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‘The Other Black Girl’ is an Immersive, Genre-Bending Debut

THE OTHER BLACK GIRL
By Zakiya Dalila Harris

In an interview with BUILD Series, Stephanie Beatriz, who plays Rosa Diaz on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” spoke about her experience auditioning for two different roles on the show and learning that Melissa Fumero had been cast for one of them. She said, “I cried, because I thought, I am so happy for her but I also know that there is no way that a network is going to cast two Latinas. It doesn’t happen, there is only one of us, ever.”

This idea that has plagued many a person of color in various industries across the board, this reality that subtly pitches minorities of the same race against one another, is the premise on which Zakiya Dalila Harris’s novel, “The Other Black Girl,” is founded.

Nella Rogers, the protagonist, is an ambitious young woman working as an editorial assistant at Wagner Books, a Manhattan publishing house. She is driven by her desire to one day become an editor; though it quickly becomes clear that there is very little upward mobility at her place of work.

In addition to the frustrations of watching her dream float away from her, Nella navigates the nuances of being the only Black person employed in the mid- to upper-levels of the company. In one instance, she is faced with a dilemma regarding whether or not to confront one of the firm’s most lucrative authors about his cookie cutter “less than one-dimensional” Black character, Shartricia, who “felt like a collection of tropes … all the unflattering ones.”

So, when Hazel-May McCall, another Black girl, is hired, Nella is thrilled; but her excitement soon morphs into suspicion and distrust as her work environment becomes all the more unbearable following the new hire. And her emotions are all the more complex because she believes she should not be harboring them: “She just knew what she felt: that it was unfair to point fingers at the only Black girl she worked with.”

[ This novel was one of our most anticipated titles of June. See the full list. ]

Race politics is at the very heart of this novel. The book explores how the dynamics between Black and white people potentially distort the Black relationship — the fortified bonds and loyalties, expectations unwittingly nurtured and the indirect competition provoked: “Yes, we just published ‘that Black writer’ last year, but that writer, along with the last six Black people we’ve published here at Wagner, was not a Black American, he was from an African country, and while that’s definitely an example of diversity, it’s also really not.”

Despite the fact that Harris uses three other points of view in this novel, I could not help but feel that the story could have benefited from an additional perspective, one that was not in agreement with the overwhelming consensus and was not immediately framed as the wrong view.

But whatever you think is happening in this novel, you are only half-right. Two-thirds of the way in, “The Other Black Girl,” takes on traits of the horror genre with a dash of magical realism. There is certainly something very Jordan Peele-esque about the plot. As a writer who held the notion that genre should be established within the first paragraph, or at the very least, within the first page, I found this change a little disorienting at first. But as I adjusted to the new element, my bewilderment morphed into pleasure at Harris’s ingenuity and creativity.

[ Read our profile of Harris. ]

Still, I hold the view that the somewhat fantastical element introduced — which I can’t shed more light on without completely ruining the fun — took away the agency of some of the characters in the novel. There were choices made that I hoped would be delved into; but this was not the case.

Harris’s writing propels you forward through the story. She can deliver paragraphs of back story and inner monologue without leaving her reader feeling overwhelmed or disengaged. Her writing is the manifestation of “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” Several lines jumped out at me because they perfectly captured an emotion or action. For instance: “She loved sliding words and paragraphs around in a game of literary Tetris.” How much more exquisitely could one describe the process of editing?

Harris succeeds in capturing office machinations with a deftness and grace that brings it all to life. The tensions, the grievances, even the unwelcome scents from harsh smelling food and people passing gas are not forgotten in this experiential novel.

And speaking of experiential, has literature ever smelt so strongly of cocoa butter? It was certainly a unique sensation being reminded of the fragrance as I read the novel. If the reader is not familiar with this scent, it would behoove you to buy a tub of cocoa butter hair cream, simply for its aroma. It can only further your enjoyment of this book.

I am familiar with setting, nature and objects being interpreted as character in a work of fiction, so I will take the liberty of adding hair to this canon. I could tell you the hair texture and style of every single Black character in this novel. The attention to hair was not superfluous, nor was it done carelessly; it moved the story forward. And as someone that doesn’t generally look to identify with fictional characters, I was overly excited to discover that the protagonist’s hair was the same length and texture as mine. There was definitely lingo here — “twisting,” “4B,” “kitchen” — Black woman speak, that I was able to immediately understand and that gave me a feeling of nostalgia and warmth. But I do not believe it is a book intended to alienate; indeed, many will find something to connect with in the narrative.

The seriousness of the topic being handled in “The Other Black Girl,” and the fact that it shared some minor similarities with the horror genre, did not stand in the way of it also being bright and funny. You may not agree with every opinion or every statement laid out in this work, but you will turn page after page after page in your eagerness to unravel this unique tale. If you are open to it, this novel will have you reviewing what your own biases may be, whether your skin is Black, white or orange.

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