The premise of Zakiya Dalila Harris’s debut novel The Other Black Girl is irresistible. Twenty-something editorial assistant Nella is tired of being the only Black employee at Wagner Books. So when Hazel from Harlem joins the team, Nella’s convinced they can join forces to change the publisher’s casually racist culture and give Black voices a chance.
But while Hazel says all the right things in private, her agenda is less obvious. When she becomes a favourite with senior staff, Nella begins to doubt they both want the same thing. And what’s up with the notes left on her desk instructing her to LEAVE WAGNER?
Office politics make for compelling satire, and having spent 3 years at Knopf, the author’s take on NY publishing is incisive and vitriolic. Micro-aggressions, code switching and systemic racism are described with chilling efficacy. When the novel unpacks the cruel choice faced by women of colour in the corporate workplace – speak your mind or have a career – it’s riveting.
Unfortunately, much time is spent deepening a mystery I found less compelling than the corporate take-down initially promised. Nella’s passivity is increasingly frustrating. New characters are introduced, tonal shifts are attempted, a far-fetched idea is given excessive credence. The narrative meanders and obfuscates without the sense of a masterplan worthy of the reader’s blind faith.
The book puts topicality over authenticity, as if the real prize was a Netflix deal. It sometimes reads less like a story that badly needed to be told and more like it was retro-engineered to seize the zeitgeist, spawn column inches and allow mainstream publishing to pat itself on the back.
But what this white male reader thinks of The Other Black Girl really doesn’t matter. This novel is not just a product of publishing, it’s set in publishing, an industry controlled by white men. Me, mansplaining and whitesplaining how the novel fails to live up to its premise? It’s not just ironic, it’s irrelevant. We can agree the more stories there are told by women of colour, and on their own terms, the better. And in the meantime, we can be grateful to Zakiya Dalila Harris for ensuring that conversation stays front and centre.
The Other Black Girl is published by Bloomsbury.