Zakiya Dalila Harris on her blockbuster debut The Other Black Girl: 'I want readers to hold many ideas of Blackness at the same time'
The former book editor's genre-bending evisceration of workplace privilege is set to become the debut of the summer.
Three years ago, Zakiya Dalila Harris was an assistant editor at Knopf Doubleday Publishing. Now, she's the author of a novel that garnered a seven-figure book contract (after a 14-bidder auction) and an adaptation deal at Hulu. The Other Black Girl is best described as The Devil Wears Prada meets Get Out, with a little bit of Black Mirror thrown in. It follows Nella, a book-publishing assistant who clashes with the only other Black employee in her department. As things escalate (like anonymous threatening notes left on Nella's desk), she begins to suspect there's something more sinister behind their professional competition. Here, Harris, 28, offers up her process — and it's anything but beginner's luck.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There's a thriller element to this book that makes it clear it's not autobiographical, but can we assume you were inspired by your experience in publishing?
ZAKIYA DALILA HARRIS: I was one of two Black people on my floor, and I was really impacted by that experience. One day I was in the bathroom and saw another Black woman I didn't recognize — I knew she wasn't a visiting author — and I was hoping to have an interaction. We didn't, but I was curious about the fact that we didn't have a Black-friend moment. I wondered: Why do I feel like she owes me something? I went back to my desk and immediately messaged my friend, who I call my real-life Malaika [Nella's fictional BFF and confidante], the idea for this book. She said it sounded great, so I started writing it at my cubicle.
Your protagonist struggles with feeling fully comfortable in white spaces — and in some Black spaces. Can you talk about that?
Nella doesn't have a sisterhood. Both she and I feel a little bit like we're on the outside looking in. Like Nella, I did not grow up with many Black friends — I grew up in a very white neighborhood in a very white town in Connecticut. People at my high school would always say, 'You sound like a white girl,' for example, but it was the only way I knew how to talk. And I only went natural maybe five years ago; I didn't have a lot of examples of natural hair growing up. These days, especially thanks to social media, there are so many more ways to access the different kinds of Blackness and to see diversity and nuance. But I had anxiety around finding my people, so I wrote in those moments.
Hazel, the new hire in the story, is the antagonist, but is she a villain or another victim?
I think describing Hazel as a victim, especially as a victim of colonialism, feels too easy. That said, she is a victim of wanting to fit in and to be exactly what she thinks she needs to be in order to climb the corporate ladder. I think she's gotten positive feedback [for] the ways she has presented her Blackness, so she thinks she needs to be a specific Black person in order to have success. It also speaks to the desire of mainstream culture to commodify what she is and to make it work for their needs.
Did you have a message you wanted to convey when writing the novel?
I mostly wanted to re-create the unflinching conversations that I've had with my friends about being Black in white spaces — and I wanted to reference specific elements of Black life without explaining them for white readers. We're able to code-switch — we talk about our natural hair and Joan Didion — and I wanted readers to hold many ideas of Blackness all at the same time.
What has it been like to introduce this book to the publishing industry, as it shines a light on a lot of the problems within those spaces?
In general, I've gotten a lot of responses about people having their own Hazel experiences and I'm glad we're able to talk about the bigger picture of why we treat each other this way in corporate environments. I was also really happy with the way that publishing reacted to the book, because I didn't know if the industry was going to be ready to really look at themselves. There was very little resistance to the tougher elements of the book. I will say that from day one, my publisher has been amazing in terms of knowing that I had a message with this book and that I was not changing it. I wanted it to be authentic and very Black and they were quite thoughtful about that, even down to the researching of Black artists to do the cover art or the reachout for blurbs.
My hope is that this will encourage other publishing houses to do the same thing, and for books that aren't as 'mainstream' or as marketable as mine. It was hard to come up with comps for this book, and I hope that means in the future non-white authors won't be pressured to fit a certain mold with their book.
Did you feel pressure to write a happy ending?
I definitely didn't want a happy ending. I was really inspired by Night of the Living Dead; I love endings that are frustrating or nerve-racking. I think I subconsciously wanted to drive home the pressures that Black people are under in corporate America — I didn't want any of the characters to be able to get out of their situations easily, because that would just reinforce the notion that it's on Black folks to resist the system, instead of on white folks to change the system.
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