The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan (rated 4/5)

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The Other Black Girl
The Other Black Girl
by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Paperback (7 Jun 2022), 368 pages.
Publisher: Atria Books
ISBN-13: 9781982160142
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Urgent, propulsive, and sharp as a knife, The Other Black Girl is an electric debut about the tension that unfurls when two young Black women meet against the starkly white backdrop of New York City book publishing.

Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. Fed up with the isolation and microaggressions, she's thrilled when Harlem-born and bred Hazel starts working in the cubicle beside hers. They've only just started comparing natural hair care regimens, though, when a string of uncomfortable events elevates Hazel to Office Darling, and Nella is left in the dust.

Then the notes begin to appear on Nella's desk: LEAVE WAGNER. NOW.

It's hard to believe Hazel is behind these hostile messages. But as Nella starts to spiral and obsess over the sinister forces at play, she soon realizes that there's a lot more at stake than just her career.

A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary that is perfect for anyone who has ever felt manipulated, threatened, or overlooked in the workplace, The Other Black Girl will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist.

Excerpt
The Other Black Girl

July 23, 2018
Wagner Books
Midtown, Manhattan


The first sign was the smell of cocoa butter.

When it initially crept around the wall of her cubicle, Nella was too busy filing a stack of pages at her desk, aligning each and every one so that the manuscript was perfectly flush. She was so intent on completing this task—Vera Parini needed everything to be flush, always— that she had the nerve to ignore the smell. Only when it inched up her nostrils and latched onto a deep part of her brain did she stop what she was doing and lift her head with sudden interest.

It wasn't the scent alone that gave her pause. Nella Rogers was used to all kinds of uninvited smells creeping into her cubicle—usually terrible ones. Since she was merely an editorial assistant at Wagner Books, she had no private office, and therefore no walls or windows. She and the other open-space assistants were at the mercy of a hardboiled egg or the passing of gas; they were often left to suffer the consequences for what felt like an hour afterward.

Adjusting to such close proximity had been so difficult for Nella during her first few weeks at Wagner that she'd practiced breathing through her mouth even when it wasn't called for, like when she was deciding between granolas at the grocery store, or when she was having sex with her boyfriend, Owen. After about three months of failed self-training, she had broken down and purchased a lavender reed diffuser that had the words just breathe scrawled across its front in gold cursive letters. Its home was the far corner of her desk, where it sat just beneath the first edition of Kindred that Owen had given her shortly after they started dating.

Nella eyed the gold foil letters and frowned. Could it have been the lavender diffuser she smelled? She inhaled again, craning her neck upward so that all she could see were the gray and white tiles that lined the ceiling. No. She'd been correct—that was cocoa butter, alright. And it wasn't just any cocoa butter. It was Brown Buttah, her favorite brand of hair grease.

Nella looked around. Once she was sure the coast was clear, she stuck her hand into her thick black hair and pulled a piece of it as close to her nose as she could. She'd been proudly growing an afro over the last three years, but the strand still landed unsatisfyingly between her nose and her cheek. Nonetheless, it fell close enough to tell her that the Brown Buttah smell wasn't coming from her own hair. What she was smelling was fresh, a coat applied within the last hour or so, she guessed.

This meant one of two things: One of her white colleagues had started using Brown Buttah. Or—more likely, since she was pretty sure none of them had accidentally stumbled into the natural hair care aisle—there was another Black girl on the thirteenth floor.

Nella's heart fluttered as she felt something she supposed resembled a hot flash. Had it finally happened? Had all of her campaigning for more diversity at Wagner finally paid off?

Her thoughts were cut short by the loud, familiar cackle of Maisy Glendower, a squirrelly editor who appreciated modulation only when someone else was practicing it. Nella combed through the bray, listening hard for the hushed voice that had made Maisy laugh. Did it belong to a person of a darker hue?

"Hay-girl-hay!"

Startled, Nella looked up from her desk. But it was just Sophie standing above her, arms wrapped snugly around the side of her cubicle wall, eyes as wide and green as cucumbers.

Nella groaned inwardly and clenched a fist beneath her desk. "Sophie," she mumbled, "hi."

"Haaaay! What's up? How are you? How's your Tuesday going?"

"I'm fine," Nella said, keeping her voice low in case any more audible clues floated her way. Sophie had tamed her eyes down a bit, thank goodness, but she was still staring at Nella as though there was something she wanted to say, but couldn't.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Copyright © 2021 by Zakiya Dalila Harris. Excerpted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

  1. Why do you think the author set this novel in the book publishing industry? How would the story unfold in another setting? How would it be similar or different?
  2. Recalling Colin Franklin's novel, Needles and Pins, have you ever read a book that was problematic? What was the title and what made it problematic? Why do you think it was able to get published? Was Nella right about confronting Colin about the stereotypes in Needles and Pins?
  3. At what point in the story did you feel suspicious of Hazel? What made her more likable to people in the office?
  4. The code question to enter the Resistance is, if an asteroid crashes into the Earth and destroys all Black folk except one, who do you save: Stacey Dash or Ben Carson? Why do think the author chose Stacey and Ben specifically? Would they be considered OBGs? How would you answer the code question and why?
  5. How do you feel about Nella and Owen's relationship? Does he truly understand the microaggressions Nella experiences at work? Do you think she feels guilt or insecurities about having a boyfriend who is white?
  6. Nella appears to be embarrassed by her inability to tie scarves, and about not making Black friends sooner or joining a Black sorority in college. Why does Nella question her Blackness? Do you think she's too hard on herself?
  7. Why do you think the author wanted to highlight how Black women feel competitive toward one another in white corporate America? How do you think people feel when they are the only person of color at work? Why might people of color feel competitive in white work spaces?
  8. In the novel, Diana and Kendra Rae posed for a 1980s magazine article titled "A New Era in Publishing?" How has publishing changed since the '80s? Consider the kinds of books that are published today. Are we currently in a new era of publishing?
  9. What is Richard's role in the novel? Why is he threatened by Black women? How does he benefit from "fixing" Black women?
  10. What does this book say about code-switching and selling out? What, if anything, separates the two? What are examples of code-switching?
  11. What is the significance and importance of hair to Black women? Why do you think Black women take such pride in their hair?
  12. Malaika and Nella have a very close friendship. How is the relationship between Nella and Malaika ultimately similar to the relationship of Kendra Rae and Diana?
  13. Did the ending make you more optimistic or fearful? How could the Resistance stop OBGs? What could they have done differently to stop Hazel?

Enhance Your Book Club

  1. Was there ever a time that you felt othered or different during you education or in your workplace? How did you overcome this? What made you different from others?
  2. The Other Black Girl has been compared to many movies: The Devil Wears Prada, The Stepford Wives, and Get Out. What movie would you compare it to? With your book club, have a movie night and watch a film that reminds you of the novel.
  3. The Other Black Girl will soon be a Hulu series. Discuss which actors you would cast. Is there anything about the novel that you would change for the series?

 

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Atria Books. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.

Can there be two Black girls in one white workplace? In this breakthrough debut thriller about racism, tokenism and a conspiracy, more is at stake than office politics.

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The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is a workplace horror novel that sets issues of identity, performative diversity and racism against the backdrop of contemporary corporate America. Through the central character of Nella Rogers, a 26-year-old editorial assistant at an elite publishing house, the book explores what it means to be young, Black and ambitious.

The novel begins with Wagner Books' hiring of Hazel, the "other Black girl" with whom Nella hopes to form a bond based on their being the only Black female employees in the office. But Hazel seems to have other plans, and before Nella knows it she has maneuvered all favor away from Nella and towards herself. Nella realizes there is more to Hazel's competitiveness than immediately appears when little anonymous notes start springing up, asking her to leave Wagner.

Parallel to Nella's arc, the narratives of three other Black women, two of whom are directly connected to the publishing house, unravel and cohere to form a storyline spine-chilling in concept. What plays out is a thrilling but horrifying reveal of a conspiracy borne of experiences of racism and disenchantment, rooted in reality but taken to their logical, fictional end. In portraying this, the novel almost taps into sci-fi.

The setting works very well on two counts: For one, since Harris has been employed in publishing herself, she is able to create a picture full of uncommon insight into what it is like to be a Black woman in the industry. And two, as publishing is a modern ivory tower where culture is shaped, its presence allows for commentary on those who presumably shape it. Wagner Books has hired some of the most highly educated, well-read individuals; but these (white) people, entangled as they are in their privilege, are unable to engage with questions of diversity meaningfully or to sincerely engage with experiences different from their own.

Nella is "excited by the prospect" of "having a say in what people [are] reading," and dreams of becoming an editor with a focus on Black writers and Black stories. But she herself is blinded by narrow ideas of Blackness, unconsciously assuming that Hazel has had experiences similar to her own. Nella also comes from privilege of a kind: She went to a good college whose professors gave her a leg up to land the job she has. Although politically aware, Nella's political consciousness only translates to reading "think pieces by day and retweet[ing] that the Oscars were indeed too white by night" or having heated discussions on Black issues with her best friend Malaika.

At the same time, since people of color in publishing are still underrepresented, Nella is often subjected to microaggressions and a sense of alienation. She is sometimes forced to tone-correct herself so that the white people around her don't feel like they're being racist. It is a mentally taxing and spiritually exhausting experience. So much so that by the end of the book, a horrifying choice presented to Nella makes sense for a moment. By the time the final twist arrives, the reader is left with a mix of fright, frustration, anger and sadness.

The book is almost perfect in its form, although it does not always follow through in the execution of its details. At the outset, the stories running alongside Nella's are a bit confusing and require some patience to sit through. But their order, the way information is revealed little by little, and the careful control Harris exercises in propelling the plot forward all make for a thrilling pace, which is one of the major reasons the book is so enjoyable. Also, every little crumb is addressed and explained as the novel progresses, which makes rereading a rewarding experience.

Frankly, before The Other Black Girl, I'd never been on the edge of my seat while reading a work of literary fiction in the purely enjoyable way that can happen while watching a movie. But even as the book offers a vivid, almost cinematic experience, it retains its literariness through form, structure, complexity of issues and characters, and the very interesting — though terrifying — focus on navigating modern-day corporate America as an ambitious Black woman.

Reviewed by Tasneem Pocketwala

Essence
This twisty thriller will resonate with anyone who has struggled to find her voice as the only Black woman in the room.

Lit Hub
A brilliant, twisty, and highly relevant thriller...Perfect for fans of Alyssa Cole's When No One Is Watching, or Amina Akhtar's #FashionVictim.

The Rumpus
A whip-smart and dynamic thriller and sly social commentary...will keep you on the edge of your seat until the very last twist.

Vogue
[A] brilliant debut...The novel takes some bold stylistic risks that pay off beautifully, leaving the reader longing for more of Harris's words and unique view on the world.

Washington Post
A thrilling, edgier Devil Wears Prada that explores privilege and racism.

Booklist (starred review)
Racist behavior in the workplace, white colleagues' awkward attempts to pretend it doesn't exist, and the exhaustion of being Black in white spaces are all encapsulated in a pitch-perfect way by Harris...this compelling debut thriller will be in demand; a must for public libraries.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
If it sounds like a moralistic sledgehammer of a novel—well, it would be if Harris were any less good. In her hands, though, it's a nuanced page-turner, as sharp as it is fun. A biting social satire–cum-thriller; dark, playful, and brimming with life.

Library Journal (starred review)
A debut novel that provides a look at what it can be like to face insurmountable obstacles in the workplace and a narrative that continues to build to a satisfactory and surprising conclusion. A good choice for general purchase.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Harris debuts with a dazzling, darkly humorous story about the publishing industry and the challenges faced by a Black employee...[a] penetrating critique of gatekeeping in the publishing industry and the deleterious effects it can have on Black editors. This insightful, spellbinding book packs a heavy punch.

Author Blurb Emily St. John Mandel
Riveting, fearless, and vividly original. This is an exciting debut.

Author Blurb Walter Mosley
Witty, inventive, and smart, The Other Black Girl goes deeper to take on class privilege, race, and gender in a narrative that slyly plays along the edges of convention. Zakiya Dalila Harris's debut is a brilliant combustion of suspense, horror, and social commentary that leaves no assumption unchallenged and no page unturned.

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Martha Whitehouse
Excellent Plot & Character Development
This is a very witty and compelling book with relatable characters.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Nattie
The Other Black Girl
I am reluctantly rating this book as average (3). The plot is excellent but I found it difficult to follow the characters. Too much emphasis was placed on the smell of Black hair products and not enough time was spent on developing the back stories of the characters. Also the ending left too many unanswered questions.

Rated 1 of 5 of 5 by Judy L. Sanders
ridiculous premise
I thought The Other Black Girl would be about competition in the work place, but instead it was about controlling women through their hair products (yes, their hair "grease" as it's referred to). There is also some plot drama about recruitment for the "Resistance," but this was a hugely disappointing and silly book.

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The Significance of Black Hair in the United States

Angela Davis with an Afro hairstyle in 1973 In her debut thriller, The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris includes but does not explain certain concepts linked to Black life. This may be an intentional choice to move past the expectation that racialized and other marginalized authors should clarify concepts and issues that aren't commonplace in mainstream white society for those outside of a group. An example of one such subject that Harris does not address is 4C hair. Black hair turns out to be an important theme in the novel, and also a plot device through which Harris spins her fascinating horror story.

Hair is an integral part of Black culture and history. In traditional African cultures, the way one wore one's hair could signify a host of things — from family and wealth, to marriage status, to ethnic identity and social standing. During the era of American slavery, Black women were often forced to cover their hair with a head wrap as a marker of their oppressed, enslaved status. After the Civil War, the post-emancipation United States put pressure on Black people to fit in with white society, leading to practices that altered the state of their natural hair, including the application of hot chemical mixtures to straighten it and change its texture.

Hair has historically formed a basis for discrimination against and ridicule of Black people in the US, so it is no wonder that Black hair has taken on political connotations in the country. In the 1960s and '70s, with the visibility of the Black Power movement, many Black women in America began owning their natural hair, rebelling against and effectively rejecting European beauty standards. This was an era when the Afro was proudly worn, with a famous example being the hairstyle of Black activist Angela Davis, and various braiding styles experimented with. Its influence has since given rise to demand in the US for hair products specifically tailored to Black hair. The Black hair care industry is now, according to Essence, worth billions.

A crucial lingering issue is how natural Black hair is often considered unprofessional in the American workplace and looked down on in schools. Many have called out the discriminatory nature of this and some laws have been passed to prevent such discrimination.

Hair and hairstyles can be an assertion of cultural heritage, personal style or self-care for Black Americans. Some Black women have reclaimed head wraps and scarves as a way to express their beauty and identity. Young Black women are increasingly opting to go natural, and some have emphasized the positive impact this has on their personalities and the way they feel about themselves. Celebrities such as Beyoncé wearing natural Black hairstyles on the red carpet have brought about a focus on the validity and importance of Black hair in mainstream media. Dr. Tia Tyree, a professor of communications at Howard University, tells BET that Black women are "showing and celebrating their true selves, and letting the world accept them for who they are."

Academic and activist Angela Davis, wearing her iconic Afro hairstyle, on August 4, 1973 at a demonstration in Berlin (cropped).
Photo courtesy of German Federal Archive (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-M0804-0757 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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By Tasneem Pocketwala

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