A literary mix of “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Get Out”: “The Other Black Girl” by Zakiya Dalila Harris | Books
Advertising material for Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut novel, The other black girl, describe the book as a literary mix of The devil wears Prada and Get out. This sets the bar high with the promise of a cultural landmark – a timely, hilarious, witty, mildly terrifying, emotionally textured novel and aware of the social and political issues black women face around the world and At work. Is the novel worth the hype? Yes. It should be at the top of your summer reading list.
The story begins in the summer of 2018. Nella Rogers (see: acclaimed Harlem Renaissance author Rogers Larsen) is in her second year of work as an editorial assistant at Wagner Books. A graduate of the University of Virginia and the daughter of a college dean, Rogers is privileged but still at a disadvantage compared to her wealthier white peers. Rogers craves a promotion and wonders if his career rise is being interrupted by his race, his campaign for a more diverse workplace, or something else. Rogers leans on two sound boxes – her best friend, Malaika, another black girl in her twenties, and her white boyfriend, Owen. The book takes its title from a new recruit who disrupts Rogers’ status as the proverbial Wagner fly in buttermilk.
Rogers is immediately delighted and bewildered by Wagner’s new editorial assistant, Hazel-May McCall. They bond over things from college-educated black girls – literary tastes, a Zora Neale Hurston mug. But McCall quickly eclipsed Rogers, teaming up with company editor Richard Wagner and grabbing the mic at a fall marketing meeting. Shortly after McCall’s start date, Rogers finds a mysterious note on his desk: “LEAVE WAGNER NOW”. Is McCall the culprit? Or are there darker forces at work?
A gripping subplot revolves around a book by Wagner that hit the bestseller list in 1983 and deepened the friendship between its author, Diana Gordon, and her publisher, her childhood friend, Kendra Rae Phillips. Phillips ignites dramatically after speaking out on television about racism in the publishing industry and America in general. His subsequent demise and unfulfilled career ambitions haunt both Rogers and this text. The stories of Rogers and Phillips surprisingly intersect as the novel turns into a gripping thriller revolving around a secret brainwashing effort and an underground resistance movement.
One of the pleasures of The other black girl is its unwavering appeal to black female readers. References to the black culture of the 90s (Janet Jackson’s braids in Poetic justice, A different world reruns) to many portions of angst, conversation, and hair-related intrigue, black girls will appreciate how their experiences, perspectives, and quirks are centered in this novel. At the heart of the book is Rogers’ belief – confirmed by personal experience as well as data – that the games are stacked against black women. Rogers looks back on “… the day she first learned that it wasn’t enough for her to go to college, get good grades, and get the interview.” That it would not be enough to show up for work; to just wear the right clothes. You had to have the right mindset. You had to live the mentality. Be everyone’s best friend. Be sassy. Be confident, but also respectful. Be spiritual, but also down to earth. Be awake, but keep some of that sleep in your eyes too. “
Harris is a capable and funny writer who creates a compelling, likeable, and complex protagonist. Glimpsing the inner life and Rogers’ friendship with Malaika is like hearing the real thoughts and conversations of a young black woman. Harris creates well-written characters without flattering black readers or translating African-American cultural shorthand for white audiences. While I generally enjoyed this book, the transitions between the current story starring Rogers and McCall and the past narrative were awkward at times, and a major plot point seemed underdeveloped.
And yet, I believe that the novel will assume its place as a cultural artefact which resonates particularly with black readers. He is part of an exciting wave of recent fiction from black millennial writers, including Alexia Arthurs How to love a Jamaican, Kiley Reid’s Such a fun age, and Candice Carty-Williams, based in London Queen. Readers who never tire of publishing novels in the workplace should also see Camille Perri’s debut, Assistants.
The other black girl conscientiously and honestly recaps the debates in the literary world on how to straighten out its long legacy of anti-darkness. One cannot help but note the irony of a major publisher promoting a dismantling of the industry. That said, it is heartwarming to witness a full press effort, accompanied by significant marketing, publicity and (hopefully) great author breakthrough in support of the early days of ‘a young black writer. I hope this isn’t the last time we hear Harris, as his heartbreaking, chilling ending seems to promise a sequel.