Book Review | The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Nella is trying to make it as a Black millennial in an extremely white industry – publishing. Having landed her dream job at prestigious New York publishing house Wagner, she’s worked hard to gain recognition as an editorial assistant. Sure, she has to put up with microaggressions on a regular basis – but for working under some of the country’s most eminent editors, it’s a price she’s willing to pay.

‘She could see the thread that ran between the cultural faux pas of major corporations and the major faux pas of police offers all over the country.’

When Harlem-bred Hazel starts working for Wagner, Nella is initially delighted to have another colleague of colour. But things start to grow uncomfortable as Hazel’s star rises and she begins to infringe upon projects and relationships promised to Nella. To her face a solid ally, Hazel soon becomes her worst nightmare.

This novel is so sharp and clever, with biting social commentary about race in contemporary America and, more specifically, how this plays out in workplaces across the country. It’s probably because Publishing is my jam that I found the Wagner setting so compelling and spot on. Harris addresses the very visible lack of diversity in the industry in an accessible and clear-eyed way that makes it patently obvious just how a) out of touch and b) legitimately bad for business it is to have the same old people uplifting the same old perspectives time and time again.

‘Her coworkers could publish books about Bitcoin and Middle Eastern conflicts and black holes, but most of them couldn’t understand why it was so important to have a more diverse publishing house.’

Anyway, off my soapbox.

Things start to turn very sinister when mysterious notes show up on Nella’s desk, telling her to leave Wagner. Rather than report the threats, Nella determines to get to the bottom of it. But the encroaching sense of dread is dialled up as Hazel continues on her upwards trajectory, going so far as to get the head of Wagner, Richard, to donate a hefty sum to her non-for-profit start-up supporting Black poets. Nella’s self-assurance and sanity takes a hit, and she begins to question her relationships with those around her and her ability to do her job.

‘Her spiralling sense of self-worth had started to encroach upon her sanity; her sanity, upon her sleep; and her sleep; upon her ability to be a functioning human being at work. A functioning human being who was able to forgive and forget the fact that a colleague had mistaken her for a dreadlocked girl who was four inches taller than her.’

But then things go…a little south, narrative-wise. Honestly, this might just be because this is an early copy that needs more aggressive an edit – but there were some key plot points in here that had me scratching my head in confusion. I won’t give anything away, but there’s a sub-plot with an underground resistance movement, and some truly bonkers hair products, and although I’ve not got anything against a kooky turn, I really didn’t know what was going on in the latter 25% of this book. I am very much hoping these issues will be ironed out prior to publication, because this really is a compelling, bold and timely novel – and I don’t want readers to be put off by the opaqueness of some key plot points.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The Other Black Girl will be published on June 1st, 2021.

5 thoughts on “Book Review | The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

  1. This does sound promising and it’s a pity it loses its way towards the end. It also seems like there are heavyweight expectations on this book, after the controversy of American Dirt and the seven figure advance. That article reads like a novel itself. The implied shakeup in the publishing industry is well overdue. There is so much untapped potential from outside the mainstream, voices that have withered from a lack of nourishment.

    Interesting that her protagonist is Nella,I wonder if that is a coincidence or a reference?

    Thanks for following my blog too, I’m happy to have discovered yours.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve heard about the American Dirt controversy but not read that Vulture article (until now) – thank you for sharing!! What a wild ride. Unfortunate that it takes something like a major PR disaster for the hallowed halls of publishing to sit up and listen (for a time, at least). It’s just so startling that at no point did anyone manage to effectively question the legitmacy of the authorship (right up to the barbed wire centrepieces at the launch — I have no words). But I think The Other Black Girl makes a very good point that even when publishing colleagues do stick their head above the parapet and raise legitimate concerns, they are often dismissed and you get into this feedback loop of how wonderful something is with no critical thinking.

      Totally agree about the untapped potential, can only hope that this scrutiny will force publishers to reflect on who is being platformed and what stories they’re telling. Thank you for commenting, looking forward to reading more of your posts!


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