Watch Out for ‘The Other Black Girl’
Summer’s buzzed-about debut novel confronts the racial dynamics of publishing
The Other Black Girl is one of summer’s buzziest books. It’s also one of its best.
Zakiya Dalila Harris spins a toxic workplace, history, race, identity and a touch of horror into a cohesive, thought-provoking and undeniably entertaining novel that unspools intrigue as fast as its weightier themes.
You may have seen Harris in the New York Times, which recently profiled her, or Entertainment Weekly, which dubbed The Other Black Girl “the debut of the summer.” (See also: Time, Buzzfeed, People, BBC and a slew of others who put it on their most-anticipated lists of the year.) It’s an auspicious welcome for the writer, who used her three years in publishing as scaffolding for the novel.
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The Other Black Girl centers on Nella Rogers, who loves editing but doesn’t always love the industry dynamics. She’s the only Black editorial assistant at fictional Wagner Publishing. Nella’s challenges should be familiar for anyone who works in or follows the industry. We see higher-ups’ fading interest in Black hiring and calls for honest feedback that wilt under, well, honest feedback.
“ ‘I do kind of feel like she’s calling me a racist,’” celebrated white author Colin Franklin exclaims after Nella suggests that it might be one-dimensional to name the sole Black character in his manuscript Shartricia and give her seven children. “‘Or perhaps she just feels like I’m racist.’ He wiggled his fingers around in the air, insinuating that the feeling of racist tendencies was akin to voodoo.”
Nella’s initially thrilled when Wagner hires another Black girl. Hazel-May McCall wafts into the office in a cloud of cocoa butter, ready to make friends.
Nella imagines the two of them trading gossip and editing tips. She suspects only Hazel will truly understand her layers of annoyance when white managers eagerly avow their allegiance to diversity without changing anything of substance.
Instead, Nella soon finds herself confused. Hazel leapfrogs ahead of her in the office hierarchy, getting a plum editing assignment. Hazel encourages Nella to speak up at work about her concerns, but stays silent when Nella’s criticism backfires at a meeting.
And Nella gets outright scared after notes start appearing on her desk. “LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.” Could Hazel be the culprit? And why is she so insistent that Nella try her hair moisturizer? There are nefarious plans underfoot, and Nella is in the crosshairs. It’s a recipe for some truly spine-tingling moments as she investigates what’s going on.
Running on a parallel track is the backstory behind the Black author who inspired Nella’s career path. She, too, struggled with how to thrive in the industry as a Black woman and stay true to herself.
Harris makes The Other Black Girl a sophisticated exploration of identity that also asks how we define success. Anyone who follows the hiring in most industries will cringe in recognition at the racial dynamics Harris shows her readers. And everyone should absorb its cautionary tale about which sacrifices are worth making.
(Atria Books/Simon and Schuster, June 1, 2021)