Zakiya Dalila Harris:  The Other Black Girl (Atria 2021) [IBR2022]

I really wrote from the heart, from my soul, for me, but also for Black women. I wanted other Black women, not just ones who have worked in these environments, to see themselves in the hair references, the obscure music references, the TV references. It’s been really fun seeing Black women respond to this book, seeing the different things we take away from it. What I want non-Black readers to know is we’re not a monolith. We have very different views on things, we deserve to be heard, and we deserve to be there. There needs to be more of us. We should be in more places, we should be valued for all kinds of things, writing about all kinds of things.
I really hope that this book will show that to the publishing world that thinks, “Readers won’t be into this,” what could be possible. I want there to be more Black books. I want there to be other books that get the attention that they deserve. I want there to be comps in the future. When I was querying my agent, I was trying to think of books that were in a similar space, and it was hard. I just want there to be more.

Zakiya Dalila Harris, Interview with Arriel Vinson at Electric Literature: “The Horror of Being the Other Black Girl in the Workplace”

Comps. You probably know the concept, even if, like me, you aren’t familiar with the term. Comparable titles, meant to lure readers who liked a particular book with the promise of more of the same. A hilarious example from the book is “Pride and Prejudice meets I, Robot.” I’ve been trying to figure that one out for days now, since “I, Robot” was originally the title of a short story by Otto Binder, then the title of a short story collection by Isaac Asimov, and finally a movie having little in common with either.

Cosmo called this book “The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out,” not a bad description but lacking some major themes. I wanted to read the book because I thought it might be something like Black Buck transposed from the only Black man in the sales department to the only Black woman in a publishing house, with a darker, more mysterious thriller subplot. That isn’t a bad description, either, come to think of it. But the mystery is front and center from the epigraph and the prologue, so if you’re looking for a cute rom-com where everything turns out all right in the end, look elsewhere. This book raises big questions. I’m not sure it raises them as effectively as it could – I found the thriller subplot distracting, wished it had been less up front, and by the time the reveal happened, I’d somewhat lost interest – but at least it raises them.

She overheard a couple of Wagner employees in the kitchen chatting about the idea of being forced to hire non-white people. “Let’s just go and do exactly that,” Kevin in digital marketing had said indignantly. “Exactly that. And then let’s watch what Richard does when we start hiring unqualified people here, and things start getting screwed up. I’m sure he’ll change his song then.”
… [E]ven if they have seen her, Nella sensed that neither would have said anything differently. Her colleagues, strangely, had made it clear very early on that they didn’t see her as a young Black woman, but as a young woman who just happened to be Black – as though her college degree had washed all of the melanin away. In their eyes, she was the exception. She was “qualified.” An Obama of publishing, so to speak.

Nella is an editorial assistant at Wagner Publishing, and the only Black professional, until Hazel shows up. She’d tried to lead a series of diversity meetings, but they petered out, so she’s surprised and thrilled to smell Brown Buttah, a hair product popular with Black women, waft into her cubicle. It turns out Hazel isn’t going to be her BFF as she’d hoped. Then the notes warning her to leave the company start appearing on her desk.

There are several threads running through the book: professional rivalry, the whiteness of the publishing industry and weak diversity efforts, the hypersensitivity of white authors to criticism about depictions of Black characters, and, amusingly, coworkers who keep mixing up the two Black women, though they are clearly distinguishable even from a distance by hairstyle and height alone. And hair. It may seem surprising that hair is one of them. Black hair has been a social and political flash point for years, regulated to varying degrees by some schools, law enforcement, and the US military. It’s use as a central image here is very clever.

While the workplace is the tinder, the fire comes from the thriller plot. It resolves in a most unsettling way (we’re getting a bit spoilery here, so skip to the last paragraph if you want to avoid that):

There were so many things she never had enough energy for – so many social interactions she’d gotten so incredibly wrong – because Wagner had sucked her dry of her confidence and her sense of self.

“Is that what you want? To feel overextended? To feel worn down by every microaggression you experience in the office, and every injustice you see on the news? Are those the kinds of things that make you feel like you?…. Once you stop fighting – once you let this wave wash over you – you’ll see. It’ll wash over you so quickly, you won’t even feel it. You won’t feel the pain, the white supremacy. You read those articles, watch the police footage, then go to work the next morning without feeling like another part of you has died. That heavy anvil of genetic trauma that’s been strapped to your ankle for all these years… gone. You’ll swim to the top and be free. You’ll be you. This is Black Girl Magic in its purest form.”

This paints a pretty bleak picture of the choice Black workers face: success, or social consciousness. I thought of Toni Morrison’s quote from 1975 – yes, from nearly fifty years ago:

The very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and so you spend 20 years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms and so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

Toni Morrison, 1975 speech at Portland State University

While the workplace drama is fun, this is the heart of the book: how do you counter this drag in the workplace, how do you free your energy so you can achieve success and inspire others? I’m disturbed by the implication of the solution presented, but I think it’s meant to be disturbing. This isn’t a case of ‘Hey, here’s the solution,’ but ‘Hey, look how big this problem is, can we figure out some way to deal with it that isn’t insane?’

Harris worked in publishing for several years and incorporates both her knowledge of the field, and her experience as the only Black woman in the room. What I like most about the book is that it’s written for Black readers. If you don’t know what 4C hair is, or who Ntozake Shange is, well, that’s what Google is for, Harris doesn’t waste space and drag down the story explaining every detail for readers less likely to be familiar with aspects of Black culture beyond MLK and Harriet Tubman. Likewise with the publishing industry details: the context give a lot of help, but she’s not going to give a mini-course on an editorial assistant’s function. I like it when writers assume readers can figure things out for themselves. This is Harris’ debut novel; I’m interested to see what she comes up with next.

I see that Hulu is making this into a comedy series. I’m dubious – we’re way beyond The Devil Wears Prada here – but we’ll have to see how that works out.

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