Lack of racial diversity is forlornly rife in many workplaces across the world, and is starkly apparent in the American Book Publishing Industry – both in terms of employees in this sphere and authors represented. It is in a contemporary American book publishing house that African American author Zakiya Dalila Harris has set her first novel, “The Other Black Girl”.
In the novel, our young, African American female protagonist, Nella, works as an editorial assistant at Wagner Books in Manhattan, New York. She is overwhelmingly self-conscious about the fact that she is the only Black employee at Wagner Books, in an otherwise entirely white publishing house (however, “other people of color …(work) at the front desk and in the mailroom.” She works directly for the resoundingly formidable Vera; a no-nonsense editor. The reserved and old-school founder and editor in chief of Wagner, Richard Wagner, has himself been at the helm for roughly 50 years.
Wagner is not the seemingly idyllic workplace that it appears to outsiders. As Zakiya tells us, “Lurking beneath many of the friendly seeming meetings was an environment of pettiness and power plays; cold shoulders and closed-door conversations.” Nella is on twentysomething an hour, and finds it hard to live on this amount in Brooklyn, where she shares an apartment with her white boyfriend, Owen.
When another Black editorial assistant commences work at Wagner (the apparently easy-going Hazel), Nella is initially deliriously joyful, and feels she has found a kindred spirit in Wagner’s brutally competitive workplace – or has she? Nella confides in Hazel – whom Nella trusts implicitly at the outset – that ” ‘They don’t ‘see’ color here at Wagner.’ ” However, it isn’t long before Hazel, while initially super friendly to Nella, appears to be subtly, yet purposefully, undermining Nella. Hazel is ‘shining’ in the office, while Nella’s career seems to be stagnating.
Hazel encourages Nella to give her honest feedback to Vera’s latest author (Colin Franklin) on his book “Needles and Pins”, whose Black, female protagonist Nella feels is somewhat stereotyped and two dimensional (Colin has purposely put in his novel a Black protagonist to ensure that there is racial diversity in the book). Nella is fearful of Colin thinking Nella is calling him racist if she gives Colin her opinions on the book: and when she does confide in Colin her true feelings about the book (with Vera present), Colin does indeed believe that Nella has indirectly accused him of being a racist, which naturally goes down terribly badly with both him and Vera.
To add to Nella’s workplace woes, she discovers a underlyingly sinister note left anonymously on her desk at work, which states quite succinctly, yet threateningly, “LEAVE. WAGNER. NOW.” Nella believes this is taking the many microaggressions she has been the recipient of to a whole other level, with issues of bullying and racism inherent in the brief, yet sinister note. Could Hazel be the author of the note, or is there someone else at Wagner who wants Nella gone?
There are numerous twists and turns in “The Other Black Girl”; a book which in equal measures shines a light on what it means to be Black in a predominantly white culture such as America, and the many ups and downs of working methodically and true to oneself in the book publishing industry. Zakiya Dalila Harris has written a book of extraordinary perception aligned with observational skills (Zakiya worked for close to three years at publishing house Knopf Doubleday in the editorial department) that propel this book into the category of “must read” at a time when far too many of this world’s inhabitants are viewed as being “lesser” simply because of skin colour. This is an important book for all to read.