I see the term “genre-bending” knocked about haphazardly pretty often, but I think it is a fitting way to describe The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. It’s not quite a thriller, because for most of the book we get social commentary and light but painfully accurate satire. The prose is plain and doesn’t make waves, but it’s not super commercial – the characters, and specially the protagonist, Nella Rogers, are complex and have their psyche explored in subtle and powerful ways. It’s not really science-fiction either, despite its brilliant twists of a ‘speculative’ nature. All this makes The Other Black Girl a fairly original and enjoyable book.
Nella is an editorial assistant in her mid-twenties, at the prestigious Wagner Books in Manhattan. This much-coveted role (in the book and real life) is not all roses, specially for the only Black person in the department, and nearly the whole company. Nella has to deal with micro-aggressions daily, and watch the company’s pathetic attempts at discussing and promoting diversity in the workplace. If you have ever worked in an office, chances are you know exactly what Harris is talking about, whether you are on the right or wrong side of history on this one. When Hazel, also Black, joins the company, Nella is thrilled – finally someone she could talk honestly with, someone to help her call out racist behaviour, or the racist books they publish. But that’s not how it all goes down. Where Nella thought she would find camaraderie, she starts to suspect she has found competition and perhaps even sabotaging. Or is she overreacting?
Here the book takes off and explores the impossible position Nella finds herself in. Harris explores the unbearable tension between the need to speak out and maintain your dignity and character in the workplace, and the need to keep your head down for job security or to be able to pursue those almost mythological chances of career progression in places where social status and conformity dictate success. This tension is where things get weird and fantastical – why do the POC in Hazel’s life achieve success so much faster than Nella? And why is Nella getting notes telling her to leave Wagner?
The ‘speculative’ parts of the book work so well because though they extrapolate the impact of code-switching when it is done at the expense of ethics and authenticity, the final result is not dissimilar to what happens when things are whitewashed in reality. In that sense, The Other Black Girl is reminiscent of Black Mirror. Each episode presents a scenario where technology has been taken to extremes and become the destroyer of society – but often those dystopian scenarios are alarmingly close to what we see in the world today.
It is also worth noting that weaved through Nella’s story are diary-like snippets from characters we discover very gradually, from the past, present and future. Along with Nella’s story, these give a well-rounded view of the different repercussions of discrimination and the pressure to cater to the blandness of the status-quo and the catatonic nature of its gatekeepers. “Catatonic” is also how the excruciatingly ‘basic’ small talk from Nella’s colleagues is described, which if you do not have to endure at work, I envy you greatly.
Discussing this book without giving away spoilers is necessary but does it a disservice – it really is quite good and the ‘plot twists’ are not all predictable and lame, as is often the case with books involving any kind of mystery. The book is also a window into the publishing industry from a reliable source – Harris was an editorial assistant for years. The mystery women we get to know throughout the book are quite formidable and deserve books and reviews of their own, and spending 300 or so pages in Manhattan is never a bad thing.