By Ekta R. Garg, Editor

September 9, 2021

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Release date: June 1, 2021

Genre: Women’s fiction/satire

While I appreciated the overall gist of this book, right from the get-go I had problems with its structure and storytelling method. As I mentioned in last week’s post, in the opening pages we see a woman running away from something. There’s a short scene where a person on the train essentially identifies her as “that woman from the newspaper,” and she pulls the doppelganger card; that is, she says she’s not the person in the newspaper when by this point we clearly know she is.

That sequence of events happens in the past. Then the story moves to story present and Nella in her office. She smells cocoa butter and is wondering where it’s coming from when word buzzes around the office that one of the editors is interviewing yet another candidate for the open assistant position. Not only that, but this candidate is [cue stage whisper] Black.

Colleagues give Nella significant looks, and she can’t help but feel excited. Zakiya Dalila Harris does a good job of amping up Nella’s position in the company by this point, so we get a sense of how lonely she is when it comes to other Black employees, people to bond with. Harris does spend a little bit of time talking about how Nella didn’t really feel the depth of her loneliness until she moved to New York City from her regular, middle-class home in Connecticut. There she didn’t think about race nearly as much. Here, she nearly obsesses over it.

So we have a protagonist who is open to new friendships and, eventually, the compromises that Hazel cajoles her into making bit by bit. Great; I was with the book so far in terms of concept. But I have to admit that something about the tone of the narrative put me off right from the beginning. It was almost too aware of itself as a story, as if the novel as a whole knew it was going to be read by non-Black readers and needed to be their “in” so they could understand Nella’s challenges and Hazel’s role as the antagonist.

Then there are the flashbacks to other characters whose identity, for the longest time, I couldn’t figure out. I understood in a broad sense that one of them must have been the Black editor Nella admired and the other one the writer of the book she loved. The book, though, plays coy with their identities, and it’s not clear why or how that contributes to Nella’s story overall. There are also sections from an unnamed third character that just threw me off a little every time I encountered them.

It’s possible I’m not woke enough to follow what was going on; maybe I just don’t know the Black community, and so I couldn’t figure things out. I do know how to think like an editor, though, and the biggest thing that came across to me in this entire novel was Nella’s ambivalence. It’s like she really can’t take a stand on anything. No wonder she ends up changing in such a drastic way by the end.

Hazel, on the other hand, knows exactly who she is and what she wants. Many people are calling this book satire; others are calling it a psychological thriller. I would lean more toward the latter description rather than the former, because Hazel is laser-focused on her goal, even if readers don’t know what that is at first. Nella comes across as wishy-washy. Hazel, while carrying the mantle of antagonist, is definitely the stronger of the two.

The plot gets complicated by the bullying that Nella experiences. Someone is sending her anonymous messages that tell her to leave the publishing company, Wagner Books. The intrigue and mystery behind the sender of the notes was handled well. Readers will probably start out thinking they know who’s sending them and be surprised at the reveal. Yet that very reveal is also puzzling, almost like a “Where did that come from?”.

The book also has major weaknesses in the plotting. Nella has a white boyfriend who sincerely cares about race issues and loves her, yet she ghosts him regularly to the point where it’s easy to forget he exists. Whole passages go by where Nella barely even interacts with him because of her obsession with getting to know Hazel.

She and her boyfriend live together and when Nella comes home at the end of a long day, it seems like that’s when Harris remembers to include the scenes of tension with said boyfriend. However, he really serves absolutely no purpose in the story. He could easily have been taken out of the entire novel and everything would have turned out exactly the same.

I did enjoy, immensely, the conversations about hair and the tradition and heritage, the culture, around all of it. I could have honestly read an entire book about those traditions and how the women of the Black community relate to one another in those times they spend together. It made me think of how families in India have the same sort of experiences in applying oil to their hair, the most typical picture being a mother sitting in a chair with her child sitting on the floor in front of her as she rubs the oil into the scalp. Definitely relatable for me.

Because Harris is trying to do so much in a single book, though, the topic of hair care and what it represents gets discussed and then shoved off to the side in jarring intervals. I wanted the story to slow down, but it skips along to other portions because we have to get back to those too. I realize the length of the book may have come into play here; publishers have to be practical about these things. But I wish Harris had gotten more space and time with this aspect of the story.

I also wish the big twist at the end—the mechanism by which Hazel changes the game—would have been way more believable. It just wasn’t, not by a long shot. Not for me, anyway.

The story, for the most part, generated quite a bit of buzz in the spring and summer and now is in development for an adaptation on Hulu, so, yes, I know my opinion is not widely shared. I think the book needed a more critical eye in the developmental stage. Had I edited it, I know, I would have probably spent way more time with the author on what her goals were in every scene and chapter. Unfortunately this book just didn’t move me like it did so many other people.