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ZZ Packer, 'Brownies'

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.


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Jan. 24th, 2005 12:09 pm (UTC)
Yeah, and UKG was constantly nettled by the covers that showed very white (or at best tan) characters.

You're right. Those opening lines are amazing. I might use them in class.
Jan. 24th, 2005 12:14 pm (UTC)
yeah, i heard le guin complain about those covers. apparently she fought for different ones, and in some cases got them, but i've no idea. i never did end up reading earthsea.

packer has a real nice style, btw. the whole story is work reading and i think you'd be able to get some real mileage out of it in a class.
Jan. 25th, 2005 12:53 am (UTC)
Cheers for the tip. There's so much going in those first two lines it makes a good study.
Jan. 25th, 2005 12:56 am (UTC)
cool. i like it when i have a bit of help in spreading the news on good things worth reading.
Jan. 24th, 2005 12:10 pm (UTC)
And I hae no idea where that K just came from.
Jan. 24th, 2005 12:15 pm (UTC)
i thought you were going for KKK but slipped ;)
Jan. 24th, 2005 02:37 pm (UTC)
I have that but of course, haven't read it yet. :-/ It sounded good. What you were saying about speculative fiction reminded me of the non-fiction book Everything but the Burden. It got somewhat panned but I thought it interesting. One essay in there argues that a lot of early literature was actually stolen from the African continent and story-telling tradition. (Basically what started everything has very little literary voice in today's world.)
Jan. 24th, 2005 11:55 pm (UTC)
a lot of things in western culture come from different cultures, but i don't know if i'd say they stole it. i remember reading a book by ghassan hage (white nation, i think it's called) and it talked about how a lot of things like asian food and indian spice markets round sydney give people the impression of other cultures, but they're really not, since the take aways and spice places ect. have been funneled into a white western view, and lost most of their original culture reference. so they cease being about the original culture, and about the new one, instead.

i think i made that a bit murky, but it was an interesting argument.
Jan. 25th, 2005 12:32 am (UTC)
Well, the "stole" word was the essay's not mine. It's been a bit since I've read 'Everything but the Burden' but this essay was (if I recall) talking about literal theft by the Greeks and others who passed that way in ancient times. I am the first one to admit all cultures have influenced each other (and by golly, my family is living proof of that in a modern sense). But this gentleman was arguing that African culture was first, period. I have no idea from an ancient historical perspective how accurate that is--but it was a very interesting concept (and dovetailing with the evolutionary Eve being African as well).
Jan. 25th, 2005 12:53 am (UTC)
i've heard that the first human bones have been dated back to africa or something like that, but i've no idea about it, really.

i reckon trying to trace back culture to one start point is a bit flawed, personally. you might be able to find where hitting when to take them back for marriage began, but what does that mean in the end? not much.
Jan. 24th, 2005 07:14 pm (UTC)
Oh, there are plenty of people of color in SF these days; though generally they take the form of an off-stage threat. "We have to colonize Mars before those horrible Chinese do!" etc.

I remember a conversation in my one and only workshop experience where people were discussing possible futures; one woman had written about the future Australian space program that had colonized the solar system. Others mentioned British or Candian attempts. (Generally, it was decided, that some massive disaster would have to happen to the US to "make room" for these other nations to give space a go.) The idea that Asia, with its current tech (if low-tech, but those Soviet-era launch pads are good for something) and labor advantages across its many countries, and the regional leaders' expressed interest in taking space, might actually do it first wasn't even considered a possibility.
Jan. 25th, 2005 12:04 am (UTC)
you've got to avoid those possible future discussions, i find. the few i've found myself in always begin with the fall of america, and always end up with australia or canada taking its place. occasionally the return of the british empire.

in one of the creative writing courses i teach in, there's a part of it where everyone has to write about being white. about their whiteness. (or, if they're not white, when they realised they weren't white.) the first response you get from people is this instant jacking up, this, 'fuck this shit.' it's understandable--white people aren't taught to recognise their own colour in western countries, whereas they're taught to recognise the 'other' early on, even if it's in the form of 'there's no difference between them and us'.
Feb. 2nd, 2005 06:45 am (UTC)
Ben, you might want to corner Stephen Dedman at the next con - from memory, he's writing a SF novel with a racist protagonist.

Feb. 2nd, 2005 10:02 am (UTC)

still, depends what he does with it. you can have a racist protag without necessarily taking on race as a theme, i reckon. but it should be interesting to see. dedman can do some fine things.
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