Zakiya Dalila Harris, is the author of The Other Black Girl – a darkly comic satire describing the tension between two young Black women who meet in the incredibly white arena of book publishing.
Described as ‘Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada‘, it’s one of 2021’s most anticipated releases and TV rights have already been optioned for Hulu. It makes intelligent and timely commentary on the office dynamics that can exist in a wide range of industries, while also being very funny and a genuine page-turner.
Here, we speak to Zakiya on tackling race, threats and office rivalry in her debut novel.
When Zakiya Dalila Harris worked in book publishing, seeing another Black person around the office was a rare feat.
“Because I was often the only one, I was hyper-aware any time I’d see anyone of colour on the floor who was not an author, or an agent,” she explains over Zoom from her Brooklyn home, wrapped up on an unusually chilly summer day.
“These kinds of things really interested me because I was the only one, or one of two at most.”
So unusual was diversity around the workplace, in fact, that on the occasion when she spotted another Black woman who wasn’t an author in the bathroom, it was enough of an event that stuck with her, long afterwards. Who was she? Was she here to be interviewed? Was she about to be a new colleague?
Though it was a fleeting moment, Harris also realised that the woman didn’t give her The Nod – a near-universal signal of subtle acknowledgement that she’d come to exchange with other Black people when in a space where they were so starkly the minority.
“I had so many feelings. We didn’t have any interaction at all, but I went to my desk and I thought about it: why was there so much riding on that moment, in my head? Did she have any thoughts about seeing me?”
In itself, the moment didn’t mean much – still, it led her to think: what if the other Black girl in the office isn’t the friend she thought she’d be?
Fast-forward to June 2021, and Harris’ debut novel, The Other Black Girl, is fresh on the shelves – a satirical, darkly comic story that has its root in this unfortunately familiar imbalance in professional environments.
Save for maintenance staff, postal workers or the receptionist, protagonist Nella Rogers has spent two years being the sole Black editorial worker in the Manhattan office of book publishing company, Wagner – a demographic split that many readers will surely relate to, regardless of their industry.
It’s a dynamic so ingrained that when the company hires another Black editorial assistant, Hazel-May McCall, Nella is instantly filled with feelings – there’s excitement at getting to know the new addition to the team; hope that they’ll make fast and firm friends; intrigue about whether Hazel will be just as troubled by some of the faux pas made by her co-workers as she is.
Though Nella’s initially thankful for the presence of someone in the office who would seemingly shoulder some of the pressures of this environment, Hazel being around brings her own insecurities into sharp focus. Hazel possessing the Black boyfriend, Harlem upbringing and magnificent locs that Nella lacks makes her wonder whether she’s ‘Black enough’, despite knowing that it’s a redundant concern.
Nella begins to wonder if Hazel has unfriendly motives – or whether any animosity between them is simply an uncomfortable figment of her imagination. But when a series of notes start to arrive on her desk, telling her to ‘Leave Wagner. Now.’, Nella realises that there really is someone who wants her gone – and fast.
To reveal too much about what the warning notes mean, who planted them and their implications for both women working in the office would be a disservice to readers – as it’s well worth going on the adventure first-hand. But with this element of psychological thrill, Harris explores the real impact of how racial anxiety caused by years of standing out can have deep effects.
Similarly to Nella, Harris’ experience of being the only Black person in a space began long before she entered the corporate world, having grown up in mostly white spaces in her formative years.
“I went to a mostly white elementary school, in a very white neighbourhood,” Harris says. “It wasn’t until middle school and high school until I was around other Black people who weren’t family.”
As a result, many elements of the book take inspiration from her years of having to navigate these arenas – particularly the microaggressions that add an extra layer of stress to the working day. Examples include: assumptions that you’d have an interest in discussing diversity and inclusion at any given moment, and having your name confused with the other Black girl in the office, regardless of how different you look.
“I think it’s easy to label outward racism as bad but when it’s in these everyday interactions, in the foundations of corporate America and other businesses, that’s a problem. We’re not going to actually have thoughtful diversity and inclusivity until that’s been addressed.
“There’s more than just slurs; there are assumptions, there are prejudices, little things you do only around a group of other people that can also be horrifying. I wanted to examine that nuance.”
As well as office politics, something that rings true to real life is the power of hair as a bonding mechanism between Black women. From the moment that Hazel enters the office, Nella’s alerted to the possible presence of another Black woman around from the smell of her hair products wafting towards her desk. It’s a tongue-in-cheek observation but points to the very real sensitivity that someone may have to sensing something familiar in an unexpected place.
“Nella had a similar experience as I did, of growing up around white people, relaxing your hair to fit in then going through this natural hair transformation,” Harris remembers. “As I started going natural, I felt as if I had this other bonding thing with other Black women – I felt like I was a part of a movement. That was the thing that I knew would bond her and Hazel. Despite their differences and backgrounds, they can talk about hair. You could be from different places, different classes, but your natural hair and whether or not you choose to wear it – it’s something that bonds us in a really beautiful way.”
Regardless of the person with the book in their hands, The Other Black Girl is funny, full of intrigue and compels the reader to keep turning the pages, right until the very end. There are plenty of things that Harris wishes for the audience to take away from the experience, but one of the biggest messages is about the benefit of seeing diversity in diversity.
“We know this, but it still needs to be said: Black people are not a monolith. We are different, we are unique, and we deserve to be compared to nobody. Before Hazel, Nella was compared with Wagner employees’ ideas of what a Black employee should be: grateful and happy to be there.
“Then, when Hazel comes, she’s compared to her. She never gets to be an individual. I really hope this book gives readers and publishing houses and managers everywhere, in every industry, makes people think about the person when they’re talking about diversity; not just a big campaign.
“We need to make these spaces more inclusive to make sure there’s a dialogue that feels even. That’s my biggest takeaway. But also, of course – just have fun!”
The Other Black Girl is out now