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Solidarity and Jealousy in “The Other Black Girl”

Solidarity and Jealousy in “The Other Black Girl”

Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel, The Other Black Girl, is set in the predominantly white and fiercely competitive world of publishing. Nella Rogers is Wagner Books’ only Black employee, so she’s thrilled when another Black woman, Hazel, is hired. Initially, the women bond, but soon everything shifts, and Nella finds herself at the bottom of the food chain, while Hazel is suddenly at the top. I had the chance to talk to Harris about writing a novel equally interested in Black women in publishing and their hair.

Sarah McEachern

I wanted to talk about setting a novel in an open-plan office. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, so I’ve been removed from that environment for a while, almost long enough to start feeling nostalgic for it, but reading your book brought me back to what an odd space it is. Can you tell me what it’s like to write characters in an environment like that?

Zakiya Dalila Harris

I love that as a first question, because for me I started writing this book in my cubicle. The very first scene in the novel, when Nella smells cocoa butter from her desk, was very much me channelling every memory of working in an open office. Not smelling cocoa butter sadly, but smelling other things – things people had brought to lunch, food in the kitchen, coffee, people’s perfumes. When you’re in this blah space, your senses become hyper-aware.

Nella is always under a microscope as the only Black employee at Wagner, and the fact that she works in a space that doesn’t have walls affects how she acts, how she responds to the world and to her colleagues. There’s a constant inside-outside dichotomy throughout the book – Nella’s existence inside of the Wagner office versus outside of it, but also the inside of Nella’s head versus what she’s deciding to reveal to the people around her.

Sarah McEachern

How do you think this book will be read by people who haven’t the faintest idea of how publishing works?

Zakiya Dalila Harris

I think publishing can be the kind of career that really consumes you if you let it. And honestly, the more you let it consume you, the more successful you’ll be. I wanted to look at how this affects one particular Black woman who’s still trying to figure out how she feels about that consumption, and what that consumption means for her. But it was also important for me to show the personal side of her that’s important to her identity – her white boyfriend and her Black best friend. I wanted that outside world to inform the reader of what’s at stake in Nella’s life, and what she’s missing out on when she’s overly focused on work. How and why do these everyday things that she experiences in the office – especially when they’re intrinsic to publishing – transform her point of view in other parts of her life?

When I first started writing, I knew this book was going to be set in a mostly white workplace, but I also thought it might switch at some point down the line, maybe in my second draft. Except the more I wrote, the more I realized the publishing world had so much to give to the story. I wanted to give that very specific world to readers.

I had to walk a tightrope between showing the publishing world and showing Nella’s personal life, though, and it took a lot of editing and feedback from other readers to get to the point where I felt good about that balance. I didn’t want to bog readers down with all the jargon and publishing characters, but I did want to convey how funny and bizarre of a world it can be to work in. Unless you’re inside those walls, you have no clue what happens there behind the scenes. There were times I would talk to my fiance about publishing and I’d have to stop and explain something, like what “comps” are.

Sarah McEachern

Yeah, you don’t know what Publisher’s Lunch is unless you know what Publisher’s Lunch is. There is no inbetween.

Zakiya Dalila Harris

Right! I didn’t want this book to just appeal to publishing people, because I think the problems that happen in the book – microaggressions and the other little things that get under Nella’s skin – can translate to really any industry. The ideas I was writing about are a lot bigger than just the publishing industry, but it was fun to write about publishing. And it was something I knew so well.

The other thing is that people think books are innocuous, but publishing as an industry has a lot of power to spark the conversations we’re having as a society. And we need to look closer at who is in control of those conversations – what’s getting published, how people have gotten to the top of the publishing pyramid, and what’s at the foundation of publishing itself.

Sarah McEachern

The traits Nella would need to be a good editor – sensitivity to the world, the ability to feel and react deeply – are the opposite of what she needs to successfully navigate publishing to become an editor. I’m interested in the ways your book discusses compromising your authenticity and numbing yourself for survival.

Zakiya Dalila Harris

If you want to be an editor and you want to make space to add more diverse voices and build the library you want to see in the world, then you have to have feelings, you have to be emotional, and you have to engage with people on a really personal level. At the same time, publishing is a business.

For Nella, all of that balancing is ten times harder as a Black woman. Trying to be an editor at a publishing company where there aren’t any Black editors – and where there are no Black employees besides the people who work at the front desk and in the mailroom – that can really wear on you. It makes you wonder, How am I the only Black person who made it? On top of that, entry-level publishing salaries are far too low to live on in New York City. So there’s that stress factor. There’s the microaggressions. There’s cop shootings happening in the world, and there’s this racist thing and that thing. Nella must often struggle to decide which things she should tune into and feel, and which things she needs to look past in order to focus.

Sarah McEachern

At one point in the novel, Owen, Nella’s boyfriend, asks her if maybe she’s jealous about no longer being the only Black girl in the office. How do you think The Other Black Girl approaches feelings of both solidarity and jealousy between Black women?

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Zakiya Dalila Harris

When I first started writing the book, I had Nella, and I had Hazel. I knew they would be drawn to one another, and there would be tension between them. But as I wrote, I got to thinking about why I might have this sort of complicated relationship with another Black coworker. And I knew why.

I grew up in a very white neighborhood, went to a very white elementary school, and it took me a while to have Black friends. It was said that I talked like a white girl, and for a lot of my young life, I had this anxiety that I wasn’t Black enough. I had my own racial awakening not long after I’d moved to the city, which was very much inspired by the murders of so many Black men such as Eric Garner and Philando Castile. Around that time I cut off my relaxed hair, and that felt really huge to me.

Nella also grew up in white spaces, and had a similar thing happen to her, where she moved from relaxing her hair to going natural. Her journey with her own hair parallels how she sees herself as a Black woman, and I wanted to explore how Nella’s insecurities about her blackness compare with Hazel, who navigates Black womanhood far more seamlessly and effortlessly.

So, when Nella first meets Hazel, Nella starts thinking, Sweet, another Black person in the office! She presumes they have similar worldviews since they’ve both managed to get jobs at a place like Wagner Books. But then, when Hazel starts making certain insinuations about Nella – for example, a passing comment about Nella’s privilege – it reinforces all of those anxieties Nella had about not being Black enough.

Sarah McEachern

You touched on Nella’s relationship to her hair, and I want to go back to that because Black hair is doing so many things in your novel. Black hair becomes so important as the plot progresses too. Was the idea of hair being so central to the narrative there from the beginning?

Zakiya Dalila Harris

I started with writing the scene of Nella sitting in her cube and smelling something new – another Black girl’s hair grease. As a Black woman, I have a complicated relationship with my hair. Growing up, I’d go to slumber parties and pool parties with other white girls, and I remember feeling constantly stressed about my hair. I didn’t want to get in the water, and I didn’t want to have to explain why letting one of my friends braid my hair during “makeover time” wasn’t a good idea. My hair belonged to me and my family – my mom did my hair, my hairdresser did my hair, and that was it.

When Nella meets Hazel, she’s excited about the potential to finally connect with another Black woman about a very Black specific thing – natural hair – in this very white space. Hair is really such a central part of being a Black woman, at least for me. For Black hair, there’s just so much, because a lot of time goes into it. It’s not easy; you have to work for it, invest in it. Since it’s such a big part of my life, I knew it would be a big part of Nella’s, and I knew that hair would be the thing that led Nella and Hazel to initially connect – but then, from there, everything spirals.

FICTION
The Other Black Girl
by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Atria Books
Published June 01, 2021

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