All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

on June 14, 2021

The Other Black Girl
Zakiya Dalila Harris
2021, 368p
Read via my local library/Borrow Box

Blurb {from the publisher/}: Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada in this electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against the starkly white backdrop of New York City book publishing.

Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and the micro-aggressions, she’s thrilled when Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They’ve only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events cause Nella to become Public Enemy Number One and Hazel, the Office Darling.

Then the notes begin to appear on Nella’s desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.

It’s hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realises that there is a lot more at stake than her career. 

I haven’t seen Get Out, the movie that the blurb references, but I have to admit, I sort of did expect this to be a little more Devil Wears Prada than unexpected horror movie. Definitely a false assumption there.

Nella is mid-20s and two years ago, secured a job at Wagner Books, a New York publishing firm. Nella wanted to work at Wagner because years ago, they published her favourite book which was both written and edited by Black women. Nella is the only Black person employed at Wagner Books and she’s had a lot of ideas about starting conversations and improving the diversity, most of which have fallen on deaf ears. She’s disheartened until the arrival of Hazel, another Black woman. Nella is hopeful they can be friends, maybe even make some change together. More importantly, they can be sounding boards to the other’s frustrations about being employed in a minority situation. When Nella has to raise some issues of sensitivity in a book her boss is editing, it backfires on her. And when she expects Hazel to be supportive, instead Hazel does the opposite. That, combined with the mysterious messages she’s receiving, make Nella convinced Hazel wants her out. Especially as Hazel has become the company darling in a record amount of time.

I honestly don’t even know how to classify this! It starts fairly straightforward – Nella’s day to day life at Wagner, her frustrations, her desires, her dreams. The problem with being a Black woman at pretty much an all-white company and expressing her “Blackness”, negotiating office politics, always treading carefully and almost trying to conform to what other people expect or want of her. When Nella reads a manuscript from one of Wagner’s most successful authors and has huge issues with a portrayal of a Black character, she agonises over speaking her mind about it. As a woman who is Black, Nella should be listened to, instead her boss fobs off her wanting to talk about it and Nella has to go into a meeting with the author himself (a white man) and the reaction is pretty much what you’d expect. As Nella and her friend Malaika discuss, white people don’t like it when they feel they are being accused of being racist. And even though that’s not what Nella is saying, it’s what the author hears – and quickly he goes to being the victim in the conversation, even though Nella is put in an impossible situation and as a Black woman who is basically performing a sensitivity read, she’s largely ignored. The same thing happens in several other meetings about the same book.

I really enjoyed the first portion of the book – Nella negotiating her workplace, the micro aggressions, her insecurities as well as the friendship with Malaika and her inner thoughts about her white boyfriend Owen. Then at about 70% the book pivots and takes on a whole new genre-bending direction. I kind of don’t even know what to say about it because it’s really hard to talk about this portion of the book without delving into spoiler territory. However I will say that the first 70% is this slow burn novel about relationships and negotiating the workplace as a Black woman in a predominantly white world, about trying to build friendships and be allies and learning about how to speak up in the “right” way (ie the way the white people will be able to cope with what is being said) but the last 25-30% was paced in an entirely different way and it was a bit of a whiplash effect. There are several other points of view introduced throughout the narrative but it takes too long for the “reveal” and for me, the ending was entirely unsatisfactory.

I found it incredibly interesting to read Nella’s point of view about being a Black woman in a really white world – publishing has faced a lot of criticism lately about its level of diversity both in employment and also with authors being published. I’m not Black, so this is not my experience, which is why I was interested to read about it, to see the differences and what Nella faces from other coworkers, her boss, etc. The issue of including diverse characters but not as caricatures, I really was interested in all of the publishing side of the novel. And perhaps, if I’d known a little more about the change in direction, known to expect it, I’d have appreciated that as it was inserted into the plot. I was left with so many questions!

I think a lot about this was clever and very imaginative and Harris is probably an author to really watch.


Book #95 of 2021

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