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BookBrowse Reviews The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

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The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

The Other Black Girl

by Zakiya Dalila Harris
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  • First Published:
  • Jun 1, 2021
  • Paperback:
  • Jun 2022
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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.

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

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in June 2021, and has been updated for the June 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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