Reviewer

By Ekta R. Garg

September 2, 2021

The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

Release date: June 1, 2021

Genre: Women’s fiction/satire

Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars

When I heard about The Other Black Girl earlier this year, I was intrigued. Some of the publicity materials hailed it as a kind of The Devil Wears Prada. Some early reviewers crowed about the book like it would change everything about the way we think about publishing and the place of BIPOC writers, editors, agents, and others connected to the industry.

The book, in my mind, is nothing like The Devil Wears Prada. That book focused on fashion and the extreme lengths people go to protect that particular industry. It’s also about a woman in power, someone everyone knows about, someone no one dares to cross.

Here, though, we’re dealing with a different story altogether—namely the story of race. Of how we treat non-white people in publishing and how they treat themselves and each other. Given all the discussions in these last couple of years on this very topic, I looked forward to reading The Other Black Girl. It took a while for me to get it from the library, because it was one of the hot books of the summer season.

I rated the book 3 stars, which for me means the book was average. I know, I’m in a minority (no pun intended there.) When I read the novel, though, I found that it didn’t quite live up to the hype. The hype, in fact, probably had more to do with how people felt after reading the book than the story itself.

Here are some things I did enjoy, though.

I learned a little bit of the vocabulary Black women use to talk to one another. I’m an author and an editor myself; language fascinates me. I often think about my parents’ native language, Hindi, and how it changes and how the nuanced meanings of words bend when translated into English, how slang comes into play. A vernacular unique to any race is the same as a different language, and it was cool to get a taste of that in this book.

I’m glad the book went into the challenges in publishing, because these are not unique to race. Yes, people of color have it much harder than anyone. Next in line are women. A few years ago, I attended a writing conference where a white male literary agent freely admitted that the people hustling the hardest in publishing are women—agents, editors, etc.—while almost all of the decision-makers, the people who hold the “keys to the kingdom,” so to speak, are white men. So we need more books that drill into these inequities in this industry.

It was reassuring to see that my own insecurities are not unique to me. As a first-generation American born to immigrant parents, I’ve often grappled through the years with my place in the Indian culture. It’s hard to know sometimes where I land; where I fit. So to hear and read that this is actually more common than what’s obvious on the surface is reassuring. Black women, and probably people of almost any non-white race, often question themselves on whether they possess enough of their own culture to suit the society in which they live. I’m not alone. And here it’s not a difference of immigrant versus native-born, which can easily shut down almost any discussion. It’s about two Black women and their varying experiences.

***

Here’s what bothered me about the book and prevented me from rating it a thousand stars, like some people want to do.

The mechanics are a little clunky. I can’t help it; during almost everything I read now, a small part of my editor brain is constantly awake and evaluating how I think the piece was written. The shifting timelines in this book were a little jarring to me. The book opens in the past. All we know is that a Black woman is running away from something big and her head itches like crazy. While Black readers will probably get that last reference right away, for those of us who don’t it’s just strange. Why isn’t she trying to get medical help, I wondered.

I was really disappointed at the ending. The basic premise of the book is this: Nella works for Wagner Books, the publisher that released her dream book decades earlier. The book was written by a Black woman and edited by a Black woman. Nella’s ambition is to be a part of team like that. She struggles, though, because she’s pretty much one of only a small handful of Black employees at Wagner and most certainly one of the highest ranking. Given that she’s an editorial assistant, that’s not saying much.

In the few years she’s been working for Wagner, she’s made half-hearted attempts at bringing up diversity. No one seems to care, and after a while she quits talking about it. When Hazel gets hired, then, Nella is thrilled. Not only will she have another Black employee to bond with—maybe they’ll become best friends!—but she feels like she’ll have someone to help her represent her race.

Hazel, though, does a lot of code-switching; that is, she changes and softens her approach whenever she comes across their white bosses and other employees. At times she agrees with Nella on things in private, and then she’ll turn right around and contradict herself when the head of Wagner shows up. Nella can’t stand it, but it seems like everyone is literally falling under some sort of weird Hazel spell.

I don’t want to spoil how this all comes about, but through the course of the book Nella learns how the people she admired most made decisions that directly affect her career. In the climax, Nella has to make a choice that can change the trajectory of her life. By the end, she’s made big compromises.

Not that fiction is supposed to fix things, but is this how we’re supposed to solve these problems? Is this really the message that should go out at a time when BIPOC authors, agents, editors, and others are fighting to be heard? Yes, I understand that author Zakiya Dalila Harris is a part of that group and that she has some authority to write about the world she did because she worked in it for a couple of years. But, really, I felt let down by the ending.

I certainly didn’t want a fairy-tale ending. That’s just as unrealistic as what happens in the book. But I also didn’t want to end the book with a feeling of, “Well, racism exists, so we’re just going to use that to our advantage somehow.” If being a racist is wrong—and it is—then isn’t using that racism against people equally wrong? And what’s worse, the racism is being used by the oppressed race against other members of the same ethnicity. How does that help anything at all?

Maybe I’m old-fashioned. Maybe that old adage “Two wrongs don’t make a right” is glued too strongly to my brain. But I just don’t see how Hazel’s “solution” really does anything other than make an already-complicated problem even harder to detangle. It’s a little depressing, actually, like the book is saying we can’t find an actual solution to fix the real problem so we’re just going to take these detours into sort-of fixing it but that actually make it worse.

I wanted to like this book and cheer it on, but as a reviewer I really didn’t think I could give it more than three stars. I am glad, though, that books like these are being released. Even if I don’t agree with their premise or how they portray people, at least the conversations are happening. Without those conversations, we can’t even acknowledge the original problem. In some respects, then, this book does its job. I just wish it wasn’t at the expense of the larger conversation.