When Nella encounters Hazel at work, a mostly white publishing house, she gets excited about finally not being the only Black woman in the room. And Hazel seems great and equally eager to strike up a friendship. But Nella soon starts to wonder about her new co-worker as her office life gets stranger and her friendship with Hazel deepens. Expect part workplace drama and part suspenseful thriller in this debut novel.
We spoke to author Zakiya Dalila Harris, who also once worked as an assistant at a publishing house, about The Other Black Girl, including how her personal experience relates to Nella’s and how to define a novel that reaches across genres.
Tell me where this story came from.
“I worked in publishing for about three years, and I really loved it, but at the same time I very quickly noticed who was sitting at the table and acquiring books and who was in charge. And it was mostly white people. I was the only Black woman in editorial and one of two Black people on my floor. I was aware of these two things and wanted to be an editor but was also aware that I would be the first Black female editor there in a long time. At the same time, I moved to New York to do my MFA in creative non-fiction because I also wanted to be a writer. In January of 2019, I had been an assistant editor for a few months and was given a book to work on on my own, which was a huge deal, but I remember feeling so bummed about it because I knew my first love was writing. I came into contact with another young Black woman on my floor at work. And I just remember being so confused and surprised and excited all at the same time. At that point, I was thirsty for anyone else, really anyone of colour, because there were not many of us. I remember wanting to meet her eye or become friends or something, but this woman didn’t make eye contact with me—which, fair, it was the bathroom. I remember going back to my desk and I started thinking about a Black woman working in a predominantly white workplace and then another Black woman starts working there, and shit gets weird.”
Were Nella’s observations and her role at the publishing house informed by your own experiences?
“My bosses and coworkers were wonderful, but [there was] definitely the tiredness and the fatigue of telling yourself that you belong there but also knowing that you kind of represent a lot of other Black people who are not there. You kind of have to be twice as good to do half as well—which is a common mantra for Black people—and in this way, Nella feels like she has to be ‘on’ all the time.”
Black hair is a thread woven throughout the book and is an important plot point. Did you know the important role this topic would play when you were writing?
“It came about organically, in a way. I have always had a very complicated relationship with my hair. I grew up in a white town with mostly white friends, and when I was 10 my mom promised me I could get a relaxer. I’ve always been thinking about it—even before I was 10. A lot of my time was with my mom and my grandma, sitting at their feet and them braiding my hair. Hair is something that Black women can really connect with, kind of across the board. A lot of women of colour can relate to the discussion around what they should do with their hair and what they feel pressured to do with their hair at a young age versus now—there’s always some kind of conversation. I knew it would be something that Nella is really drawn to in Hazel.”
If you had to pick the genre for this novel, what would it be?
“I think it’s mostly a suspenseful thriller, but it can be described in different ways. It has elements of horror, but it doesn’t feel sci-fi in the way that I think most people who read sci-fi think of the genre. I was very much going for having characters who are grounded in our world but then there’s something a little off.
Pick up The Other Black Girl for a suspenseful take on work friendship through the lens of a young Black woman.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.