The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris review – an audacious debut

There’s a loneliness in being the only one; it resonates throughout Zakiya Dalila Harris’s imaginative and audacious debut novel. The heroine is Nella Rogers, an ambitious black editorial assistant at Wagner Books, a prestigious American publishing house where white Ivy League graduates with trust funds take on low-wage editorial salaries in order to ascend the corporate ladder. When Nella joins, it’s been well over two decades since Wagner’s brilliant but scandal-engulfed black editor fled New York City, desperately scratching her itching scalp – a cleverly placed hint of the way Harris’s novel will use the importance of hair products in the lives of black women to startling effect.

Nella represents a new, younger generation of would-be editors hoping to infuse cultural diversity and equity into an industry that has historically excluded people of colour. She’s been there for two years, and she’s ripe for a promotion. But her boss implies that Nella’s focus is off-kilter: “I wish you’d put half the effort you put into those extracurricular diversity meetings into working on the core requirements.”

The work environment at Wagner is one where “open-space assistants” subsist on leftovers and fruit while their superiors dine at swanky restaurants and vacation in summer homes. Career stagnation is both a risk and a reality. Enter a fresh “OBG” or Other Black Girl, Hazel-May McCall, smelling distinctly of Brown Buttah, a fragant cocoa butter hair product that’s also a staple in Nella’s haircare regimen.

The girl had a wide, symmetrical face, and two almond-colored eyes perfectly spaced between a Lena Horne nose and a generous forehead. Her skin was a shade or two darker than Nella’s maple complexion, falling somewhere between hickory and pecan. And her locs – each one as thick as a bubble tea straw and longer than her arms – started out as a deep brown, then turned blonde as they continued past her ears. She’d gathered a bunch and piled them on top of her head in a bun; the locs that hadn’t made it hung loosely around the nape of her neck.

This passage is telling for many reasons, not least of which is the importance of skin colour and hair in African American culture, a holdover from slavery and colonisation. Nella grew up with permed hair, but has gone natural with partial success. Unlike Hazel, she doesn’t yet possess the confidence or knowledge to finesse her natural do in a conservative workplace.

Still, Nella’s happy to have another black woman in the office and quickly takes Hazel into her confidence, showing her how to manage their fickle bosses. But shortly after Hazel’s arrival, Nella starts to receive anonymous threatening notes telling her to leave Wagner Books. And here begins the kind of office intrigue that’s bound to make The Other Black Girl a book to discuss. Hazel comes across initially as perfection itself, with a handsome, well-connected artist boyfriend and a winning personality that allows her to code-switch fluidly: speaking in a manner designed to assuage white anxiety around people of colour, and playing up her down-to-earth, Harlem-born black activist credentials in a way that makes the white staff feel comfortably “woke”. Nella’s chance at a promotion withers when she gives honest feedback on a novel written by one of Wagner’s bestselling white male authors that features an ill-conceived pregnant black opioid addict named Shartricia Daniels. When asked for her take on the book, Hazel doesn’t object to the stereotypes.

There are moments when The Other Black Girl feels like two novels woven together as one: a satire that uproots the insidious ways race and class merge in office dialogue and politics, and a thriller with echoes of the great science fiction writer Octavia Butler. I wish Harris had been given more room to set up consistent signposts, and to delve more deeply into some of the secondary characters and subplots for greater clarity and balance. But it is true that daring novels often break with form and take chances. Readers should relish this glimpse into the publishing world and its original take on black professional women striving to hold on to their authentic selves and their tresses.

Regina Porter’s novel The Travelers is published by Vintage. The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer order a copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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