'The Other Black Girl' Nails Down What It's Like to Navigate a White Industry

In one of the year's most anticipated debuts, Zakiya Dalila Harris draws from her experiences in the publishing industry to craft an all-too-accurate suspense novel about the micro-horrors of being a person of color in the workplace.

Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.

*WARNING: This interview contains spoilers for The Other Black Girl*

Melissa Bendixen: This is Audible Editor Melissa Bendixen, and with me today is the debut author of The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris. Welcome, Zakiya.

Zakiya Dalila Harris: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to chat with you today, Melissa.

MB: Listeners, Zakiya's novel is getting so much excitement in the book world right now with praise from authors like Terry McMillan and Walter Mosley, to being named one of the most anticipated books of 2021 by outlets like Time, The Washington Post, and Goodreads, to name a few. I am so glad to be talking to you especially, Zakiya, because we've known each other for a while now. We've run in the same circles as University of North Carolina Chapel Hill grads who went into the New York City publishing scene. And I have such a pride in being able to say that I've known you from the beginning and I've gotten to see your story unfold over the years.

I think one reason why everyone is so pumped about your novel, Zakiya, is because it feels so accurate. I know I personally have felt a little triggered, having also been an editorial assistant at a large publishing house, about what it's like working in publishing. You get all of those details right, both the good and the bad, and mostly the bad. It's not often that people get it right, but you really do. I've heard you tell the story about how you got this book idea before, but can you give us the Cliff Notes for listeners who may not know?

ZDH: Sure, sure. Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction. You're so sweet. I'm so excited to be here. So just the quick version of the story is, I worked in publishing in editorial for two and a half, close to three years, and I was one of the very, very, very, very, very few Black people working in the industry in general. I mean, it's very White. And the place I worked was especially very White. I was washing my hands in the bathroom at work, this is again at the point I'm about two and a half years in, and another Black woman comes out of the stall. I look at her. I'm so surprised and confused and want to talk, but also a little nervous because I'm also an introvert, and nothing happens. We don't have an interaction. But I go back to my desk, and I just start thinking about that interaction. More so me, I mean, she didn't acknowledge me, which is totally fine, it’s the bathroom, I get it. But I also was just really thinking about my own need to want to talk to her and where that came from. 

And so I mentioned, of course, how White publishing is, and I noticed that a lot. But then it's also one of those things that you have to… As a Black woman I stand out a lot of the times. Because if I want to stay here, if I want to keep doing my job correctly, trying to succeed, I did have to kind of forget that part, right, of looking around the table and seeing mostly White faces. But then coming face-to-face with this Black woman in the bathroom was like an immediate, “Okay, no, this is something that you have been thinking about this entire time.”

"I wanted to write the book that didn't translate these things, that actually spoke directly to the Black experience."

After that, I had this idea of two Black women working in a very White workplace, and from there I just kept going with it. I had so much fun imagining their interaction and also why they interacted the way they did and just how the industry of publishing can cause those tensions, but also friendship too. And why all of those feelings are so sticky and nuanced.

MB: Yeah. So for listeners, I'm going to give a blanket note that there's going to be spoilers in this conversation because this book is suspense, it is a thriller, there are reveals. For a small synopsis, the story is about Nella Rogers, who works at a fictional publishing house called Wagner Books. And she is the only Black girl in her circle of a very White publishing world, and she is an editorial assistant to a high-powered editor. And in walks Hazel, a new Black girl who she thinks is going to be her friend, but she's not quite what she seems. So the whole time I was listening to it, I was really thinking about how this must have been so similar to your own experiences at the large publishing house that you worked at. 

I was wondering, one, if there was a character that you related to most. If it was Nella, how much is Nella like yourself? Or if there's another character that you thought was more yourself or which pieces of Nella are yourself.

ZDH: That's a great question. First and foremost, I should say Nella is so much inspired by me. I grew up in a very White space, in Connecticut, like my protagonist, and for a while, for years I was aware that I was different, but also not. Because as kids, the school I went to, it was a public school. We talked about things, we did have conversations. That was 2002, so conversations were very different, but overall I never had a racist experience happen to me specifically while I was there. Nella had a similar childhood as well. And then when I got older, when I started to meet other Black people in high school, that was when I was like, "Oh, okay." I was definitely raised in this bubble. I don't speak a certain way. I don't talk a certain way. I don't dress a certain way. I did not fit in with what a lot of Black people expected me to be.

That anxiety that I had is, of course, in Nella throughout the book too. That's why she really wants to try to be Hazel's friend. Because she's like, "Oh, another Black woman who is like me, who is able to navigate these worlds, but also navigate these other worlds too, code switching." So Nella is, of course, I think for me, the biggest thing. But the more I think about this book and the more I've been talking about it, I see bits of myself in the other women too. Things that I want to be or things that I've wished I could be. So I think, with Hazel, she's like the prime example of, "Oh, what if I had been raised in Harlem? What if I'd grown up in New York around other Black people?" Malaika’s free spiritedness is something that I wish I had, and Kendra Rae’s speaking her mind and not backing down is something I would never do. But I think there's something really tempting about that. And Diana even too. Diana is complicated, but she also has her reasons for why she is.

And so, yeah, they're all pieces of me somehow. If not exactly me, there are pieces that resonate with me, and I hope will resonate with other listeners, especially other Black women who have been in these corporate spaces or really been in any of these spaces that are predominantly White still.

MB: This story draws so much from your own experiences. You ended up quitting your editorial assistant job to write this book. What was making that decision like for you, especially with the knowledge of the industry that you had?

ZDH: It was hard. I have only really quit one other job before in my life, and that job, I don't really consider a job anymore, essentially it was a toxic environment. Publishing wasn't toxic for me. I mean, there are the factors, of course, of the lack of diversity, the feeling like this space just wasn't changing, and I didn't want to necessarily stick around long enough for that chance for just more things to be changing. But I also had always wanted to write. I did my MFA at The New School, in creative writing in nonfiction actually. I got wait-listed for fiction. So I had always wanted to be a writer. But I knew writing is really hard to do on its own to make a living, especially in New York. I started working in publishing and I loved it. I loved editing. I loved working with authors. I loved the tasks. There always feels like there's something that needs to be done and they're varying depending on the book. But after about two years there was a moment, a specific moment when I was like, I know this is not something I want to be doing anymore. When I have moments like that, I can never go back. I'm always going to have this feeling in the back of my head. And this moment happened shortly after I'd been promoted.

So, two years in I got promoted to being an assistant editor, from editorial assistant. And it was great. It was like, yay, like a little more pay but more responsibility. Maybe I can start acquiring books that I really want to work on. But after that, one of my bosses gave me a book to work on, which is a big deal. Depending on where you work, you're not usually just given a book. It was great. I was really excited on one hand that he trusted me. My bosses trusted me, they're like, "You can do this." But at the same time it was not a book I wanted to work on. It was a really great book, really great offer, very important topic, but it just was not my thing.

I remember saying, "Thank you. This is great," and then going back to my desk and sobbing to my coworker, who was also a writer too. So he got it. I was just like, "I don't think I can do this if I want to keep writing." I had been trying to freelance on the side. I'd been ghostwriting, because I really enjoyed writing, but also to supplement my income. But in that moment I was just like, I can't take this book on and do right by this author while also doing right by me, was my mentality. A little bit after that I had the run-in with the Black woman in the bathroom that I mentioned earlier and that was another moment, and it all became really clear to me.

I think I'd put my notice in early March 2019, and then a month later I was done. It was a lot of emotions, but ultimately it worked out I guess. Turned out okay.

MB: Man, it really did. After all the effort of working as an editorial assistant and you get a promotion which, to listeners out there that may not know, getting that first promotion is very hard. And once you get that first promotion and you're not feeling excited, then you really, really know that maybe it's time.

ZDH: Totally.

MB: Speaking of your experience as an editor, I'm curious, your main character Nella believed in being an editor to bring about change, but you yourself are now an author after being an editor. How do you feel about the author's power to use words to change the world? And then what do you think is the editor's job in shaping those words and the relationship between the two?

ZDH: I think it's so important. When I was in publishing, I would often think about, really Toni Morrison, knowing she had been able to do it and had done it at a time that was not nearly as conscious of the importance of diversity as it is now. I had that in mind with my characters. With Kendra Rae being this beacon. When I was in publishing, in an editorial role, and then even after when I left, one of the freelance jobs, in addition to teaching, that I had was doing freelance edit work, and I was primarily working with Black women writers. That was amazing. Again, I'm not sure what would have happened if I had been given a book that was more my style, in that way, but that was incredible. 

I think it really matters so much to have someone looking at your work who is also your target audience. My target audience is all readers everywhere, as all authors might say, but writing The Other Black Girl, I was really thinking about Black women readers and making sure that I wasn't explaining certain things that you might see explained. Like, I get into Black hair, 4C, 3C, all the C's, and crow patterns and textures, and that was really important to me as a writer, kind of going back to your question about writers, creating the change. I wanted to write the book that didn't translate these things, that actually spoke directly to the Black experience. Seeing it through that lens was really important to me, because I wanted all readers to at least experience what it's like for a few hundred pages, what it's like to be a Black woman working in these spaces, withstanding all the microaggressions, but then also having drinks with your friend, drinks with your boyfriend and hanging out and having a full realized life.

I think it's really important for writers of all kinds, of all races, to really, if they want to, lean into that experience. I think leaning into that experience is so key for just promoting more diverse thought. But I also think it's on the publishing house too. It's on the world of publishing to open it up and be, not just okay with it, but embrace it. I've been fortunate that for this book, here and in the UK, I have been able to lean into all of the Blackness, all of the references without feeling like I have to confine myself. That's really important to me. And I think that really matters to readers too.

MB: I think that speaks to your book coming at the right time, in both a good and a bad way. That if it had come sooner, you might've been pressured to change your words. It's funny because your book is about the industry and it's about what it's like in the industry, and Nella experiences this tension trying to make a change in a completely White space where no one's willing to listen to her, but you were lucky enough, hopefully, to have a book published within a community where it felt like a safe space and you were able to say what you needed.

ZDH: Yeah, definitely. The cover is a prime example. The US cover is so striking. It's of this beautiful Black woman, her profile takes up the entire page. When I was writing this book I knew how contracts worked. I knew that yes, the author has a lot of say depending on who the publisher is on what the cover is going to be. But I also know, bottom line, usually the people publishing the book have the right to put the cover that they want. Every contract's different. I don't want to generalize. So when I was writing the book, when I was in submission, I was constantly thinking about what the cover would look like, because I knew I wanted something unapologetically, like in your face, Blackity Black, like you pick it up, you know, besides the title. I wanted more than just the title.

"It's not enough to just be having the conversations. I wanted to talk about performative diversity, and why just talking about these things isn't enough."

So my agent and I made a list of a few different Black artists who we found online. And one of them was Temi Coker, who is a Nigerian born artist, and his art’s amazing, highly recommend checking him out. Basically we sent that list to my publisher and they found Temi's work online. And one of those works is called My Black Is Beautiful, which he had created for a Juneteenth project in 2020. It just all came together really organically. I feel very lucky to have had that conversation, because I know many Black authors who have not had that kind of conversation go the way that it did for me, where it was like, "Of course. This is of course what we're gonna do. This makes so much sense."

Still to this day, the pick on the cover, the blue of the background, it's just so regal and so striking that I can't imagine it being anything else. I'm really excited about it. That's one of the things I was mentioning before, about opening the doors so that more BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] authors can get that kind of runway to write what they want and also have their books look the way that they want them to look too.

MB: And it's important to note that the industry is still in evolution. One important thing about your book is that you are commenting directly on not something from the past, even though the book is set in 2018, it is prescient, it could be set today. Things like diversity town halls and those tensions are still around right now, and it's a conversation that's happening in the industry right now.

ZDH: Yeah, absolutely. I really wanted to comment on the fact that even though these conversations about diversity are happening across the board, like you said, they were happening in 2018 but they're also happening now. It's not enough to just be having the conversations. I wanted to talk about performative diversity, and why just talking about these things isn't enough. Meaningful diversity comes from not just these one-hour-long sessions; it comes from dismantling the entire system from the ground up. But until we started talking about them in concrete, specific, direct-action kind of ways, it's all just for show. Right? I wanted to show why that's just as dangerous as not doing anything at all, because you're just going through the motions and doing it for optics rather than actually wanting to make a change.

MB: Well, I hope we're on our way there. Definitely an ongoing conversation. So I want to ask you about Kendra and Diana's story. What made you decide to bring us back in time to their story, and what sort of research did you do for their story in this novel?

ZDH: When I first wrote this book my very first draft was all just through Nella's point of view. It was all third person close. We saw bits of Kendra Rae and Diana through her eyes, they're still in her world, very much in the universe. But I remember finishing the first draft and being like, something's missing here, not everything's connecting, and so I started to imagine them actually speaking themselves. I've always enjoyed books that jump back and forward in time and give us different perspectives. Because the real world's not like that, and I kind of wish it were sometimes, that I could be like, "Oh, what was this person thinking in this moment?" Although it would probably drive me up the wall. 

I wanted to play with the story and try to make it much more rich, give it even more nuance. Again, as I mentioned earlier, I often looked toward Toni Morrison as a young Black person. And even today, I think a lot of young, Black creatives, we look to people from the past, in order to kind of navigate today, because a lot of these things just always come back, right? I mean, my dad had his own experiences working in corporate America. My grandparents didn't work in corporate America, but they still found themselves having to navigate, "do I say something? Do I not say something?" And all of my family members treated that differently, they addressed it differently. I wanted to get at that nuance and how complicated that is and how there isn't a right answer. And also how so many things have changed, but also so many things haven't changed. That was really fun for me to do.

I also just really love the '80s, and other decades. I didn't do too much research. I did kind of try to dig into the publishing world in the '80s and try to get a sense of what it was like then. But I actually didn't have that easy of a time, besides the fact that it was very White, obviously. It's not documented the way that the publishing world today is documented, of course. I leaned into what I imagined and who I knew was on top at the time. I knew Oprah, of course, came on the scene in the '80s and I knew The Cosby Show. There was this middle-class, upper-middle-class world coming into view, and that Diana really came from what I know about that environment. Kendra Rae, she was kind of just a creation in my mind, I guess like an alter ego. It's interesting thinking back to what it was like before they were in the book, because now I just feel like they're so essential to Nella's understanding of the world.

MB: Right. And they were her inspiration, which makes sense. Everybody has to be inspired by somebody. 

ZDH: Yeah, definitely, and that's absolutely true. I think that you can tell a lot about a person by who their hero is.

MB: I love that quote. That's a good one. 

So Let's talk about the narration. You have a full cast with amazing narrators. You have Aja Naomi King, Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Heather Alicia Simms, and Bahni Turpin. What was that process like in choosing them? And what did you want to hear in your characters voices?

ZDH: That process was really fun. My team at Simon & Schuster Audio sent me and my agent names, lots of amazing names, that they were thinking for the audiobook. Much like when I was writing the book, I was not thinking about it possibly being adapted for anything. I was just like, I'm in my head, this is my voice when thinking of it. So opening the circle wider to imagining professional people voicing these characters was wild, especially these incredible names. When they sent me that list, I listened to every single voice, I went onto YouTube, I listened to books, samples. I spent hours thinking about all of them. I would close my eyes and listen and imagine scenes through their voice, if that makes sense.

"I think that you can tell a lot about a person by who their hero is."

I really wanted voices that just spoke to the novel in a way that was expressive and powerful, because there are heavy things happening in this book, especially through Nella’s perception, you're with Nella the longest. Getting Nella's voice right was also really important to me. All these amazing actresses just blew me away in their delivery. There's an honesty to them. There's an earnestness to them. I felt like the reader would truly understand the Black female experience through their voices. I also even looked a few of them up and listened to them talk in general, not reading things, but just speaking on their experiences or just any little bits I could find. This sounds really stalkery—

MB: It's important to get the voices right, yeah. 

ZDH: Yeah. They all, to me, represented the same kind of diversity, the fact that we are not a monolith, that the book is about. It was really fun, and I still can't believe that they all said yes. I'm so excited.

MB: I know. How do you feel about hearing your story in the voice of other performers?

ZDH: It's like one of those things where, again, having been on the other side, like watching the sausage get made, I've been experiencing each author milestone, and this is the time I really feel like an author. This is the time. Like getting the first pass pages. Having this happen, having that happen. I feel like I've made it. I didn't know if this book would even become a book, you know. And so to have these amazing voices read from the book and bring it to life in this whole other way that I couldn't do myself verbally, I feel so lucky and so fortunate, and excited for people to listen to the audiobook, myself included. 

MB: So is there anything that you want to tell listeners that I haven't asked you yet?

ZDH: I had been reading Passing for a little while when I started writing this book, and my main character Nella is named for Nella Larsen, the author of Passing. I'd never read it before, but at the time I was so blown away by it. It's set in 1920s Harlem. It's about mostly Black characters, but they're all very, very light-skinned and all are able to pass. One of these women is married to a White man who has no idea, so there's obviously a tension with that. There's a tension with Irene, who knows, of course, that her friend Clare is a Black woman, and that she is lying to her husband essentially. She has these feelings about Clare being, I don't know if "traitor" is the right word, but just being like, "Why would she do that? Why is she living her life this way?"

The reason I talk about all of this is because these two women, while Nella and Hazel in my book are not passing, they're clearly both Black women, I see so much of their interactions kind of mirroring Passing. When I was writing this book, I don't think I was conscious of it. Only now that I'm rereading Passing, at this time I'm like, "Oh, wow," there's tension between these two women who are in this world that doesn't really accept them, but kind of accepts them, but only because of this one specific thing. That's something that Nella and Hazel also experienced.

I've been thinking a lot about the ways in which the audience, the people who are watching, influences how I behave. Even just with interviews and talking to different people, I'm especially aware of it, being home all the time, or not all the time anymore, but that sense of social anxiety, and also environment, how that affects a person is really interesting. I wanted to play with that internal conflict that Nella has, and get the reader to wonder how much of this is actually Nella experiencing these things versus how much is Nella just being insecure and being overanalytical of everything. Because that inside-versus-outside tension is so interesting to me. We see it in Passing, and I think it will always be something that continues no matter how diverse places get. 

MB: Now that we have book one, The Other Black Girl, what is it that you're working on next, Zakiya? Are we going to see more from you soon?

ZDH: I think so. I know so. I have been working on cowriting the TV adaptation of The Other Black Girl, which has been so much fun. It's a lot of work. I've never written a screenplay. I've never done any of that kind of writing before, so I got a lot of scripts that I've been reading. I'm looking up at my screenwriter's bible right now, and watching a lot of TV, which is pretty sweet, I'm not going to lie. It's been fun to imagine my characters in the space. In the way that the audiobook, we get to hear them, with TV, we get to hear how they enter a room. I'm excited about putting music into it because music is such a big part of me. It's a big part of this book too. It helped me write this book in a lot of ways.

So I'm really excited to get to provide a soundtrack for the show, to make this show visually pop and be full of lots of amazing Black faces, people that maybe we've never heard of before, are not household names. It feels good to have all these options in front of me and feel like I can keep living the dream of this book through another form of media. That's been exciting.

Definitely going to be another book. Still a lot in the works. And I'm not sure, but it's possible that it might contain characters from the OBG universe, but whatever it is I know it will be about Black characters living in today, and maybe in the '80s again, who knows. 

MB: Well, all of that sounds awesome. I love hearing the story of going from being a writer to being a screenwriter and taking it from the page to the screen. Wow, I'm so excited for you. 

ZDH: Thank you.

MB: Listeners, you can get The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris on Audible now. Zakiya, thank you so much for talking to me today, and I'm sure I'll talk to you soon. 

ZDH: Thank you. Thank you so much. And thank you, everyone, for listening.

Tags

More from Zakiya Dalila Harris

Up Next

18 audiolibros fascinantes de memorias y biografías

Descubre 18 audiolibros de memorias, biografías y autobiografías de grandes personajes que dejaron un impacto en la historia. ¡Escúchalos ya!