By Ekta R. Garg

September 23, 2021

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Release date: June 1, 2021

Genre: Women’s fiction/satire

For anyone who is a minority, the question of culture comes up every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. It could come up in something as simple as what to wear or what to make for dinner. It could be as complicated as who to marry—will they be from your same culture or outside of it.

Regardless, every member of a minority group has a story or experience to share unique to them that is directly related to their racial or cultural heritage. When I read The Other Black Girl, the Black traditions surrounding hair care informed me of something new. In that regard for me the book wins.

To use that heritage in a fictional setting, then, to betray fictional characters who also share it could be seen as wholly wrong. As I mentioned last week, many Black women felt that way after reading the book. Their reviews talk about how the book should have done the exact opposite: built up the Black community. If Black people have a difficult time overall, Black women, they said, have it even tougher. No need to complicate things.

If I pull back as a reviewer or an editor or even an author, from a mechanical standpoint what Harris did makes sense. Looking at the book purely as a collection of plot points, her choices are the most logical ones. Brave, even, some might say.

They certainly got people talking.

I haven’t read many interviews with Harris, but I would venture to guess that her intention in writing the book was to start a conversation. It was to get people to pay attention. On that point, she scored top marks across the board.

Even before it came out, the book was scoring positive reviews. Hulu won a competitive bid to turn the book into a mini-series. People are talking and thinking about this book, and if the mini-series gets off the ground an even wider audience will be exposed to it and what it has to say about race and the working culture.

I wonder if I have the chops to write something that starts a conversation at this level. I don’t know yet what the conversation would be about. I’ve had a fairly normal life. Almost boring, even. I rode my bike as a kid, went to school, participated in extracurriculars. I just happened to come home to a plate of rajma-chawal (kidney beans and rice) for dinner instead of mac and cheese.

Now, though, that I’m older and am able to view my experiences with some distance and clarity—and, on occasion, objectivity—I think about how I would translate all of them into stories within the context of being the child of immigrants. Of being Indian-American. A minority.

Many kids of Indian immigrants eschew their heritage. They walk, talk, dress, eat everything American and don’t want to have anything to do with the South Asian subcontinent. Not me. On the best of days, I revel in this culture that gives me firsthand access to Bollywood music and the best biryani. On the worst of days—when I’m forced into a moment of reckoning where I have to make those “Indian or American” choices—I squirm and chafe under its demands.

All of it, though, is worth writing about. I know that. Writers, we’re told, write what they know. I’ve always thought a better approach would be to write outward from a familiar experience. If you think of it as a spiral, the center of the spiral—the tightest spot—is the real-life incident, and the writing and dramatization come as we spiral outward.

I don’t know if that’s what Harris did. She said the book stemmed from her short career in publishing, but there had to be so many other experiences that also contributed, heavily, to the final story. Maybe getting into publishing gave her the final vehicle into which she could put her book and make it go.

I wasn’t a fan of it, as I’ve said before, but I do admire her ability to start that conversation. We need to have it, over and over again, many times, in all sorts of avenues and with a variety of backdrops, until we get this whole thing with race relations right. I dream of doing the same, of contributing something worthy to the world that can start a conversation to make people think.

I don’t think it’s my job to change someone’s mind, but if I write about something personal and it makes a person change their mind because of what I shared, then I know I’ll have won the biggest writing prize of all: making a lifetime impact on someone.