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Comedienne of Manners

Novelist ZZ Packer uses humor to point up some disconcerting signposts along America's racial divide

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Pulitzer Prize-winning author James Alan McPherson, who also taught Packer at Iowa, is struck by her humanism. "We've all been categorized and had our sensibilities restricted to one little category—our sex, race or whatever," he says. "She's not that way at all." Her characters "always have a larger sense of themselves than their categories...they're human, with all the flaws as well as virtues. As an older black writer, it makes me feel good when people like her come along."

For six years, Packer has been at work on a historical novel, tentatively titled The Thousands, about what she calls "the forgotten masses of blacks who went West" after the Civil War. It is told from the point of view of three characters: a white officer commanding a black cavalry regiment in the Indian Wars, a young black soldier and a woman who joins the Army disguised as a man. The highly regarded British literary journal Granta ran an excerpt in its spring 2007 issue and named Packer one of its "Best Young American Novelists." 

Packer, who lives in Pacifica, California, with her software-executive husband, Michael Boros, and two young sons, is still wrestling the novel into its final form. "I've become a better writer than I was when I wrote the beginning," she says. "Writing the novel has taught me how to write the novel." Is she worried about the high expectations her early success has engendered? "You can't think about that every day," she says. "You have to plow ahead. Now I respect bad novelists," she adds with a laugh, "because at least they've finished."

Tessa Decarlo wrote about artist Caroline Mytinger's 1920s trip to Papua New Guinea in the April 2006 issue of Smithsonian.

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