Zakiya Dalila Harris. Photo credit: Nicole Mondestin Photography
In its first week of sale, The Other Black Girl (Atria Books, 2021) made the New York Times best-seller list. A TV adaptation is now underway with Hulu. This success is all the more impressive for a debut novel—one that draws, in part, on material author Zakiya Dalila Harris developed during her Creative Writing M.F.A. at The New School. Harris recently returned to The New School for a conversation with her former teacher, author and faculty Zia Jaffrey, about racism in the publishing industry, bending genre, and creating a character who is “subtly diabolical.” The interview was presented by the Creative Writing Program at the Schools of Public Engagement. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Zia Jaffrey [ZJ]: Thank you all for being with us today. . . It’s an absolute pleasure to introduce you to Zakiya Dalila Harris. Zakiya is the author of The Other Black Girl, which was published in June of this year to nearly universal acclaim. The novel, her first, is an ingenious, genre-bending exploration of diversity in the white liberal space of publishing. It follows the life of Nella, the only Black editorial assistant at Wagner Books in New York City. After two years there, Nella is hoping for a promotion. She has also initiated Diversity town hall meetings, an effort her boss, Vera, has called “extracurricular.” But it may have paid off. Nella soon learns that Wagner has just hired another Black editorial assistant named Hazel. The novel charts their solidarity and conflict in the workplace. Early on, Hazel says to Nella, “And tell me, how do they feel about Black people around here?” Nella says, “I’ll just put it this way. They don’t ‘see’ color at Wagner.” The book raises the tantalizing question: Is there really room for two of them there?
The Other Black Girl has been reviewed everywhere and hit the New York Times best-seller list in its first week of publication. It has been called “original,” “daring,” “brilliant,” and “bright and funny.” The Guardian review wrote, “There is loneliness in being the only one. It resonates through Harris’s imaginative and audacious novel.” A New York Times reviewer asked, “Has literature ever smelled so strongly of cocoa butter?” A reviewer for Vox wrote that the book confronts “genuine issues about the problems Black women face in all white spaces, but it does so with a joyous verve that will have readers galloping through every page.” The novel is also being adapted into a Hulu TV series, co-written by Zakiya. I should mention that she received a seven-figure advance and fourteen publishers bid on the book.
Zakiya Dalila Harris was born and raised in Connecticut. She received her B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and got her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at The New School in 2016. Shortly afterwards, she began to work at Knopf Doubleday as an editorial assistant, where she remained for almost three years. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Rumpus, Guernica, Cosmopolitan and other venues.
Though the book has been called an “indictment” of the publishing industry, one of the reasons I love the novel is that it is not a screed or treatise. In fact, it is an “indictment” precisely because of its ambiguities. Zakiya uses complex characterization and psychological nuance to explore the difficult questions, and she leaves space for the reader always to feel and reflect. There are no easy answers here.
Zakiya, on behalf of all of us in the department and all of your teachers and classmates, I just want to say, we are so proud of you.
Zakiya Dalila Harris [ZDH]: Zia, I’m tearing up just listening to that intro. . . I was thinking about the first time I walked into your classroom, and when I asked you to be my thesis advisor. . . I just want to say thank you, Zia. Thank you so much, New School. Thank you everyone for being here. This is a surreal, full-circle experience to be here with you tonight. As Zia so beautifully stated in the intro, this book, at the core of this novel are two Black women, Nella and Hazel. They both must grapple with being Black in the workplace. They grapple differently, I will say. Everyone at Wagner is white except for Nella.
[Zakiya Dalila Harris reads from her novel.]
ZJ: What was the inspiration for the tension between Nella and Hazel? Was it something from real life?
ZDH: Yeah, definitely. There are a couple inspirations. The first is that I actually had an encounter with another Black woman in the bathroom when I was working at Penguin Random House, toward the end of my time there, and thought we’d have a moment of, “Hey, girl, we’re here.” That never happened. She didn’t seem to be as taken with the idea of it as me, or whatever, it’s the bathroom. That’s when I actually started writing this book. That’s where the direct thing came from. But honestly, a lot of it came from my own experiences being really anxious about whether or not Black people accepted me. Also, being very self-aware. That was something . . . reading this scene [in which Nella and Hazel meet for the first time], I’m remembering how much in her head Nella is, and how much it really does echo my own really judging and figuring out what’s going on in certain social situations. Especially at Wagner Books, where you always feel like you’re on display, especially as Nella is a Black woman in this very white space.
ZJ: Right, exactly. How did you “channel” Hazel? There’s Nella, and Nella is complex. She speaks for the reader a lot of the time; she’s always invested in the cognitive dissonance of the moment. But then, there’s Hazel, who is just an extraordinary character, really, because she’s bonelessly sweet at times, graceful, tactful. . . Yet, there’s something diabolical and pathological about her, particularly in this white space. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about Hazel and how you conceived of her?
ZDH: Hazel comes from, like I was saying before, a lot of my anxieties but also just the worst-case scenario. Like what I think my own nightmare of finally seeing someone else who looks like me in a space where I had for so long been the only one, only for them to throw me under the bus. I thankfully did not have it as bad as Nella did. But I do remember certain instances and things happening outside in the world: police brutality, lots of things happening, and having to go to work and really silo that part off. That’s been the case in a lot of different jobs. A lot of the times that’s because I didn’t necessarily have a person of color or a Black person to talk about those things in this space with. So for Hazel to come in—and Nella to think she has a buddy—and then to suddenly discover that this person is actually not looking out for her the way that Nella always thought another Black person would do for her because that’s how she was raised. We look out for each other, we help each other up.
For that not to be the case with Hazel, it’s devastating. I really wanted to play on fear and what fear can look like, especially for someone like Nella who was raised middle-class, was told that she had to be a certain way to work her way up the ladder. Then suddenly, someone like Hazel is able to cheat, I guess I’ll say, and find other ways to get around it, and doesn’t have to be the certain kind of pleasing, quiet, agreeable person. Not in the same way that Nella is. She can work her own way up the ladder. I think that also has to do with what’s in vogue. I was imagining Hazel being the new, cool, hip Blackness that I think is honestly being appropriated by a lot of corporations and industries today. But also, it is empowering. Really questioning what Blackness is and what the best way to use it is, if there is a way you should use it.
ZJ: Right. In that scene you just read to us, Hazel’s boss introduces her as “my ‘brilliant’ new assistant.” That whole thing . . . Basically, Nella has been in this position of being the only one, and Nella has also been rooting for, and fighting for, greater diversity in the workplace. Then suddenly, Hazel sweeps in. But is Hazel actually not uncomplicated too? Is she as “cool” as she seems?
ZDH: No. Well, okay, I think it depends on who you’re talking to. Because the thing that’s been really interesting for me talking about this book with other people—especially other Black women—are people’s responses to Hazel versus Nella. There’s actually a lot more “I see Hazel” than I thought there would be. I find that fascinating. I’m not saying that people want to be Hazel’s best friend, but they definitely see that she is empowering. She’s found a way to climb the ladder, and this isn’t a spoiler. She’s found a way to move up without having to do all the things that Nella does. She’s found a way, again, to cheat the system. I think people admire that. While I was concocting Hazel—going back to your question—a lot of Hazel also were things that I wish I had in me. That confidence, that strategy that seems effortless. It’s not effortless, but it seems that way. And that can be just as frustrating for someone like Nella who’s constantly trying to figure out what the rules of the game are this time.
ZJ: In writing Hazel, what were some of the challenges? I’ve noticed that with almost all of your characters, one of the wonderful things is that they take responsibility for themselves, even if they sort of don’t. For example, Vera starts to play Nella against Hazel, but then says, “Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot to give you that manuscript.” Nella, particularly, does consciously take responsibility. But Hazel, just when you think you have her pegged, she says to Nella, “Hey, girl. This is why I did this.” It seems so supportive of Black people and so politically committed. It’s subtly diabolical, and yet placating at the same time. You’re always strung along by her, really.
ZDH: Subtly diabolical—yes, exactly. That was the thing that was the hardest part, honestly, because I really did want the response I’ve been getting about Hazel. Someone [in the New School audience] said that they wanted Hazel to be their bestie. I love it because I think that, in general, reading a book and being able to just say, this person’s bad and this person’s good. . . that was really not what I wanted with this book. That’s why I wrote Colin the way I wrote him, that’s why I wrote Diana the way I wrote her, and that’s why I wrote the ending the way that it ends. With Hazel, I really wanted people to understand where she was coming from. What would make you so desperate that you would surrender a part of yourself to make it in this world? By understanding Hazel more, I was hoping readers would also understand Nella more and what’s at stake.
I see Nella and Hazel as two halves of the same whole, in a way. I wanted Nella to see herself in Hazel, and constantly trip over that, over her own prejudices of what she thinks another Black person in this space will be like. Because again, I wanted the reader to feel something really meaningful at the end of the book.
ZJ: You see yourself in both Nella and Hazel in a way, right?
ZDH: I do. Have you seen the movie, The Mask? Jim Carrey? He puts on the mask, and suddenly he’s the party animal. He’s not necessarily a nice guy. But I do see—parts of her that I would wish to have.
ZJ: Right. What are some of the pressures on both of them in the white corporate workspace?
ZDH: This is something I was thinking about constantly while writing: so much of the pressure comes from all of the eyes that are watching them. We’re never in Hazel’s head necessarily. But when I wrote this, I imagined Hazel, of course; she’s very aware of all of the politics of the office, in this workplace as a Black woman. One of those things is just knowing you are constantly being watched. You don’t have autonomy necessarily as an assistant; definitely not as an assistant in editorial and publishing. That lack of autonomy, but then so many expectations as the Black woman, or even if you’re Black woman number two. You would think that in this case—having both of them—they’d be able to just be and not have to compare themselves to one another because now there’s another example of what it’s like to be Black. But it’s not that simple. Now you’re suddenly being compared with one another rather than all the Black people in the world. There’s this damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t kind of thing.
ZJ: There’s a divide-and-conquer mentality that starts to happen in the office . . .
ZJ: People are now playing these two Black women against each other, even if Hazel has a hand in it . . .
ZJ: The book opens with the smell of hair. The quote is, “The first sign was the scent of cocoa butter.” Why did you begin with hair, and also, the sense of smell?
ZDH: I mentioned that I started writing this book after that bathroom encounter, and that’s the first scene that I wrote. It was edited, of course, but it’s almost the same exact scene as it was when I wrote it on whatever Knopf stationary I wrote it on. . . I remember sitting in my cubicle and really channeling what it’s like to be in a cubicle because I was there. But I still remember it so clearly because it’s like, when you’re in that space, you can’t see much unless you’re walking around. You’re in this little fishbowl. So you can pick up clues on who’s around you by what you’re hearing or what you’re smelling. I remember knowing who was walking by my desk by a cough. I know that sounds weird, but we remember what it’s like to be in an office. So it really came from that, just the senses of me sitting at my desk and writing what it would be like to literally sniff out the other Black girl in the office. But the hair—hair, I knew, would always be a part of this book. I wasn’t sure how much. But at the beginning, I knew that would be one of the things that would signal to Nella and to the reader what kind of Black person Hazel is.
Because I do think as people, we often will see parts of people, hairstyles, outfits, and make decisions and judgements about them. But I think especially for Black women, it’s something that we do. I know I do— and women of color, people of color do, because it’s often a way of deciding if you’re safe or not in a space. I know for me, if I’m walking down the street and I see another Black person, I’m like, okay, cool. I knew that would be the thing for Nella, dreadlocks, that would really signal that this person is in this mostly white space and able to—not just able to but wants to—wear her hair natural. That is a huge decision, a huge political decision. It’s one that I made, I think, right around the time we met, actually, when I cut all my hair off.
ZJ: Can we talk a little bit about The New School and how it played into this journey—your M.F.A.—and what you felt that you got out of it, in general, and how your work worked towards this novel, in a way?
ZDH: Absolutely. I wrote my thesis, still unfinished, but what is finished, anyway? It’s a state of mind. Zia was my thesis advisor, and it was called The Weight of My Skin. It was a collection of essays that were just me exploring parts of my Blackness and my childhood growing up in a very white suburb in Connecticut. One was about me being asked to play a slave, Phillis Wheatley, in a play, and feeling weird about it and not sure what that meant, as one of very few Black people at the school. Another piece was about cutting off my hair and where I was in that moment. It’s really interesting looking back at that essay because a lot of things were happening in the country and the city, especially. I’d just moved to New York: I moved to New York for my M.F.A. at The New School in 2014. I do remember being very aware of the Eric Garner protests, and lots of protests going on, and not really knowing where I fit into all of it because I never was someone who was very political until right around that year.
I decided to do the big chop—really after a series of things, but mostly after seeing this documentary on the Black Panthers and listening to Kathleen Cleaver talk about why they wear their hair natural. For me, that was a really big moment. I went into a Dominican barbershop and asked them to just shave my head, which was really empowering. Highly recommend it. But a lot of that goes into Nella. A lot of these essays went into the framework of Nella: her anxieties, her fears, the things that bring her joy, and her trying to figure out where she fits in the grand scheme of things.
ZJ: Your thesis was a thick tome, and you were just drafting all of those essays. One of the beautiful things about the Phillis Wheatley piece was . . . How old were you in the piece when you were asked to play a slave in a white school?
ZDH: I think I was 10.
ZJ: So you quickly dispense with the idea of, okay, I’m a Black person playing a Black slave. But you move onto the question of, which of my white classmates could’ve played that? And do I really want to be identified with Phillis Wheatley as a slave?
ZJ: It’s more subtle. . . That shows up in the novel. It shows up in that discussion about Mozart.
ZDH: Yes, exactly. The hard questions. I’m so grateful that you brought up the hard questions and leaving space for people to figure out answers, if there are any, because that really was what I wanted to do in this book through Nella’s prejudices, through Nella and Malaika’s conversations. Her best friend Malaika is her sounding board for all things: like, is this racist, am I doing the right thing being here? All those kinds of things were questions I wanted to ask because I feel like as humans, the Internet really simplifies things in a way that we can’t really even talk about them anymore. Like: the GAP had a Black boy in this monkey hoodie. What does this mean? Do I shop at the GAP anymore? [Editor’s note: the advertisement was run by H&M.] Rather than just putting up a tweet, I wanted that to be something that people can just think about and talk about, if that makes sense.
[Zakiya Dalila Harris reads from her novel.]
ZJ: The drafting of the book—how many drafts did you do? That scene, how long did it take?
ZDH: Drafts, let’s see: I worked on about two. It took me about nine months to work on two very different drafts, just before I started acquiring an agent. Then when I got an agent, my wonderful agent Stephanie Delman, we revised so quickly. She’s amazing, but we shot maybe four drafts back and forth in the span of a few months before—
ZJ: Four drafts? Wow.
ZDH: Yeah. I didn’t know the pandemic was coming, but I think something in me knew because I was like, I have to do this immediately.
ZJ: What kind of work did you guys do together?
ZDH: A lot of it was figuring out plot points. There are so many different characters in this book. There’s what Nella knows, which is the present-day narrative, and then there are also three other women in this book, Kendra Rae, Diana, and Shani. They all know different things tied to this big conspiracy that ties all of them together. Figuring out the best timing on when to drop some of those Easter eggs was one of the biggest things that we did. Also, the prologue was not the original prologue I queried my agent with. We shot a few ideas back and forth, and then I ended up putting the prologue with Kendra Rae—of her running away—because I really wanted to add one other creepy scene to really signal to the reader that, yes, this takes place in a workplace, but also there is a creepy, disturbing thing going on at the center.
ZJ: What I love is that everyone’s in the gray zone there, on some level.
ZDH: Totally. Who are we saying can tell these stories? Can Nella tell a story of someone addicted to opioids? What would that look like? Because, again, it plays to my Phillis Wheatley essay—well, I won’t go down that road.
But yeah, those nebulous questions, especially ones like where two people are seeing such very different things depending on their backgrounds, those came out easily for me. I’m not saying they came out perfectly, though. I definitely tweaked them to really up the tension more and make it even grayer because I wanted it to be as gray as possible.
ZJ: It was very important to you to tie the historical parts together . . . You have two other major characters who are the editor and writer of a best-selling book in the 80s, and they’re part of the novel. . . You’ve mixed genres, blended genres, in the book. What was the larger metaphorical space that you were working with? That phrase—actually a student had mentioned it in class in relation to another author—so I’m going to give her credit here.
ZDH: Well, for the generational bits, I know for me, when I was working in publishing, I was very aware of Toni Morrison’s having worked in publishing years earlier. Also, her name was just everywhere, of course, at Knopf and Pantheon. So I very much had that awareness of the past. It’s something that I’ve always thought about, moving forward and thinking about how other people responded to being in these kind of white spaces. That was one of the reasons why I really wanted to include this other part of the story where these two Black women had a very different experience at Wagner Books 30 years earlier to really comment on how much has changed, but also hasn’t changed in terms of the “D word”—diversity. But also . . . oh, genres, mixing genres.
ZJ: Yeah, it’s horror, sci-fi, social satire, mystery. . .
ZDH: Yeah. It started off that way. I knew I was going to have something weird going on between Nella and Hazel. I’m a really big horror, sci-fi, and Lifetime movie fan, to be honest with you. So women calculating and trying to outmaneuver the other is something that I’ve always enjoyed reading.
ZJ: Oh, really?
ZDH: Yeah. Right before writing this, I actually had read Passing for the first time. A lot of that—what’s unsaid being really horrifying and stressful—I was absolutely channeling with writing Nella’s character because I do think code-switching can be very similar to passing in different ways. That was where that psychological part came from. But yeah, I’m a big fan of The Blob, and stories where people are being manipulated. Stepford Wives. The Twilight Zone is another favorite. Things that take you down this path that you didn’t know you were starting out on.
Read an excerpt from The Other Black Girl, courtesy of Zakiya Dalila Harris and Atria Books.
Zakiya Dalila Harris spent nearly three years in book publishing before leaving to write her debut novel, The Other Black Girl. Prior to working in publishing, Zakiya received her M.F.A. in creative writing from The New School. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in Guernica and the Rumpus. She lives in Brooklyn.
Zia Jaffrey is the author of The Invisibles: A Tale of the Eunuchs of India (Pantheon/Vintage). She has written cover stories, features, and book reviews for numerous publications, including Vogue, The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Elle, where she was a Contributing Editor, ran the front of the magazine, and cultivated new voices. Her work has been anthologized in several tomes, most recently, in Toni Morrison: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. She has covered South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, AIDS, and the Israel/Palestine conflict, and is currently writing a book about Muslim/Arab/Palestinian-Americans.