By Ekta R. Garg
July 28, 2021
Genre: Women’s fiction / satire
Release date: June 1, 2021
Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars
A Black woman finds herself befriending the only other woman of color in her workplace. Instead of becoming confidantes, she discovers that the woman was hired to carry out a specific agenda and she’s next in line as its target. Debut author Zakiya Dalila Harris uses some of her own experiences from her job in publishing to limited dramatic effect in her novel The Other Black Girl.
Nella Rogers has been with Wagner Books for two years now as an editorial assistant, and she’s waiting for her opportunity to move up. Despite the daily slights and microaggressions she endures from her colleagues and bosses, Nella believes one day she can influence publishing to showcase more work by the Black community. In fact, she came to Wagner Books because decades earlier it produced the dynamic Black writer-editor team of one of the most influential novels in recent times.
No one else understands how much that novel meant to Nella, though, because no one else understands what it’s like to be the only Black woman in the editorial department. Then Hazel-May McCall, another Black woman, gets hired, and Nella feels like she can breathe a little. Most of her coworkers are nice enough, but they don’t experience the same challenges Nella does. Now she won’t be so alone.
Hazel seems to be perfect friend material and the right person to bring more diversity to the office. She grew up in Harlem, and her grandfather died in a civil rights march. Nella has never doubted her own “Blackness,” but growing up in a middle-class home in Connecticut didn’t really challenge her sense of self that much. It wasn’t until she moved to New York that she became hyperaware of race as part of her identity.
At first Nella and Hazel hit it off. Bit by bit, Hazel becomes the office darling. She’s giving fashion advice to Nella’s boss and hobnobbing with the head of the company—things that Nella wished she could do but has never pursued. Now Hazel is getting all the attention, even swiping Nella’s ideas and presenting them as her own.
Then someone leaves an anonymous note on Nella’s desk that tells her to leave Wagner Books. One note turns into two, and Nella starts looking over her shoulder as she wonders who’s threatening her and why. Is Hazel connected to any of this?
As Nella navigates office politics, the demands of her job, and her social life, she discovers that something bigger is in play. At the end of it all, she’ll have to decide what means the most to her: her identity or her job.
Author Zakiya Dalila Harris worked for almost three years as an editorial assistant at Knopf Doubleday before leaving to write The Other Black Girl. She says in her author’s note that much of the novel is based on her real-life experiences. Despite that assertion, however, the book seems somewhat implausible. Harris tips too far into melodramatic territory to create challenges for Nella.
Nella is, at best, passive. Throughout most of the novel, she allows the story to pull her first in one direction and then another. She complains about racial inequity in the workplace, but her half-hearted attempts to fight it make it seem like she’s doing the very thing that she accuses Hazel of: pandering to the white employees in the office.
The story jumps from present day to events in the past, making for confusing reading. Secondary characters, too, get short shrift. Nella has a white boyfriend who genuinely cares about her and racial inequality, but as she obsesses about Hazel she ignores her boyfriend completely. Eventually, like several other secondary characters, he doesn’t figure into Nella’s life at all.
Harris puts datelines at the start of each chapter, but they don’t seem to hold much significance. Also, the climax comes late enough in the story that some readers may not stick around for it.
One positive aspect of the book is the tradition of Black hair care that Harris shares. Readers unaware of this heritage handed down from one generation to the next will learn a lot. It’s a shame, then, that Harris didn’t spend nearly as much time in the details of the plot. The final reveal in the last few pages, too, might turn some readers off.
Those wanting to read one of the most talked-about books of the summer season may want to check this out; otherwise, I recommend readers Borrow The Other Black Girl.