Of Race and Diversity

The world of literature is abound with books that explore color, race, and identity. The discourse on race and diversity has been an inseparable part of literature. The works of esteemed writers such as Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, to name a few, have started the conversation on race, discrimination and identity and their works are still relevant in the contemporary. Time only immortalized their works for we bare witness to how these subjects remain seminal. Ironically, in a world we are supposed to have made great strides toward progress in various facets of society and culture, racism and discrimination are still prevalent. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and similar movements serve as a reminder how we are taking two steps back for every step we make forward.

True to its form, literature is still instrumental in shedding light on various social concerns. With the ascent of “woke-ness”, the new breed of writers brings forth the discourse on race, diversity, and discrimination. Zakiya Dalila Harris aims to continue this discussion while introducing her own twists through her debut novel, The Other Black Girl. The novel’s central character is Nella Rogers, a twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant working at Wagner Books, one of the pre-eminent names in the world of publishing. Nella was ambitious and, after two year of working for the company, she dreamt of getting promoted. There was also something that made Nella standout from the rest of her colleagues. She was the only black employee at Wagner.

Her being the only black employee did not escape Nella’s notice. She tried to make her voice be heard through the din by starting diversity meetings. To draw further attention to her advocacy, she became active in every office activity while subtly interspersing talks on diversity. She badly wanted to make a change but her calls for change were often dismissed. She was disheartened and felt that all the efforts she poured into her advocacy were all for naught. It was even seen by her superiors as a distraction, a hindrance that keeps her from getting her dream promotion. Her direct manager once told her: “I wish you’d put half the effort you put into those extracurricular diversity meetings into working on the core requirements.”

“Or if it was a push she’d always had within, from the day she’d first learned that it would not be enough for her to simply go to college, get good grades, and get the interview. That it wouldn’t be enough to simply show up to work; to simply wear the right clothes. You had to wear the right mentality. You had to live the mentality. Be everyone’s best friend. Be sassy. Be confident, but also be deferential. Be spiritual, but also be down-to-earth. Be woke, but still keep some of that sleep in your eyes, too.”

~ Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Other Black Girl

Imagine Nella’s delight when she learned that a new editorial assistant is joining the company and that she is black. Enter Hazel-May McCall, the titular “other black girl”. After two years of feeling isolated, Nella is happy to have another black woman in the office, taking Hazel immediately into her fold. She now has someone she can meet for lunch or after office hours to relieve the stresses and demands of their job and and talk to regarding their work, their employer, and their bosses. After all, everyone yearns for someone who can understand our situation, someone who we can reach out to in times of difficulties, and someone who we can share our deepest thoughts without the fear of judgement. To Nella, Hazel was the answer everything that she was hoping and waiting for. Nella now has a supportive office pal. But truth, as the say, is stranger than fiction.

Hazel exuded confidence, wit, and charm, qualities that Nella was bereft of. These traits made Hazel stand out from the crowd. She easily won over her colleague’s confidence, including Nella’s boss, Vera, and the owner, Richard Wagner himself. She was akin to a breath of fresh air. She was also single-handedly ushering in changes that Nella have long been advocating for. As the narrative moves forward, it was palpable that Hazel did not come to play and with every progress Hazel was making, Nella was getting pushed further down the pecking order. As her dreams of getting promoted started to wither, Nella started receiving random but ominous notes. In a threatening tone, these notes were asking her to leave.

On the surface, The Other Black Girl comes across as a typical office novel. With two black women at its center, the readers were regaled into an unfolding office drama where must take one side. On one side of the spectrum, we see Nella. She is a young and ambitious worker but she lacked the necessary confidence to make great strides. In the bedlam, her voice is drowned, hence, the constant feeling of inappropriateness and out-of-place. What she needed was someone to bolster her self-esteem. On the other side of the spectrum are the Hazel-Mays. They are the go-getters, always brimming with confidence and are willing to fight tooth and nail to obtain what they want. They have a voice that resonates, complimented by a topnotch resume; they are the representation of the perfect office worker. In the world of Wagner Books, there were no middle grounds.

However, the novel doesn’t reduce itself into a mere office drama. The Other Black Girl was abound with insightful social commentaries about race and racism. The novel tackled the underwhelming black representation within the ambits of the media. Set in the publishing world, a healthy amount of these commentaries are specific to the industry. Harris, herself a former assistant editor, highlighted the predominantly white working space, of which the publishing industry has been known for. On a brighter note, the narrative did highlight the increasing role of sensitivity reading, especially in a world where whiff of misinterpretations can easily lead to cancellation. There was also the inherent risk of authors attempting to write characters that they don’t understand. This was also the pivotal point of the narrative as one of Wagner’s bestselling white authors attempted to portray a black female character. Shartricia Daniels, the black character in question, came across as a product of stereotypes, a fact that Nella pointed out; the writer’s ego was, naturally, offended by the candid remark.

“Once you stop fighting—once you let this wave wash over you—you’ll see. It’ll wash over you so quickly, you won’t even feel it. You won’t feel the pain, the white supremacy. You’ll read those articles, watch the police footage, then go to work the next morning without feeling like another part of you has died. That heavy anvil of genetic trauma that’s been strapped to your ankle for all these years… gone. You’ll swim to the top and be free. You’ll be you. This is Black Girl Magic in its purest form.”

~ Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Other Black Girl

The office narrative, however, does not only focus on the publishing industry. Harris wove intricate details of office culture that remain prevalent in the contemporary, in any industry. Examples of these include discrimination, microaggressions, lack of diversity, and the poorly designed workplaces that hinder diversity initiatives. In terms of race, the novel vividly depicted the plight of the black employees while they try to navigate every curve and corner of the largely white office spaces. Elements of contemporary black culture also came in the form of subtle discussions and repeated reference to Black Twitter. The novel, however, did expand beyond race as it also tackled competitions inherent in the workplace, and the concerns of the millennial employee, from guilt to self-blame. Harris also magnified on a workplace teeming with underpaid workers and a management with inflated egos.

All throughout the narrative, one leitmotif does stand out – the importance of hair. Whilst for the common woman, her hair is her crowning glory, for the African American women, it holds more meaning than that. This was also a subject that was underlined by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her novel, Americanah. From the onset, Harris drew the reader’s attention to hair. When Hazel first entered the premises of Wagner, the first thing that made Nella identify her presence was the scent of the hair product she used, albeit a slightly different one. Hazel was also quick to promote her own hair product; the readers even get to see Hazel, Nella and their friends bond in a hair salon. And her locs – each one as thick as a bubble tea straw and longer than her arms – started out as a deep brown, then turned blonde as they continued past her ears. She’d gathered a bunch and piled them on top of her head in a bun; the locs that hadn’t made it hung loosely around the nape of her neck.

The narrative was also shrouded in a veil of mystery. Harris introduced Kendra and Diana, the older counterparts of Nella and Hazel. Kendra was a former editor at Wagner who disappeared 35-years before the the novel’s contemporary period of 2018. It was Nella’s biggest dream to become the new Kendra in publication. Diana, on the other hand, was a writer and was Kendra’s best friend. Their story was interjected in shifting point-of-views that are scattered throughout the narrative. However, rather than adding value to the narrative, their story came across as distractions from the main plot. It was a literary blunder that could have been cut off entirely. Else, Harris could have expanded more on their story to further establish their place in the overall tapestry of the novel.

The novel was brimming with promise but it did take time to develop. Harris spent over 200 pages to lay out the landscape of the story. It was littered with innocuous interactions between Nella, Hazel and their colleagues. The plot and the tension only started to unravel and thicken in its final stretch. Harris started to move the story in the last fifty pages or so but by then, it was a little too late. She rushed the conclusion, leaving an unsatisfactory and incomplete ending to a narrative that is desirous of more answers. The novel’s most scintillating element was Harris’ vivid portrayal of office culture but the novel’s overall impact was weighed down by its tendency for repetitions.

“With heightened awareness of cultural sensitivity comes great responsibility. If we’re not careful, “diversity” might become an item people start checking off a list and nothing more — a shallow, shadowy thing with but one dimension.”

~ Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Other Black Girl

The most lamentable facet, however, was Nella herself. She came across not as a black woman seeking to establish her black identity but rather as a black woman trying to fit in to a white society. Her efforts were directed to earning validation from her white bosses. However, this can be seen as the impact of the microaggressions and the daily indignities she had to put up with in her predominantly white workplace. Nevertheless, she lacked personality and it was palpable that she struggled to find her own voice amidst the bedlam. Her inaudible voice made her subservient to the opinions of those around her, such as her best friend Malaika and Hazel. In stark dichotomy to Nella, Malaika had more spunk and fire.

Parts-literary fiction, parts-mystery fiction, The Other Black Girl can also be studied under a different lens, that of a dark precautionary tale with hints of science fiction. The struggles of Nella reverberated with the consequences of when one tries to change one’s self in order to conform with the general consensus. Harris did a superb job of examining the impacts and damages of an aggressive white space to the one’s psyche. This does not only apply to the office setting but also in general. However, Harris’ debut leaves deeper impression and not on the positive side. The power of the premise was let down by her blunders, from the slow pace, to the unimpressionable main character, to the rushed conclusion, and to the questionable plot devices. The story does require some tightening but Harris did a commendable job of highlighting Nella’s plight.

Ratings

51%

Characters (30%) – 14%
Plot (30%) – 16%
Writing (25%) – 13%
Overall Impact (15%) – 8%

I didn’t realize it but I have been reading many debut novels these past few years. This is kind of uncharacteristic of me. On the other hand, I did resolve to read the debut works of popular novelists. What I did not expect is the number of debut novels of new writers that I have been reading. When I was researching for books to include in my 2021 Books To Look Forward To List, Zakiya Dalila Harris’ The Other Black Girl came in highly recommended. It was also part of similar lists, hence, its inclusion in my own list. I was looking forward to the book and when I got the chance to buy a copy of it, I didn’t hesitate. The Other Black Girl had an interesting premise and I did like the details of the publishing world. However, it just fell flat. It took time for the story to pick up and Nella Rogers was just an underwhelming character. There were also parts where I begun questioning the direction Harris was steering the narrative. The mystery element was also underwhelming. I just felt lost. I know there is something deeper message buried in the hefty text. Overall, it was not a horrible book but I feel like the story did not live up to its full potential

Book Specs

Author: Zakiya Dalila Harris
Publisher: Atria International
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 354
Genre: Thriller, Literary Fiction

Synopsis

Twenty-six-year-old editorial assistant Nella Rogers is pretty tired of being the only Black girl at Wagner Books – so of course she’s excited when Hazel-May McCall starts working in the cubicle beside hers. Born and raised in Harlem, Hazel exudes the confidence and charm that Nella has never quite possessed. But they’ve only just started swapping emails and natural hair care regimes when a string of unsettling events causes Nella to become public enemy number one, and Hazel, the office darling. As Nella begins to spiral, obsess, and ultimately uncover the sinister forces at play, she risks losing much more than just her career. Propulsive, darkly funny, and endlessly surprising, The Other Black Girl will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt manipulated or outmaneuvered, threatened or overlooked. As disturbing as it is tender, this is a novel that questions the silence we trade for success, and asks whether that sacrifice can truly be worth it.

About the Author

Zakiya Dalila Harris was born and raised in Connecticut, United States.

Harris received her bachelor’s degree from  the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has received her Masters in Fine Arts in Nonfiction Creative Writing from the New School. For nearly three years, she worked as an editorial assistant then as assistant editor at Knopf Doubleday. Her essays and book reviews have been published in online publications such as Cosmopolitan, Guernica and The Rumpus. She left her assistant editor job in order to focus on writing her first novel. In 2021, Harris published her first novel, The Other Black Girl to positive acclaim. A television adaptation of the novel is currently in development.

Harris currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.