In “The Other Black Girl,” Nella Rogers is an ambitious young Black woman navigating the White world of publishing. The only Black employee at the prestigious Wagner house, she feels trapped in a world where diversity is a welcome goal but speaking up too much or too loudly about race is frowned upon.
So she’s thrilled to suddenly find another Black hire, someone who can be a friend and an ally. But her new colleague Hazel is not what she seems, and Nella soon finds her anxieties mounting as she tries to sort friend from foe and genuine fears from paranoia.
“The Other Black Girl,” the much-anticipated debut novel from Zakiya Dalila Harris, 28, sold for more than $1 million. A former assistant editor, Harris was inspired by her excitement the first time she spotted another young Black woman working on her floor at Knopf Doubleday. Harris is now developing a TV series from the book with Rashida Jones for Hulu.
The book starts as a literary novel about race and gender in the workplace, then becomes a slow-burn thriller that eventually reveals a series of surreal twists. Fair warning, Harris, who hopes her book provokes conversations about race and diversity in the workplace, purposely leaves certain details about what might happen to her characters open-ended.
Harris met at an outdoor cafe in Brooklyn recently to discuss her influences, from R.L. Stine to George Romero and from James Baldwin to Jordan Peele. She also talked about her own experiences protesting the killing of Eric Garner by police and the murder of George Floyd.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Growing up in Connecticut you say that you felt like someone Black on the outside, White on the inside. How did that shape your personality and the story you tell here?
I was raised to always be aware of historic injustices against my parents and grandparents, but they went through the struggle and it never felt as immediate to me because I grew up very privileged. I took a Black literature class at the University of North Carolina, reading James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston, but UNC was still a beautiful bubble.
Then I moved to New York City for my MFA in creative non-fiction at The New School in 2014, around the same time that Eric Garner and Michael Brown were killed. I was going to protests and talking about these events and they were bubbling through my brain. So my thesis was called “The Weight of My Skin” and it was personal essays, like how I chopped my hair off after seeing Stanley Nelson’s 2015 documentary “Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.” I was trying to grapple with who I was and why I spent so many years rejecting my natural hair and rejecting other things about being Black.
All those things were definitely in Nella’s worldview and her anxieties. She’d had those interactions where she was not Black enough and felt like she’s straddling both worlds and code-switching. That’s why she was so excited about Hazel’s arrival.
Writing in the third person was really necessary. It was hard writing it because it really is close to home.
Q. You’re examining the toll taken on Nella being Black and being female in a White, male-dominated field and society. How do you separate out those strands?
I often have interactions where I’m wondering, “How much of this is me being a woman, how much is it me being Black, and how much is it me being a Black woman?” A lot of Black women think about these things and there’s no way to ever know.
Q. We’ve spoken about people being hired because of a desire for diversity but then being forced by workplace culture to give up the thing that makes them who they are in terms of Blackness. Are things improving for Black people as workplaces do become more diverse?
Code-switching maybe matters less now than it would have two years ago because of George Floyd. On positive days, I think these conversations are allowing Black people to speak up more. On negative days, I think that’s only because it’s in vogue for now and you can only speak up so much.
We know why diversity is important in a lot of ways, but I wanted my book to look at how it influences each person on an individual level.
There’s an idea among Blacks that we’re supposed to look out for one another because if we don’t, who will. But what I don’t think is talked about is that if there’s only room for one of us in a place that directly opposes the idea of helping one another. And both of those ideas are influenced by the power and control White people, especially men, have over our situations.
If Wagner had been more diverse and had more BIPOC people (Black, Indigenous and people of color), Nella would feel less pressure to be the Black voice and Hazel would not have had that impact on her. It’s really related to the space. The more diversity there is can make a difference. It’s one of many reasons to think about who gets hired.
Q. Were you worried about pulling the rug out from under readers or was that the goal?
It’s my first book, so I’m not saying it’s perfect. But I love twist endings and “The Twilight Zone,” and “Get Out” was definitely an inspiration. I definitely knew where it was going when I started writing. I love the end of “Night of the Living Dead,” which is so realistic about Black experience. It’s still America, so stuff is going to happen to you if you’re Black.
People asked, “Are you sure about this ending?” Yeah, I think it’s pretty necessary. Any other ending wouldn’t be as impactful. I really want people to talk about what happens to Nella and what could her [White] co-workers have done if they’d really been listening.
When I was a kid, I used to love the Goosebumps series, and they had a choose your own adventure and I loved that there were multiple possible endings; I left some things open with this book so readers can think about it. I didn’t want to tie the ending in a neat bow.
I know that the buzzwords used in publishing, like comparing this to “The Devil Wears Prada,” gets readers going in expecting a certain book. I’d say to White readers, “Even if you don’t like the book or aren’t into the genre switch and don’t feel good about the ending, well, you went on this journey and got to learn about 4c hair and all these things about Black culture and you’ll come away with some kind of portrait of this life.”
Q. You were working on edits last year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. How did that affect the book?
I remember where I was when I watched each of the videos of the cops killing Black people in recent years. There’s this way in which we are conditioned to see ourselves murdered over and over yet we’re still expected to function and do our job or be creative and be happy. There are no dead bodies in this book but I was definitely channeling that.
Last year, I was protesting and processing. I was pouring the things I was feeling into the book. It made me sad. My emotions and feeling hopeless helped determine the tone. The moment when Nella is thinking “when was the last time I felt truly free” came from that. I think it made the book stronger, too.
I’m hoping that readers will now be more likely to take to heart all the things that Nella is experiencing.
This content was originally published here.