Not the Only One: A Conversation with Zakiya Dalila Harris
Early last year, the announcement about Zakiya Dalila Harris’s debut novel, The Other Black Girl, was displayed all over my Twitter feed. The article that accompanied the notice from Publishers Weekly, titled “Former Knopf Assistant Sells Publishing Novel in Seven Figure Deal,” piqued my interest for many reasons—mainly because a book about publishing with a young Black editorial assistant at its core was immediately on everybody’s radar, and also because the author in the picture looked like me—a young Black woman. At the time, the waves of publishing were still rocky after the publication of American Dirt and there seemed to be a general and legitimate mistrust about how publishers were amplifying and compensating works by writers of color. As much as I cringe at the use of the word “timely” to describe books that should be considered timeless, Harris’s novel couldn’t have been more prompt in the wake of the current literary atmosphere.
The Other Black Girl, released yesterday from Atria Books, follows Nella Rogers, an ambitious twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant who works at a prestigious publishing house. At Wagner Books, Nella sees herself escalating to the top of the literary ladder, hoping to one day become a Capital “E” editor and bringing due diligence to other Black writers (which, in real time, gives off Toni Morrison circa 1960s energy). However, when Hazel, another Black assistant shows up as the newest company hire, cryptic messages soon start appearing on Nella’s desk. Spooked by this first message—LEAVE WAGNER NOW—and by the blatant racism and microaggressions she faces from her other co-workers, Nella is forced to confront the implications of being in an overwhelming white workforce, while also questioning Hazel’s sudden rise to fame as the office darling.
The Other Black Girl has been featured on multiple Most Anticipated lists, including those belonging to TIME, Entertainment Weekly, Washington Post, BBC among others. Described as Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada, Harris’s debut novel is currently in development by Hulu. On a beautiful Friday evening in April, from our respective sides of Brooklyn, Harris and I got on a video chat. I was excited to speak with her about the earliest drafts of her novel, her career change, and the pitfalls of being “othered” in predominantly white institutions—both in her novel and in real life.
The Rumpus: There’re so many things to get into when it comes to The Other Black Girl. Can you talk about which elements—whether it was character, plot, or setting—came to you first as you began writing this novel?
Zakiya Dalila Harris: I remember the specific moment I got the idea for this book, which is unusual for me, because ideas didn’t usually come to me that organically before. It was January 2019. I was in the bathroom washing my hands at the sink, and this Black woman comes out of the bathroom stall and starts washing her hands as well. I look at her like, Who are you? Because I was not used to seeing other Black people on the floor. I knew who was in the company and how many Black and Brown people there were on my floor—which was me and a Black editor at Pantheon/Knopf. So, I looked at this woman and hoped we would have a moment, but there was nothing. Which was cool, I get it. But on my way back to my desk it got me thinking, why was I so excited? Why was I so starved? But of course, I was starved. I had so many wonderful coworkers that I’m still in touch with now, and many of them were pushing for more diversity in publishing just as I was, but it wasn’t the same as having someone who was also working there, who was also Black, and who also fully experienced it. I was able to find a community of Black people in editorial outside of my company, but that’s not the same, either.
I went back to my desk with the idea of two Black women working in a very white workspace, but one of them was weird and something’s off with her. And I really loved this idea. I myself grew up in such a very white environment, so I was used to being the only one. Once I came out of that environment and went to middle school, I saw other Black people who were not like me, and in high school I would hear, “You talk like a white girl.” I grew up with a lot of anxiety that other people Black people thought I wasn’t Black enough, and that was at the forefront of my mind when I first started writing this book, this anxiety. And the more I’ve spoken to other Black people about this book, the more I’ve learned that I’m not the only one who understands this feeling.
It wasn’t until I did my MFA at The New School in nonfiction writing a few years later that I started thinking more critically about my race, my identity, and the ways in which where I grew up shaped who I am today. So, when that initial idea for the book about two Black women working in a white workplace came to me, I was able to channel all of it here.
Rumpus: What was the hardest thing to do when you kept returning to your manuscript?
Harris: From a more technical standpoint, I never set out to write a book with so many genre elements. I’ve watched a lot of horror and sci-fi, but Stephen King and Octavia Butler were pretty much the extent of what I’d read. When I first pitched the book and tried to find my agent and editor, I knew that the main thing I needed to work on was really getting the more suspenseful, speculative elements down.
Getting down that part, and also trying to plant the seeds, was hard because there’s so many people and moving parts. I don’t outline—or at least, I didn’t before—but after a few drafts, I had to make a list of everything that happens and when for myself. Because I spent a lot of time thinking about whether or not it’s more interesting if the reader finds this particular detail out at this moment versus that moment—and if it is, then, what’s going to carry the story from that point on? That’s something I couldn’t figure out until I tried certain plot points out at a few different places, until finally, I was like, Okay! I’m done.
Although looking back, I could probably fiddle with it again now if I wanted to.
Rumpus: One of the first things I noticed was the way you play with structure and how readers occasionally jump between the present and the past in different chapters. When did the structure come to you? Did you always know that there would be a linear storyline in the present, with nonlinear flashbacks in the past?
Harris: I’ve always enjoyed reading books that jump back and forth in time, and I’d actually been working on a novel before this that did that a lot… but I couldn’t get it to work. I think I was trying to do too much time travel too early on in that one, and that was getting in the way of me really knowing what the core of the book itself was about. When I first started writing The Other Black Girl, I was more focused on getting Nella’s present story down on the page.
After getting that draft out, however, I was able to see places where the reader really could benefit from seeing glimpses of Kendra Rae and Diana’s experiences in the 1980s. The two of them were always on the page as characters—the idea that these two women had carved a path for Nella; the idea that there was this quick but very important golden age in publishing that Nella wanted to recreate in the present—but Kendra Rae and Diana themselves weren’t really alive on the page. They were alive in Nella’s head.
The more I revised the book, the more I realized Kendra Rae’s voice needed to be on the page, because she’s such an important character. And so is Diana, because I didn’t want her to be seen as a straight-up villain. It’s funny, because I feel like I could keep adding. They all have so much to give, but I didn’t want them to overpower Nella’s voice, either.
Rumpus: I also noticed how intentional you were about which characters were given different first-person perspective (like Diana, Shani, Kendra) versus close third-person perspective. Was that also in the earlier drafts or did that change?
Harris: Wagner is just such a suffocating place to work that I thought being in Nella’s head in first-person, all the time, would be too much for the reader. With Nella’s close third-person voice, I wanted the reader to wonder how reliable she is when it comes to her interpretations of Hazel. Is Nella actually seeing Hazel smirk at her? Is it Nella’s insecurities, or is Hazel actually doing these things? I felt like it would be a little more interesting for the reader to be told from the close third-person. With Diana and Kendra Rae, I wanted to be in their skin. I felt like both of their decisions were so extreme that you really have to be in their shoes in those moments. Plus, I love the 1980s and old Black things, so it was fun to put that on for a little bit.
Rumpus: There’s also something to be said about how this story takes place in the last few years. With all of the discourse around race, gender, and dismantling white supremacy, you’d think that Nella would feel comfortable discussing some of the problems she’s having in the workplace with her boss, but she doesn’t. When did you know that Nella would only find comfort in speaking to Malaika or Owen versus voicing her concerns to someone in HR?
Harris: With this book, I wanted to get at the camaraderie of working in a workplace like Wagner Books, but also how that camaraderie and the desire to fit into a place like Wagner can eat at your personal life. I really enjoyed so many parts of publishing—my peers were wonderful, my bosses were awesome, and my authors were great, too. But there’s still that other side of things where you don’t really feel like you can say what you actually want to say because you should feel really grateful to be there. The imprint I worked in was very prestigious. People were climbing all over one another to get in, and I had a hard time getting into publishing in the first place. No one was ever directly saying to me, “Don’t say anything,” but when you’re the only Black person there to voice concerns, it feels less like you can, because everyone will know who it came from.
You kind of have to tell yourself this is fine, at least I’m here. And you have to have an outlet somewhere beyond your workplace, as Nella has with her white boyfriend Owen and her Black best friend Malaika. She can be her true unapologetic self with them, and that’s the main thing that keeps her afloat. It also helps that both of them are far more confident than she is.
Rumpus: Would you say that Malaika and Nella’s friendship is at the core of this novel?
Harris: I think it’s one of the cores. For Nella, it’s definitely an anchor. Malaika is loosely based on a few Black friends that I’ve made throughout the years, and a lot of conversations I’ve had with women who were frustrated about their jobs, but in the same breath will talk about the latest Black Twitter fiasco. I think Malaika is a very important part of Nella’s sense of self.
I balk against the word “core,” though, because of the ending. I won’t spoil it here, but I will say that I think the core is more so Nella’s drive to succeed, her desire to make it in the world of publishing.
Rumpus: “Other Black Girl” has two connotations for me—not just the other Black girl, but also the only Black girl. Being in this space felt familiar, some of us know what it’s like to be “only” or “othered” in a space.
Harris: I grew up in this town in Connecticut called Hamden and that’s where I got my first dose of Black people—which I guess is a weird thing to say. I ended up in Hamden because my dad moved us from West Haven because they had one of the best public schools in the area. But, of course, the one public school that was the best had, like, 98% white students. I got so used to being the only Black girl and also got used to trying to hide the fact that I was different.
Years later, when I went to parties in grad school, my Black friend and I would often jokingly spot the Other Black Girl in the room—and it was usually the same one. We’d be like, “Oh, there’s the OBG again!” Never maliciously, but just to acknowledge it. There’s a moment in Not Another Teen Movie, which is a parody of all those high school movies that came out in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when there are two Black guys at a party. The first Black guy walks over to the second one and says something like, “Uh, you’re not supposed to be here! I’m here.” The other Black guy looks embarrassed and says, “Oh no! I’m so sorry.” And he leaves.
This movie came out twenty years ago, and it’s funny to me that this was a joke then. But it’s also a painful truth—this idea that there can only be one. That was definitely on my mind the whole time I was writing this.
Rumpus: In this novel, we also get some insight into some of the issues that publishing is facing now like the low salaries, lack of retention by BIPOC and employees from historically marginalized backgrounds, unactionable Diversity Town Hall meetings, et cetera. And this is a universal sentiment across many industries, like you mentioned earlier. Exploring these themes must’ve provided you with the freedom to tackle and critique these industries accordingly.
Harris: Absolutely. I think we’re all familiar with how resistant to change a lot of industries can be, especially when the people at the top are comfortable, and of the Why fix something that’s not broken? mentality. With this book, I wanted to get at not just how many of these systems are broken, but what it looks like for a BIPOC person trying to work within these broken systems. It’s a lot! And it’s even more when you consider the fact that a lot of these work environments are open-floor plans. Everyone is more or less on top of one another—at least people were on top of each other, before the pandemic—so every single frustrating thing about the system feels that much more in your face. The meetings, the overheard conversations, the microaggressions. My hope is that this book shows readers why it’s important to think of diversity not only as a wide-sweeping issue, but as a very specific issue that affects a specific individual’s day-to-day life.
Photograph of Zakiya Dalila Harris by Nicole Mondestin Photography.