Getting To Know Zakiya Dalila Harris: The Author Of Debut Novel ‘The Other Black Girl’
Every now and then, a novel comes along and steers the dialogue in such a way that even those who haven’t read it yet, can sense its buzz and importance. Enter: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, which is currently being developed into a TV series by Hulu and remains the book everyone is talking about this summer.
Zakiya Dalila Harris was raised in Connecticut and now lives in Brooklyn as a full-time writer, after previously working in publishing, an experience which inspired her to write The Other Black Girl. Half thriller, half social satire, this book reflects the story of Nella, the only Black woman working at a fictional publishing house until her co-worker Hazel joins. The narrative follows a complicated relationship between the two females, exploring the nuances of female friendship, as well as the difficulties navigating the Black experience in a predominantly white space, whilst both characters try to progress in their careers. Described as ‘Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada’, this book is a dynamic exploration and social commentary on race and the workplace that will keep you on the edge of your seat until the last page.
We caught up with the author on her experience in publishing, the inspiration behind her lead characters and cover design, the allure of horror and thriller as genres, and how she hopes The Other Black Girl will inspire meaningful diversity within the workplace: “I hope readers will learn something and really think about what it means to have an inclusive workplace. A workplace that people can not just be in, but thrive in, especially people, young people of colour.”
So, first of all, can you tell us about your background and experience in publishing?
Before writing this book, I worked in publishing as an editorial assistant, and then as an assistant editor after two years. I had done an MFA in creative writing right before I went into publishing, and I was doing a lot of writing workshops that required me to review other people’s writing. That led to my desire to work in publishing, but I have to say, I’ve always wanted to be a writer myself. So while I was working in publishing, I was also freelancing and ghostwriting. I was still trying to be as creative as I could be, which was hard. When I was promoted to assistant editor, that was the moment I thought, ‘if this is going to be my career, I’m going to commit to it.’
However, publishing has a lot of problems. In some ways, it felt like it wasn’t developing with the times as quickly as it should have been and I was one of the very few Black people at my imprint where I worked, as well as the only Black woman in editorial.
How did this influence your decision to write 'The Other Black Girl'?
The idea came to me after I ran into another Black woman in the bathroom at work. I remember wondering who she was, where she was from, and why I hadn’t seen her before. I was very aware of any other Black people when they were around at work, and when I saw her, I was excited. Yet we didn’t have an interaction – I don’t really know why.
I went back to my desk and I thought not so much about her, but more about my own excitement and the weight and exhaustion of working in a place that did not reflect the society that I knew, in terms of how white and old-school it was. It really got me thinking about my own time there and how strange it was that I had normalised being the only Black woman. I enjoyed the job, but there were things I found conflicting. I started writing the book in my cubicle, and chapter one came immediately from that interaction in the bathroom.
You mentioned that you have always wanted to be a writer - when exactly did you first realise you loved reading and writing?
It was during my childhood. I was shy growing up and very quiet. I really enjoyed writing stories and making them into books with illustrations to show to my parents. I was also a big Goosebumps and Roald Dahl fan. I liked stories that tended to be quirky or out of this world and that translated to my tastes. My Dad is also a writer and teaches journalism, so that’s always been in my life too. I think writing is sometimes seen as not a viable way of living, and although it can be challenging, my parents encouraged me to pursue it when I wanted to.
Can you tell us a bit about the lead character Nella, for those who haven’t read The Other Black Girl yet?
Nella is an editorial assistant in her 20s, who was born and raised in New England. She has been the only Black person working at Wagner books for the last two years. So even though she’s the only one, and she’s dealing with microaggressions and speaking out for all Black people in all spaces, she’s also grown very used to being the only Black person. This is because of her time growing up in Connecticut and the fact she went to a very white school – she’s always had one foot in this world.
However, since her childhood Nella has undergone a lot of changes; she has become more aware of her Blackness and she’s become more aware of the privilege of being raised in a middle-class family. She had a lot of experiences that other Black people haven’t, so there are complexities to consider. She also has to navigate Wagner Books and this 1950s style way of doing things whilst trying to work her way up the ladder in the hope of being the next Black editor.
How did you start to form her character? What inspired her traits?
It was a lot of my own experiences. I was also raised in Connecticut and got very used to being the only Black person. I used to wish I had hair that looked like all of my white friends, and I wished I could fit in seamlessly without being so obviously different. The same narrative followed me as I got older and I finally got to meet other Black people too. I was suddenly aware of the fact that not every Black person talks like me, and some people thought I was more like a white person, and so on. All of this caused anxiety within me. I didn’t felt like I was Black enough, even though myself and my family had a real connection to Black History. Having the outside world tell me one thing when I felt something else was really jarring. I used all of this in my creation of Nella and her narrative.
When Hazel (‘the other Black girl’) joins the publishing house, Wagner, Nella is initially excited to form a friendship with her and have someone who understands what it’s like to work in a space dominated by white people. You’ve touched on this already, but is this a desire you had yourself whilst working in publishing?
I found Black people in publishing communities, and there would be mixers and events but it’s different from working with people directly. I wished I had at least one person to turn to; to discuss interpretations and things that could be problematic.
Something I’ve wanted to really get out with a book was that a lot of the benefits of having diversity isn’t just about numbers; it’s about having an environment that feels better. It’s important to just feel like you can bring things up, and I think that’s easier when you’re not the only Black person or the minority. Diversity means you can express yourself and your feelings without them being coded, or seen as “the Black view.”
In the book, when Hazel comes into the picture, Nella is no longer “the Black view,” she’s being compared to Hazel. Hazel becomes the “new Black view”, and they can’t just exist together. This is another reason why it’s important to make these environments a lot more populated.
For those who haven’t read the book, why is Hazel and Nella’s relationship so challenging?
It’s challenging in a lot of ways because of everybody else. I won’t spoil it, but a lot of what Hazel does comes from the environment and the world we’re in, which still has ties to white supremacy. Some progress has been made, and there are people publishing who are more forward-thinking, but I think there’s still this mentality of “this is the way it’s always been done,” so we don’t need to get more people from other races in.
Both Hazel and Nella are suffering from the sense that there can only be “one of us”, and I think that plays a big part in their relationship. However, their personalities are so different in a lot of ways too. All of this combined creates the perfect storm for this really complicated relationship.
Hazel's character is fascinating and I really enjoyed learning more about her whenever she came into the novel. Did you have fun forming her character, and what was the inspiration behind her traits?
So much fun. I think because I’m such an agreeable person – such a Nella in a lot of ways – I’ve always wanted to go with the flow and get along with people. So I enjoyed writing Hazel because she just throws the wrench in everything. Also, I just love complicated female friendships, and both characters were being so passive-aggressive at times. It was great fun to show all the ways in which that manifested in this white office, where nobody else knew what was going on.
“I just love complicated female friendships and both characters were being so passive-aggressive at times. It was great fun to show all the ways in which that manifested in this white office, where nobody else knew what was going on.”
Hair is an ongoing point of conversation and salient theme throughout the novel - something which Nella’s character seems to struggle with. Can you talk a little bit about how it plays into the narrative and the significance of including this?
Hair certainly has been a big part of my experience in finding myself. Like Nella, I relaxed my hair and straightened it for a very long time. I wanted to fit in. Then there was a moment six years ago where I just cut it all off and went natural – it was so empowering for me. I felt more connected in a lot of ways to the Black experience. I know that’s not everyone’s encounter, and we are all different, but for me, it felt like I was finally accepting who I was, and who I naturally was.
I wanted that to be somewhat the same for Nella and the thing that draws her to Hazel. Despite how different they are, they both have had experiences being Black women with natural hair. Hazel with her dreadlocks and Nella with her own tiny fro. I wanted that to be the thing that initially brought them together because I know that would pull me to another woman of colour in the office – it’s an easy thing to find common ground on. However, what happens when that thing that you presume is going to bring you together, actually pulls you apart? That was fun to explore in the book.
Can you tell us a little about the cover design too?
Bloomsbury actually came up with a cover. We hadn’t talked about it yet but they presented it to me, and I was amazed. To me, it represents not just Black hair but also Black thought. There are pieces that are broken, and I think it speaks to how as Black people, we don’t always all agree on the same thing, which is a key theme of the book. I think it also implies how when we’re not united, we’re not fully functioning. In the same way, the cover shows it’s not a tool that is useful anymore.
When did you first realise you wanted this novel to become a more surreal, thrilling story? Was this always the plan?
I have always been a big fan of horror and sci-fi genres, so I knew that I wanted to do something that matched that sensibility. I love Get Out, The Twilight Zone, and Black Mirror. I’m drawn to those stories that start in a certain place and then go down a whole different path. So immediately, when I was writing about the two women, I knew there would be something off with one of them and that something would very likely be not of this world.
Your novel has already been described as a cross between The Devil Wears Prada and Get Out, and you’ve just mentioned some films and shows you love. Do film and television always influence your writing?
Absolutely. I have watched more horror, thriller, and suspense stories than I’ve read, however, that is something I plan to remedy. It was so fun writing in this way, so I’d love to dive into that world more. I definitely think I had a cinematic sense of the world while I was writing too because I’ve lived and worked a lot of these experiences in the book. I could see the characters and the conversations really clearly.
And the book has been signed by Hulu to create a TV series, which is really exciting...
It was very unexpected. I wasn’t writing with that in mind, and so to have it kind of connect with people in that way is really remarkable. I’m currently co-writing it with Rashida Jones, and it’s so exciting. It’s been thrilling getting a handle on this world, and it’s so different from books – but very fun.
Congratulations - we can’t wait to watch it. And whilst we're on the topic of sort of film and television, what have you been watching lately?
Search Parties which is on HBO now. I’m very into true crime, and the story follows the main character looking for this girl she went to college with who disappears. It’s psychological, funny, and dark, so it’s right up my alley.
How do you want people to feel after reading The Other Black Girl? What learnings do you hope they come away with?
This might be a big claim, but I want readers to feel like they’ve learned something about themselves. Whether it’s related to prejudice or something that happens in the book, that they do and don’t realise, it might be problematic. I think that once the conversations are had by all people – not just white people – the ways in which we treat each other, the ways in which we see ourselves, and the ways in which we move through the world can only get better.
Hopefully, it will also inspire people to aim for more meaningful diversity and really think about what it means to have an inclusive workplace. A workplace that people can not just be in, but thrive in, especially people, young people of colour.
“I want readers to feel like they've learned something about themselves. Whether it's related to prejudice or something that happens in the book, that they do and didn't realise might problematic.”
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I’ve almost finished a book called Cultish by Amanda Montel. It asks a lot of questions about human nature and why people join cults, as well as what it means to call something a cult. I love reading about language. I’m also really enjoying The Process by Robert Jones Jr and All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M. Morris, which isn’t out until November. It opens with a Black woman finding her white boss dead in the office, who was also her lover. It’s fast-paced, fun, and very well written.
Any tips for those looking to step into a writing career?
Be open-minded. I think it’s important to try different kinds of writing. I chose non-fiction for my masters and ended up really enjoying it, which made me write and research in ways I’ve never done before. That was really useful for writing this book. I’ve also written book reviews, and I’ve done copywriting. Try and do as much writing as possible – it’ll keep you flexible and give you more options for careers.
Great advice, thank you. And what’s next for you?
Right now, I’m just focusing on the TV show. It’s so new to me still, so I’m really trying to make sure I don’t rush into any other creative projects just yet. I’m enjoying getting a handle on this and having so much fun.