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Scriber Optics: The Other Black Girl By Zakiya Dalila Harris
Lucy Dunn , July 3rd, 2021 08:28

Zakiya Dalila Harris's brilliant debut speaks of pride and prejudice in the world of publishing

Photo: Nicole Mondestin

Authenticity versus success? Exhilarating and unpredictable, The Other Black Girl presents us with the ultimate moral dilemma. Waiting with bated breath has been fantastically worth it: Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel is a masterpiece spun with threads of both a stark reality mixed with a touch of the supernatural.

Meet Nella, the hardworking editorial assistant under a friendly, and sometimes frosty, editor at one of the most notorious publishing firms in the country: Wagners. Not only is the company run by a man who is hailed nationally for his expertise in editing, Wagners published Nella’s all-time-favourite book, Burning Heart, written by a Black author and edited by a Black editor. To reach the esteemed editorial heights of Kendra Rae Phillips is Nella’s inspiration to keep working even when the odds become heavily stacked against her. Her biggest dream may unfortunately also be her hamartia: one that threatens to lead to her downfall.

Flawed and fearful, we immediately warm to Nella, with her chaotic and last-minute lifestyle. She sometimes runs late, her work desk is a mess, and she often downs one too many wines on weeknights. Good at her job though she is, Nella’s contemplations regularly circle back to her stark reality: in a world very much rampaged by racism, she has no option but to work twice as hard as the other white editorial assistants that surround her. She pines for the day another Black girl is brought into the office… until it happens.

Hazel-May is everything Nella wanted – and a little more. In all the ways Nella worries about herself not being Black enough, her new workmate is. Nella grew up in an all-white Connecticut, never experienced “Black Love” nor actively used her own success to help bolster younger generations. And - unsurprisingly - where Nella falls short, Hazel ticks all the boxes. She lived in a Black neighbourhood, she has a Dominican boyfriend, and she started up a non-profit poetry organisation from scratch. Encased in a dent-proof, pristine shield, Hazel appears to emanate only sweet success. Even before Nella starts to fully begrudge her, though, the reader already feels offset by how impeccably she glides through life. Our suspicions are aroused and yet through Harris’ careful crafting, our ambivalence about Hazel is prolonged for a time yet.

Harris’ humorous descriptions of office culture are vivid and visceral – unsurprising given her own three years spent in the editorial department of Knopf Doubleday. No one is overtly bitchy, and yet everyone appears stuck in a cycle of constant one-upping and competition. Nepotism runs amok and fairness is a foreign concept. Editorial assistants are pitted against each other: the play puppets of their editors. White privilege and racism are drawn out in detail: from the frequent micro-aggressions Nella faces – that never quite make their way to Hazel – to the scandal surrounding Wagners’ leading author’s book.

Colin Franklin’s disagreeable characterisation of crack-addicted, constantly cursing, single teen mother Shartricia empowers Nella to take a more public stand. His one dimensional diversity-quota-filler is the wedge that drives the crack between Nella and Wagners to a tremulous level; only further emphasising the way Black people are viewed by the white elite. Stereotyped and separate, the struggle that plays out around Shartricia illustrates Nella’s own struggle in a faux-“woke” environment. Nods to the surface-level performativity that dominates corporate workplaces are plentiful, in the half-hearted diversity meetings and standalone donations, all consciously engineered for the improvement of “optics”.

Subtle hints at a foreboding future are interspersed delicately, and not to the point of deconstructing the air of intrigue that Harris so brilliantly creates around the anonymous Nella-directed notes appearing in the office. We automatically assume Hazel as culprit – the messages are threatening and so is she – but that would be far too simple. Early on, the plot appears a record of a consistently competitive office workspace, but Harris hasn’t let us prepare for the wonders that begin to emerge. We’re gripped from the outset; Harris’ conversational writing style and wry humour makes the 350-page book devourable within hours.

Switches from third- to first-person between chapters seem, at first, jarring, but as the plot thickens, the jigsaw pieces slide faster together. Characters that appear initially as background players move insidiously into the spotlight, and the short sharp glances back in time allow the reader a fleeting taste of what is yet to come. Nella may be the central focus, but is she where the buck stops? Kendra Rae, Shani, Lynn, Diana… the names of numerous Black women, past and present, swim into view as Harris’ prose quickens pace, and gradually we understand that this is no longer a story about tensions in a workplace. Bubbling under the surface is something so, so much bigger.

The meanders turn into sharp bends, the story flowing faster after every turn. Unable to second-guess the plot too soon, no one could predict the ending before they got there. As we approach the true climax, we start to see the bigger picture in mounting detail. Brilliantly devised, Harris uses her writing to both pose a question and make a point. Darwinian tones infiltrate the storyline to turn the novel not only into an expert thriller but a contribution to philosophical debate. And what would you choose? What is the value of authenticity, when you “being you” will never let you ascend the corporate, or societal, ladder? What’s a little extra boost in the longstanding face of biased adversity? But what if that boost meant compromising everything you and your ancestors have stood for, just to be “more amenable [for] white folks”?

Greedy for more, my only criticism of The Other Black Girl is the ferocious speed of its finale. We need more about Shani, the true subject of the novel, but in trying to feel for her, she slips deftly through our grasp. Who is this woman with the crescent scar on her head? What is her background? In making her a little too mysterious, Harris is playing dangerously with confusion. Sensing her importance, we yearn to relate more to her – yet she seems too much a blur in the grand scheme of the book to ever fully connect with.

A story that deeply unravels the nuances of discrimination, The Other Black Girl is darker than it first appears. A philosophical question turned on its head, Harris’ novel is contemplative for Black readers and, at times, rightly uncomfortable for its white ones. The Other Black Girl isn’t simply about competitive spirit turned sour; it is a semi-dystopian read that emphasises that the more “palatable”, and essentially “white” a person, the more easily society will accept them. Harris hasn’t only presented us with a compelling story of two girls in America; The Other Black Girl forces us to tentatively take a few steps back to examine the attitudes and biases that remain firmly in place in the working world of today.

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is published by Bloomsbury