Zakiya Dalila Harris Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Zakiya Dalila Harris
Photo: Nicole Mondestin

Zakiya Dalila Harris

An interview with Zakiya Dalila Harris

Zakiya Dalila Harris talks about her influences, her writing process and her inspiration for writing The Other Black Girl

When and how did you first become interested in writing?

I first fell in love with writing when I fell in love with books at the age of six or seven. I was really into series novels, like Goosebumps and Animorphs and The Series of Unfortunate Events. I'd spend hours curled up in an empty laundry basket filling notebook upon notebook with stories of my own—scary stories, stories about superheroes, stories about girls like me.

I'd also be remiss not to say that my father teaches journalism and had an op-ed column in a Connecticut newspaper for nearly twenty years, so he was often reading my stories, commending and critiquing them, and telling me to keep writing. He also encouraged me by example. I often saw him sit down and write whenever he wasn't teaching, and heard him talk with my mom about the reception of his latest piece at the dinner table. Through him, I had the good fortune of learning early on that it was possible to make a career out of loving what you do.

But perhaps the most tangible turning point for my love of writing was when I came across a writing contest in American Girl magazine at age twelve. I wasn't a particularly competitive or confident kid when it came to most things, but when I saw the contest prompt, which was to write a story accompanying the illustration they'd provided, I thought, "I can totally do this." I entered the contest without telling either of my parents; a few months later, we discovered that I'd won. My story appeared in the May/June 2006 issue of the magazine, and it did loads for my self-esteem as a writer.

Tell us about The Other Black Girl and why you wrote it.

The idea for The Other Black Girl came to me when I was working in the editorial department at Knopf Doubleday. I was washing my hands in the bathroom when another Black woman came out of the stall. I was surprised to see her—as far as I knew, no other Black people worked on my floor, and I could tell she wasn't an author because she had an employee ID. But when I tried to catch her eye in the mirror in a kind of solidarity, she didn't meet my gaze.

I don't believe the slight was intentional. But my imagination still ran off with all the possible reasons why this other Black woman hadn't spoken to me. I couldn't help but think of the truism that when it comes to settings that are traditionally majority-white, there's often just one Black person, supposedly hired to "fill a quota." While this truism tends to be the source of many jokes among Black people, it definitely comes from a place of truth—and this truth was at the forefront of my mind as I wrote about Nella's experiences as the only Black employee at Wagner Books.

As I fell deeper into writing The OBG, I grew more and more interested in the why of this truth—and because of this, I would also say this book is also about the cost of success and the fine line between "assimilation" and "selling out."

What was the most difficult part of writing The Other Black Girl?

There are so many variables in this book. Not only are there four different perspectives; there are two different timelines, and it was very tricky plotting all of these moving parts while also making sure each reveal would feel both surprising and satisfying for the reader. It took a lot of "let's see what happens here if I move that there", and a ton of editorial conversations with my wonderful agent and editor, for me to feel like I'd balanced every element.

Publishers Weekly described The Other Black Girl as a "cheeky blend of horror, suspense, and cultural commentary." How are you influenced by these genres, and what interests you about them?

I got into horror at a very young age. In addition to reading Goosebumps, I loved watching shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? and The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling's monologues at the beginning of every episode terrified me, but I loved how unsettled and curious they made me feel, and the questions they raised. Some form of doom would strike for the characters, but would they get out of it? And in some cases—because sometimes the protagonists were unlikable—would I even want them to get out of it?

As I got older, I fell more in love with horror and psychological thrillers and their ability to express social commentary the way that The Twilight Zone did. So many writers have done this—Jordan Peele's Get Out comes to mind, as well as Octavia Butler's Kindred, in which the familiar trope of time travel evokes the terrors of slavery in an especially horrifying way. Genre elements allow us all to engage with topics that might otherwise feel inaccessible or too uncomfortable to speak about.

The book cover is amazing—what's the backstory?

One of my favorite parts of working in editorial was seeing the behind-the-scenes aspects of the book design process, and one of my favorite wannabe-writer daydreams was imagining what my own book cover would look like one day. When it came time to talk covers for The OBG, I knew that I wanted a real Black artist to design the cover if possible, so after some brainstorming, my agent and I sent my editor a list of Black artists whose work we felt truly aligned with the essence of my novel.

Since my novel is a blend of many different genres, our eyes were on artists whose work also blended sensibilities. Temi Coker's work—much of which features radiant Black subjects surrounded by bright, electric colors and patterns—did this kind of blending, and then some. His art centers Blackness so beautifully, and I wanted the cover of my novel to also unmistakably center Blackness.

Amazingly, my wonderful team at Atria was able to license this incredible piece by Temi Coker for the cover—which, by the way, I am very obsessed with.

Do you have anything in common with Nella, your protagonist? And in what ways are you different?

Despite the fact that I, too, was once the only Black girl working at my company, this book is not a roman à clef. That being said, I gave Nella many of my own personal experiences and characteristics. Like Nella, I've had complicated relationship with my own identity ever since I was a kid. I attended a mostly-white elementary school and grew up in a mostly-white neighborhood in Connecticut, so when I went on to attend middle school and high school—both of which were a lot more diverse and had a lot more Black people—I experienced a bit of culture shock meeting people who had the same skin color as I did. I was sometimes made fun of for the way I spoke ("like a white girl"), and was often the only Black person in my advance level classes. However, while Nella didn't make her first real Black friend in her early twenties, I was lucky enough to make an amazing group of Black friends my first year of college.

Another notable difference between Nella and me are our aspirations: While she dreams of becoming an editor, my biggest dream has always been to write. I enjoyed working in publishing, and was promoted to assistant editor after two years, but as I was given more and more responsibility, I realized I'd need to decide which track I wanted to dedicate all of my time to. I knew I couldn't fully commit to both. So, after a few weeks of really getting into The OBG, I decided to quit publishing and see this through instead.

What's your writing process like, and what do you do when you get stuck?

I tend to write first drafts of everything by hand, because I find that I am much more lenient with myself when I'm writing versus typing. I'll cross things out on the page; I'll draw arrows all over everything. I'll often revise my writing as I transcribe it to a computer, filling in more and more details as I go along.

Also—and this is slightly controversial—I am one of those weirdos who likes listening to music whenever I'm writing. Yes, music with words, and no, not just to drown out other noise. I need it. The kind of music depends on my mood and the time of day, but my go-to is jazz: Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Hartman, Julie London, Nancy Wilson.

Whenever I feel like I'm stuck, I'll either move to a different part of the story that I haven't started yet, or I'll walk away from it entirely. I can usually tell the point at which it's worth it for me to take a break, rather than keep turning my gears in the same place for too long. Nine times out of ten I'll come back to it later, refreshed, and the answer will come to me then.

Who or what are a few of your biggest creative influences?

I've been a fan of Lucille Ball for most of my life. She was hilarious and brilliant, but I've always admired her career path. She continued to pursue her dream of becoming an actress despite people not thinking she was very good, and took supporting roles for years before getting her big break. I think there's something so beautiful about that.

Another creative influence of mine is Issa Rae, whose path is really inspiring to me, too. The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl spoke to my awkward nineteen-year-old soul in a way unlike any other show before, and I really appreciate how she's undeniably herself in everything she does—but she's also willing to explore genres outside of comedy.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

I truly hope that The Other Black Girl inspires thoughtful, hard conversations between people of different backgrounds, just as I hope it inspires conversations about diversity, identity, and performative politics.

I also want readers to come away from my book with a perspective that's different from what they're used to seeing in other media and entertainment. While my protagonists are all Black women who have faced the often-suffocating pressures of corporate white America, and white America in general, they are not a monolith. They each have their own lived experience and their own worldview, and they make their own independent choices. Sometimes, their choices might be seen as problematic. But they all deserve to be seen.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by Zakiya Dalila Harris at BookBrowse
The Other Black Girl jacket
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Readalikes

All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Zakiya Dalila Harris but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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  • Brit Bennett

    Brit Bennett

    Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and later earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Other Black Girl

    Try:
    The Vanishing Half
    by Brit Bennett

  • Danielle Evans

    Danielle Evans

    Danielle Evans is the author of the story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, winner of the PEN America PEN/Robert W. Bingham prize, the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, and the Paterson Prize, and a National Book... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
    The Other Black Girl

    Try:
    The Office of Historical Corrections
    by Danielle Evans

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