Zakiya Dalila Harris Talks Her Debut Novel 'The Other Black Girl' and the Cost of Being Authentic at Work
While many of us have been working from home recently, office culture is very much still a thing. Though meetings have switched to Zoom or Slack, employees still have to navigate the unsaid rules of their workplaces. For many Black employees that means “putting on a good face” in order to avoid conflict, which is a central theme in Zakiya Dalila Harris’s debut novel, The Other Black Girl.
Harris writes about what it’s like for Nella, the only Black woman at a high-profile publishing house, to feel both hyper-visible and ignored. At the beginning of the novel, a police shooting of an unarmed Black man goes viral, which ignites the country and prompts Nella’s office to hold Diversity Town Halls. Nella is outraged at the shooting and looks forward to the prospect of having her voice heard, but soon finds that her coworkers really don’t know how to discuss racism in a meaningful way, and as the only Black employee, Nella can’t bring herself to say what she really thinks.
So when Nella later meets Hazel, a Black woman recently hired by her company, she thinks she has an ally and a friend, but Hazel has her own secret agenda. Hazel becomes the new office darling, and the women are pitted against each other in meetings. Hazel plays both sides, telling Nella in private that she supports her, while publicly siding with racially insensitive coworkers. Soon Nella starts finding anonymous notes on her desk warning her to leave Wagner Books and realizes very quickly that the only person she can trust is herself.
Cosmopolitan sat down with Harris to talk about the politics of Black women’s hair, why it’s impossible to bring your full self to the office, and the upcoming Hulu series based on the novel.
The Other Black Girl was one of the most unique books I’ve read in a long time. What conversations does the book explore when it comes to Black women and their hair?
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my own hair. I know not every Black woman would necessarily agree, but I know for me, it is such a huge part of my connection to my Blackness. I really wanted to show that through Nella’s eyes too. She still has her anxieties about not being Black enough, she’s still coming into herself a little bit, but she also feels that with Hazel, no matter how different they are, [their natural hair] will be the thing that connects them. So I wanted to get at that and the ways in which hair can connect us but then of course divide us as well.
In the novel, Nella is super excited to have another Black coworker, but it does not go the way she expects it to. I read that the idea for the novel was inspired by your run-in with another Black girl at work. Can you talk a little more about that experience?
When I ran into this woman in the bathroom, at first I was really excited. And then, of course, nothing came out of that interaction. I was really more interested in why I felt the way I did. Why was I so desperate for some kind of contact and communication? That was the moment that really caused me to have the idea for the book and then I just got so into it, and I couldn’t stop writing.
In one part, Nella is reluctant to speak up about a successful author’s problematic representation of a Black woman in his book. Do you see Black characters in books and the media becoming more well-rounded now, or do you think there’s still a lot more progress that needs to be made?
Thinking back to my own hair journey and who I was, I felt like my own Blackness wasn’t really represented in the way that it is now. Insecure is huge. I remember watching Awkward Black Girl [Issa Rae’s] YouTube series in college and being like, “Oh my god. Finally, there’s someone who is awkward and we get to see her in this way, and so I do think it’s getting a lot better. I do think though there’s still the Black friend trope and characters that don’t get to be fully realized, but I feel like we are having these conversations, and that is such an important push. In The Other Black Girl I wanted to show Black people laughing and having fun and having friendships, and I’m hoping that in more books Black people will be given more space to have characters like this.
I also think there’s also a lot of commentary in the novel about the pressure for Black employees to remain neutral and to not ruffle any feathers because they should be grateful to be there, especially in a high-profile job. What do you think it would take for Black employees to feel comfortable being their authentic selves at work?
I think a big part of why Nella and Hazel’s relationship just can never be is because there are only two of them. I think that there needs to be more diversity—actual meaningful diversity where hard conversations can be had in ways that are meaningful and not just abstract. I think having more people in the room will make people feel like they can bring their full selves.
But realistically, I don’t think it’s possible for anyone to bring their full, full selves to work. And I do think women in general, we just can’t. We’re not allowed to. And I think that shouldn’t be the way that it is, but I don’t know if that’ll ever be possible to bring your full self to work. But I think that Black women are bringing far less of themselves than any other group.
I think the way to make that happen would be to have more people in the room to make it feel like they can express themselves. I think that’s so important to feeling like you can speak up. I know that for me when I’m in any space that I wouldn’t expect to see other Black people and I do, that makes such a big difference. So I think that’s really something that needs to be done, not just hiring people at higher levels, but really at the entry level, making sure that you have people who feel like they can spend time there and grow, and then eventually move up and make the space even more inclusive.
It’s so exciting that there’s a Hulu series in the works. Because you’re co-writing the series, is there a particular part of the story that you feel like you have to nail?
There are a few things, but I think Nella’s conversations with other Black women is something that I really want to land. When I was writing the book, I really wanted it to land with Black readers. I really wanted this book, first and foremost, to speak to Black women and Black people in general and so that’s of course the same concern I have for the show. I want the conversations and the Black women to feel authentic.
What do you want readers to take away from this book?
I want this to be fun. I want this to be a page-turner, and I want this to be thrilling, but I just want readers to feel like they want to talk to other people about this book. I want this book to really inspire conversations about our prejudices about work-life balance and about what it’s like to be a Black woman working in corporate America.
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