multicultural element to it, you have got to occasionally look around and ask yourself just why it is that so much of the speculative fiction work is white. By this I mean, white in culture and white in characters and white in its authors. It could be, of course, that the dominant Western cultures lend themselves to the idea of creating imaginary cultures easier than those in minority cultures. Perhaps the idea of seeing a dominant culture in an imaginary world is easier to do when you haven't got to fight for recognition and understanding on a daily basis. Still, with all that said, and with all the complaints and misunderstanding the comes when I say this, it does disappoint me a little to see that the genre is so white.*)
But, you know, that's just an aside. I'm writing about ZZ Packer, who is a black female author, and who, with the story 'Brownies', explores racism in blacks towards white people. I think there is a tendency in the world we live in to overlook or pass off the idea that people can be racist towards white folk. It exists, sure, but it's somehow not as damaging or as important as white people being racist. There's something socially acceptable in the idea of 'white' being an amusing slur. Think of the classic basketball joke about white guys not being able to jump, that they somehow lack the ability, despite the fact that it's a ball and a hoop and an eye hand coordination thing... but it's funny, in a way. And so it's funny when Packer tells the reader, through the voice of her quiet, bookish narrator, that the kids call each other 'caucasian' when they're stupid or clumsy. Fall off the swings: caucasian. Eat too fast: caucasian. Wear something really uncool: caucasian, man. Even, Packer's narrator tells you that the only white kid in the grade would say it.
The joy of Packer's story, however, is the slow and subtle way she builds to the story's climax of racial hate with her narrator's realisation that what's going on isn't right. The kids of the story live in a world of casual racism, brought in by their parents, by the media, by the real social and economic differences they recognise, and are fueled by the rules of the schoolyard. Rather than being a rough, harsh world, Packer creates a comfortable, charming, middle class world for her black kids to inhabit, and you as the reader could stay there for twice the length. Indeed, the story could have ended without ever changing this, but Packer doesn't wish to. There's a real bittersweetness to the story when, at the end, she reveals that the attitude that is quaint and amusing now in children eventually becomes a dark and bitter stone that becomes something quite nastier, and which her narrator imparts onto the others with a story of her father and a family of Mennonites.
The story is worth the price of the collection alone, I reckon.
* I'm reminded, at this point, of a comment that Ursula le Guin made about the Earthsea books. She said she would have black men and women come up to her and tell her that it was one of the few fantasy novels they read as kids where they could identify with the protagonists through skin colour.