ZZ PACKER’S “DRINKING COFFEE ELSEWHERE” AND SHERMAN ALEXIE’S THE TOUGHEST INDIAN IN THE WORLD
In judging literary works, we take into account what is at stake both for the writer and for the characters the writer creates. Ignoring the stakes or inaccurately assessing them can lead to a critical appraisal that is incomplete or inaccurate. Such misappraisals often occur with the works of writers of color, either in workshops or in the greater literary world. But I would also assert that this faulty evaluation works both ways—that is, in terms of how the works of white writers are perceived and what of their own reality they are shutting out.
To unfold my argument, let me start with a basic premise: implicit in the lives of most—if not all—people of color in America is a constant and real existential threat. In many ways, writers of color and/or the characters of color must address this threat, both at the level of actual survival and on the psychological, cultural, and even ontological level. By the very nature of these threats, writers of color and characters of color must take into account the power that whiteness and white people exert over their existence.
Unfortunately, many white writers and critics fail to acknowledge such power or such threats since their view of whiteness rarely includes the existence of the racial other, much less the threats the racial other faces. White writers often refuse to consider that their identity as white and the ways society regards them have always been predicated on the presence and declaration of the racial Other(s). Whiteness in this country has never existed simply as its own entity, dwelling in some Platonic realm outside history or politics and power or apart from the presence and treatment of people of color.
To understand whiteness then requires one to examine how whiteness was created and why—to establish racial power. For white writers, this examination entails investigating the history of race in this country and how that history still informs not just the present in general but white identity specifically. This is a large task of great importance, and it involves not just intellectual or literary work or a rethinking of one’s politics. In the end, as Baldwin often implies, such work is spiritual.
But it is not only white writers who must undertake such work. Writers of color must also do this work, in investigating their own identities and histories but also in contextualizing their identities and histories within the identities and histories of other communities of color.
Intuitively, though, most writers of color know that race is essential to understanding who they are and how they came to be. What may not always be apparent, though, is how deeply the origins of people of color are written inside them, how their histories and the complications of their identities can reveal themselves very quickly and even in the most seemingly casual encounters.
In various ways, then, when race enters the work of writers of color—and almost always it is there, if not on the surface, then within its depths—the political enters. This does not mean, of course, that every writer of color needs to consider his characters or writing politically; it does mean that the antagonisms of race are often undergirding and contextualizing that writing. To ask people of color to write outside politics is, in many instances, to ask them to write in a way that denies who they are, that denies their people and those who came before them.
In this essay, I use the openings of two short stories by two writers of color to examine not only how the racial identities of their protagonists are presented but also how these identities allude to and reveal deep historical, political, and ontological roots. For the protagonists of both stories, whiteness is neither invisible nor separate from who they are, as much as they might wish otherwise.
An example of a racial approach to identity without a reference to ethnicity is the opening of “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,” the title short story of ZZ Packer’s collection:
Orientation games began the day I arrived at Yale from Baltimore. In my group we played heady, frustrating games for smart people. One game appeared to be charades reinterpreted by existentialists; another involved listening to rocks. Then a freshman counselor made everyone play Trust. The idea was that if you had the faith to fall backward and wait for four scrawny former high school geniuses to catch you, just before your head cracked on the slate sidewalk, then you might learn to trust your fellow students. Russian roulette sounded like a better way to go.
“No way,” I said. The white boys were waiting for me to fall, holding their arms out for me, sincerely, gallantly. “No fucking way.”
“It’s all cool, it’s all cool,” the counselor said. Her hair was a shade of blond I’d seen only on Playboy covers, and she raised her hands as though backing away from a growling dog. “Sister,” she said in an I’m-down-with-the-struggle voice, “you don’t have to play this game. As a person of color, you shouldn’t have to fit into any white, patriarchal system.”
I said, “It’s a bit too late for that.”
In the next game, all I had to do was wait in a circle until it was my turn to say what inanimate object I wanted to be. One guy said he’d like to be a gadfly, like Socrates. “Stop me if I wax Platonic,” he said. I didn’t bother mentioning that gadflies weren’t inanimate—it didn’t seem to make a difference. The girl next to him was eating a rice cake. She wanted to be the Earth, she said. Earth with a capital E.
There was one other black person in the circle. He wore an Exeter T-shirt and his overly elastic expressions resembled a series of facial exercises. At the end of each person’s turn, he smiled and bobbed his head with unfettered enthusiasm. “Oh, that was good,” he said, as if the game were an experiment he’d set up and the results were turning out better than he’d expected. “Good, good, good!”
When it was my turn I said, “My name is Dina, and if I had to be any object, I guess I’d be a revolver.”
What I will say here about this passage will underscore the racial context here, but I want to emphasize that the surface of this story isn’t explicitly about race. At the same time, I want to open up some questions about how readers perceive this racial context and to what extent they can do so.
Rather than openly declaring her identity, the narrator of Packer’s story slips in clues to indicate who she is. As college freshmen typically do, the narrator is engaged in the process of discerning her difference from the other students who have chosen to go to the same school. This school, Yale, calls up certain images of class, intellectual abilities, and educational background—and of course, race. The narrator’s response to the game of Trust indicates her wariness toward the other students. But the reference to Russian roulette also reveals more about her state of mind—not simply that she feels antagonism toward the other students but also perhaps that she might be depressed. The fact that the narrator uses the phrase “white boys” indicates, of course, that she is not white. It’s not simply the fact that she regards them as an Other; it’s also that white people do not generally refer to other white people as “white people” unless race has already been placed on the table.
In contrast, for the narrator, once she finds herself at Yale, race is always on the table. The idea of falling into the arms of four white boys is not Dina’s idea of a fun let’s-get-acquainted game, and the blond—and therefore white—counselor awkwardly tries to acknowledge this. Though the counselor is attempting to show empathy toward the narrator, her remark puts the narrator in exactly the position that the whole set of games is meant to alleviate. The purpose of the games is to encourage unity; “we” are all here as Yale students and thus can trust one another. But the racial divide between the narrator and the white boys precludes such trust. Similarly, the counselor’s use of “Sister” would seem to say, “Well, we can at least bond as women,” but her words have just the opposite effect on Dina, the narrator.
The narrator’s answer to the counselor’s proposition to opt out of the “white patriarchal system” is a witty “It’s a bit too late for that.” The remark references the fact that if she’s chosen to go to Yale, she’s chosen to enter a white patriarchal institution. The deeper implication is that she can never escape the white patriarchal system; she was born into it. (But then, so was the white counselor.)
Self-consciously, the narrator compares herself with the other member of her racial group in a white crowd. By the way that she notes his Exeter T-shirt, she indicates that she probably went to a public school. The other black student’s enthusiastic response to the games signals his desire to fit in and a comfort with this crowd of white students that the narrator does not feel. That she is quick to judge him indicates that perhaps she’s also not prone to assume that she has a bond with him simply because they are both black.
Finally, when asked what inanimate object she would be, the narrator picks up on her mention of Russian roulette and says, “I guess I’d be a revolver.” In other words, “I know I’m in danger here and in a site of racial antagonism, and no games of trust are going to change that.”
Eventually, Dina emerges as a singularly ironic, witty, and intelligent character, someone who rejects attempts by both blacks and whites to connect with her. It’s clear that there are reasons for Dina’s anger and isolation other than race. One major reason is that her mother has recently died, a loss that Dina tells no one about at the college, even the white therapist she is assigned to after her revolver reply. Another reason for Dina’s behavior stems from her sexual orientation. Early on she begins an ambiguous relationship with a white female student, Heidi, a relationship that ends in part because Heidi comes out as a lesbian, and Dina wants nothing to do with such an identification. Also a couple of small scenes of Dina’s life back in Baltimore indicate that she has grown up in a particularly impoverished black neighborhood and feels shame about that (she hides the exact location of her house—and the extent of her poverty—from a black boy about her age whom she meets).
As the story progresses, the issues of race seem to recede from the prominence they carry in these opening paragraphs. Of course, the poverty Dina has grown up in cannot be separated from race, and her general wariness and anger toward the world cannot be separated from her being a poor black female student at Yale. But Packer knows she doesn’t have to emphasize this perspective once she’s established it in the opening paragraphs.
What these paragraphs do, though, is instruct the reader on how to read Dina and her story through the lens of race. Once Packer has set this up, it is up to the reader to carry on this reading. The reader should understand that race informs Dina’s reading of the world, despite the fact that she is loathe to connect with other black students simply on the basis of race. At the same time, this contradiction is part of what makes Dina such a fascinating and distinctive character. Because of Dina’s personality, the presence of race is everywhere in the story; yet it is never articulated directly—except in this opening. But how deeply the reader understands the racial context of this story depends, I would argue, on how deeply the reader understands the function of race in American society.
To conclude, let’s revisit Dina’s choice of what she would be—“a revolver.” When I read this response, I immediately think of the school of theory called Afro-pessimism. Afro-pessimists argue that the ontology of slavery continues into the present. In this ontology, whiteness is defined as human, blackness as nonhuman. Whiteness is thus equated with being a citizen, part of a nation; blackness, as the attribute of a slave, is equated with being a noncitizen, part of no nation. As nonhuman and noncitizen, blackness can be subjected to violence without the need of provocation or justification; violence on the black body requires no declaration of war or sanction by law. Further, blackness is fungible—that is, it can be bought and sold; blacks are property.
When I was first introduced to Afro-pessimism in the brilliant book by my friend Frank Wilderson, Black, Red and White: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, my initial reaction was somewhat skeptical. Since then, partly through discussions with Wilderson, I’ve come to understand these theories on a deeper level. Moreover, given the overwhelming evidence of racial inequities in the U.S. justice system and the deaths of black women and men involving police, I’ve come to feel that such a reading explains the American justice system far more adequately than a more benign ontology (much less the idea that we are postracial). In such a world—that is, still existing within the ontology of slavery—perhaps Dina’s response here is not a sign of her neuroses or mental problems but a reflection of the very real struggle she finds herself trapped in, a reflection of the forces arrayed against her. Dina is surrounded by an institution that has been historically white and is still culturally white; she’s interacting with fellow students and a therapist who have little idea of who she is, much less the ways their very existence challenges her own existence. As such, Dina understands that she is in mortal danger, and this danger is always present, if not bodily—though that may very well be the case at any moment—then in terms of her psyche and soul. Her response, “a revolver,” goes to the heart of a division that clearly exists in our society: how power is structured racially.*
Let’s now turn to the opening of The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie:
Being a Spokane Indian, I only pick up Indian hitchhikers.
I learned this particular ceremony from my father, a Coeur d’Alene, who always stopped for those twentieth-century aboriginal nomads who refused to believe the salmon were gone. I don’t know what they believed in exactly, but they wore hope like a bright shirt.
My father never taught me about hope. Instead, he continually told me that our salmon—our hope—would never come back, and though such lessons may seem cruel, I know enough to cover my heart in any crowd of white people.
“They’ll kill you if they get the chance,” my father said. “Love you or hate you, white people will shoot you in the heart. Even after all these years, they’ll still smell the salmon on you, the dead salmon, and that will make white people dangerous.”
All of us, Indian and white, are haunted by salmon.
When I was a boy, I leaned over the edge of one dam or another—perhaps Long Lake or Little Falls or the great gray dragon known as the Grand Coulee—and watched the ghosts of the salmon rise from the water to the sky and become constellations.
For most Indians, stars are nothing more than white tombstones scattered across a dark graveyard.
But the Indian hitchhikers my father picked up refused to admit the existence of sky, let alone the possibility that salmon might be stars. They were common people who believed only in the thumb and the foot. My father envied those simple Indian hitchhikers. He wanted to change their minds about salmon; he wanted to break open their hearts and see the future in their blood. He loved them.
As is often the case in his stories, Alexie’s narrator places his Indian and tribal identity right up front—Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. The narrator then contrasts his Coeur d’Alene father’s pessimism with the hope evinced by the Indian hitchhikers his father would pick up. In his father’s view, neither the salmon nor the Indians would come back in the way they once were, and the reason is clear: white people will not permit it. The father doesn’t attempt to ameliorate the basic antagonism between whites and Indians: “They’ll kill you if they get a chance.”
The father’s words bring up a history that, as an Indian, he cannot forget. In this history, the whites are the “Settlers,” the Indians the “Red Savages.” The Red Savages can never own the land; their presence on the land was a mere inconvenience. They and their tribes did not constitute a sovereign nation. They were not regarded as human in the same way as the White Settlers. To the White Settler, genocide against the Red Savage did not present an ethical dilemma in the past nor does it in the present; it does not constitute a war crime since wars involve conflicts between nations. Genocide is a term reserved for nations and humans, not the Red Savage.
Such racialized antagonism still lies at the core of white identity and its relationship to Indians. Thus placing this antagonism at the beginning of the story marks a distinct racial boundary; no amount of love or goodwill can erase this.
Whom is the narrator speaking to here? In my view, it’s not clear. He isn’t speaking directly to whites, yet he is explaining things about Indians to an audience that is not familiar with the view of history espoused by his father or the disagreements concerning “hope” among Indians, or more specifically, the hope evinced by Indian hitchhikers. At the same time, the narrator posits a basic racial antagonism between him and the white reader.
The narrator’s intimacy with the world of Indians and the way he speaks about them indicates his acknowledgment that a potential listener—or reader—might be Indian. Most Indian readers would readily understand the father’s stance toward whites, would recognize the fear the narrator expresses concerning whites, just as the Indian reader would respond in a very personal way to the father’s avowed love of Indians, particularly Indian hitchhikers.*
In any case, a white writer or white narrator would almost never posit a reader or listener who is an Indian—nor, for that matter, do most writers of color. For once that occurs, the antagonism between the White Settler and the Red Savage must either be avoided or acknowledged in a conscious way. Therefore, most white writers or white narrators must be unconscious of the Indian Other, as are many writers or narrators of color. But since white writers generally avoid any connection with race or racial issues, their unconsciousness concerning Indians is particularly intrinsic to the way the white writer and a white narrator generally define their reality and identity. Their consciousness stops before the entrance or existence of the Indian. In this way, the Indian Other is dead to the white writer or the white narrator—thus the basic truth of the father’s warning, “They will kill you if they get the chance.”
But for the narrator and his father—and for Alexie—the White Settler is very much alive and always present, and the narrator knows he must cover his heart in any crowd of white people. In other words, for Alexie and for his protagonist, the racial antagonism between the White Settler and the Red Savage continues into the present. Whereas in the White Settler’s ontology, only the White Settler can have survived this history of genocide. The Red Savage has been erased, no longer exists, and so cannot make a claim on the land.†
Alexie and his protagonist know that an ontology outside the White Settler’s exists, just as Alexie and his protagonist know that they are alive. To write the protagonist’s story then is an existential act, but it is also inherently a political act (as well as an ontological act). It is impossible to view the writing of Native Americans otherwise.
After this introduction, the narrator of The Toughest Indian in the World reveals himself to be a reporter and a middle-class Camry-driving Spokane who picks up Indian hitchhikers whenever he sees them. He has recently broken up with a white girlfriend, Cindy, a fellow reporter who only dates “brown-skinned guys.” Note that to make sense of Cindy’s dating preference requires that Cindy be identified as white, whereas when white writers introduce a white woman who does not date men (or women) of color, that woman’s whiteness or her racial preferences in partners would remain invisible and unremarked upon (even though her not dating men or women of color would involve a racial component).
In the story proper, the narrator picks up a Lummi Indian who is a traveling fighter. The narrator and the fighter share a motel room. In the middle of the night, the fighter makes a sexual move toward the narrator, and the narrator, although remarking, “I’m not gay,” responds. Their coupling is, in part, a recognition of the bond they share and the existential threat bequeathed to them both by history. It helps the narrator to see that despite their differences in class and occupation, they are both engaged in a struggle to survive in a world where the White Settler still wages a constant war against their being. In the morning, after the Lummi leaves, the narrator concludes with thoughts of those who came before him and his ties to their past:
I wondered if I was a warrior in this life and if I had been a warrior in a previous life. . . . I woke early the next morning, before sunrise, and went out into the world. I walked past my car. I stepped onto the pavement, still warm from the previous day’s sun. I started walking. In bare feet, I traveled upriver towards the place where I was born and will someday die. At that moment, if you had broken open my heart you could have looked inside and seen the thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon.
* And yet it is this response that leads the Yale University to assign her a “suicide single” and require visits with a white therapist. This white therapist is as unprepared to deal with Dina and her racial realities as many white writing instructors are with their students of color.
* But what of a reader like me, who is neither white nor Indian? When the narrator states, “All of us, Indian and white, are haunted by salmon,” such a reader is not included. Or it could be that the narrator’s and his father’s view of whites must include other people of color who are also, from the view of the Indian, settlers, namely, people who have stolen Indian land and bear the benefits of the genocide against Indians. Or it could be that the reader of color sides more with the Indian father in his view of whites—that they are dangerous, that they will kill you. Or the reader of color may reside in both of these categories at once.
In any case, it is not possible to posit a universal reader for this story or a unitary interpretation and relationship to the story. If the reader is an American, his or her position in regard to the basic historical, cultural, and political assumptions of the narrator will differ depending on the reader’s race. Alexie inscribes race into the very heart and voice of his narrator and therefore, in the reader, whether the reader is Native American, white, or some other person of color.
† In Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms, Frank Wilderson provides the following anecdote: “When I attended the University of California at Berkeley, I saw a Native American man sitting on the sidewalk of Telegraph Avenue. On the ground in front of him was an upside-down hat and a sign informing pedestrians that here they could settle the ‘Land Lease Accounts’ they had neglected to settle all of their lives. He . . . was ‘crazy.’ . . . And to what does the world attribute the Native American man’s insanity? ‘He’s crazy if he thinks he’s getting any money out of us’? Surely, that doesn’t make him crazy. Rather it is simply an indication that he does not have a big enough gun.” This is an argument that ZZ Packer’s Dina might recognize.