Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Expanding our expectations and assumptions about contemporary literature
ZZ Packer steps in with a terrific story, Brownies, from ca. 2000 in the anthology 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories. The story is smart and poignant and has a real surprise twist that I won't divulge; essentially it's about an black, urban Brownie troop on a weekend camping expedition, and in a short space Packer gives a great account of the various girls in the troop and their range of attitudes - from belligerent and aggressive to shy and thoughtful (the narrator). At the outset, the girls notice a troop for white suburban girls arrive for the camping weekend and the more aggressive Brownies determine on the spot that they will beat up the white girls and "teach them a lesson." Not all are eager to go along w/ this plan, but all acquiesce to one degree or another, bullied by peer pressure. The girls concoct a story that one of the white girls called one of the black troop a "nigger" - and they will use this accusation as an opportunity to fight the white girls in the washroom. Packer builds the tension, as well as the pathos - we can easily understand how the black troop felt, underprivileged and isolated, and though we can't fully sympathize with the plan of attack, nor does Packer mean us to do so, we see what drives these girls to push the limits of authority, and we get a sense of the consequences as well. We really see, reading through this anthology, how the world of American short stories opened up in the 90s and beyond, bringing to the mainstream literary culture a range of voices and experience that were marginalized, silence, or ignored earlier in the 20th century, a major shift in our sense of the possibilities, expectations, and assumptions of contemporary literature.