ZZ Packer grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and Louisville, Kentucky. "ZZ" was a childhood nickname; Packer's given name is Zuwena (Swahili for "good", Arabic dialect for "beautiful"). Recognized as a talented writer at an early age, her first significant publication was in Seventeen magazine at the age of 19. Packer is a 1990 graduate of Seneca High School, in Louisville, Kentucky.
Packer attended Yale University, where she received a BA in 1994. Her graduate work included an MA at Johns Hopkins University in 1995 and an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa in 1999. She was named a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford University.
Shortly thereafter, she entered the national literary scene with a high-profile appearance in the Debut Fiction issue of The New Yorker (2000). Her short story in the issue became the title story in her collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead Books, 2003), which was published to considerable acclaim. As Publishers Weekly put it, "this debut short story collection is getting the highest of accolades from the New York Times, Harper's, the New Yorker and most every other branch of the literary criticism tree." The book was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, a New York Times Notable Book, and personally selected by John Updike for the Today Show Book Club. Her stories have also appeared in Best American Short Stories 2000 and 2003 and she edited New Stories from the South: The Year's Best, 2008.
In 2005, she was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction. She was a member of the San Francisco Writers' Grotto, a workspace co-operative that also includes Po Bronson, Julia Scheeres, Tom Barbash, Peter Orner, and Jason Roberts, among others. In Spring 2007 she was named one of American's Best Young Novelists by Granta as well as one of Smithsonian Magazine's Young Innovators in October 2007. In June 2010, Packer was selected as one of The New Yorker magazine's "20 under 40" luminary fiction writers.
She is currently working on a novel set in the aftermath of the Civil War: "The subject is the Buffalo Soldiers; blacks who left the South, Louisiana in this case, and traveled to the West....You don't hear much about blacks in the West and I became really fascinated by them. I thought to justify my interest I had better write about them." A short excerpt from the novel was published in The New Yorker magazine's "20 under 40" issue.
She was Writer-in-Residence at the Tulane University English Department Creative Writing Program during the Fall 2007 semester. She became the Lurie Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing (joining the ranks of Simon Winchester, Ishmael Reed, James D. Houston, Molly Giles, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Kelman, Al Young, Sandra M. Gilbert, and Carolyn Kizer) at San Jose State University during the Spring 2008 semester. She taught Creative Writing at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin in Fall 2008. and was a Vassar Writer-in-Residence in spring 2009. In spring 2010, she was the Visiting Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA Program of Creative Writing at Texas State University and became a Hodder fellow at Princeton University in Fall 2010. In the fall of 2013, Packer joined the faculty of San Francisco State University's Creative Writing department.