When I first heard about Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel it was the title that stood out to me more than anything. The Other Black Girl was described as “Get Out meets the Devil Wears Prada”, putting on a pretty high pedestal, albeit a weird one. Fortunately, it held up well to it’s comparisons in ways that felt unexpected. Dubbed a thriller, it’s as much of a “who-dunnit” as it is a fiction novel, often making you question where your own moral lines lie. Harris leaves the reader asking themselves how this would play out in the real-to-life world that she created for her characters who are in the publishing industry, much like Harris herself prior to working on her novel.
Spanning across a number of years, Harris’ novel plays into the ideas and thoughts that many of us have experienced when we find ourselves as the only person of colour in the workplace and the anticipation felt when another person of colour enters the same workspace. Nella, Harris' primary character has been the only Black girl on her floor for years now and has accepted that, this is just the way Wagner Publishing is. She has learnt to navigate the workspace she finds herself in and appreciates her colleagues for who they are, flaws and all. But when new girl, Hazel-May shows up we are given insight to Nella’s thought processes as she begins to question her “Blackness” within Wagner Publishing and just how far she’ll go to align herself with her colleagues editorial choices whether they make sense or not. Nella’s desire to overcome takes a whole new turn when she begins receiving threatening notes whilst at work telling her to, “Leave Wagner. Now.”
Throughout the entirety of the novel the closeness we feel to characters in the book doesn’t go unmissed, as Harris makes references to a hair product we’ve all used before or at the very least heard of as Black women, Shea Moisture. As well as encapsulating the feeling of having to brush off microaggressions from colleagues with regards to hair or even the far too common experience being mistaken for the other Black girl in the office.
Covering multiple themes in a distinct and fleshed out way, Harris pulls no punches when it comes to tackling being accepted in the workplace and how “Blackness” can oftentimes be perceived not just in white spaces but also in Black spaces. Many are likely to resonate heavily with Nella’s character, having been raised in a space which meant that some colleagues saw her as “less Black” due to her upbringing and the way she had navigated life up until Hazel enters the fold. It’s clear that Hazel-May has been labelled the more “Black” of the two colleagues, in her mannerisms, her outside of work hobbies, even her hair, “her locs - every one as thick as a bubble tea straw - and longer than her arms” juxtaposed to Nella’s own perceptions of “Blackness” in the workplace.
Harris works well to create the perfect setting for an altogether toxic work environment and at times readers even begin to question whether the tension that Nella feels at the hands of Hazel-May is truly valid. Surely Hazel-May can’t be out to get Nella, a fellow Black girl?
Multiple characters from both Wagner’s past and present feature in Nella’s descent into the unknown as she fights for her place in her office as well as her place in the lives of those she cares about.
Harris’ novel is told through the perspective of three Black women who have all touched the literary industry in one way or another, but the perspective of Nella is the boldest voice throughout and perhaps mirroring her descent into confusion and unease, oftentimes Nella’s narrative feels convoluted and rushed. As a reader I would have loved more of a prequel into how Nella’s situation at the hands of Hazel-May has come to occur and perhaps more insight into Hazel-May's background.
Hazel-May is the driving force for many of Nella’s early decisions and as a consequence her reactions to these incidents drive the narrative in a way that continually keeps us guessing as readers. This could be viewed as a limitation to Harris’ novel as Nella’s narrative gives us insight into her thoughts on those characters she comes into contact with but doesn’t truly get to the heart of the characters themselves. At times you felt like you wanted to ally with Hazel-May but couldn’t due to the fact that it is Nella’s experience driving the overall narrative with brief insights from the other two narrators.
Full of social commentary, provocative chapters and a real hunger, which keeps the reader desiring more even once turning that final page, ‘The Other Black Girl’ is certainly a debut done right by Harris. With confirmation that it is set to be adapted into a Hulu original I’m keen to see just how they pull off that ending on the big screen.