Every few years a novel comes along and infiltrates the conversation in such a way that the title becomes so pervasive that even nonreaders have heard of it. The most recent example: The Other Black Girl by first-time author Zakiya Dalila Harris, a former editorial assistant at Penguin Random House. Released this month, the book follows two young Black women working at a lily-white fictional publishing house, Wagner Books. Effectively marketed as Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada, the story infuses bits of sci-fi and horror with razor-sharp commentary about trying to ascend the corporate ladder as a woman of color with a truly chilling ending. But after getting to know the main characters, Nella and Hazel, I was left feeling that it also was largely about the power of female friendship and the different ways people navigate the Black experience.
To give you an idea of just how buzzy The Other Black Girl is, consider this: There was a 14-way bidding war among publishing houses to land the book, leading to a reported seven-figure deal for Harris. The irony should not be lost on anyone who has read or plans to read this novel—the very types of publishing houses that are targeted in the novel were fighting to bring Harris on as an author.
I sat down with Harris via Zoom to talk about her inspiration for the novel, natural hair at work, the book's upcoming Hulu adaptation, and the truly shocking ending. Below is an edited version of our conversation. Warning: This interview contains spoilers.
Glamour: The story is so original. Was there any awkwardness with writing a book about racial bias within publishing as a former publishing professional?
Zakiya Dalila Harris: It's funny. I actually, strangely, had an easy time once it got to the publishing stage. I think pitching to agents was the nerve-wracking part. I did get one response specifically that stands out. The person enjoyed it, but said, “I don't know if publishing is ready for it.” I tried not to think too much about it. It was still early on in the querying stage, but it definitely got to me and made me worry. Then, once I got it on the other side, people have been so open to it
You've received so much buzz. How does it feel being a name in the zeitgeist?
Oh my God. I mean, it's really cool to hear you say that. It's honestly overwhelming. I've never been the kind of person who likes the spotlight. I've always been behind the scenes and that's partly why I like being a writer—my words can speak for themselves. I love talking to people, but in intimate settings. Having conversations like this, talking with other Black readers about the book and their own Hazel experiences, their own hair experiences, and their own thoughts on the ending. For people to see my vision and have more to say about it afterward is incredible.
Are there any reader reactions that have stood out?
Definitely [reactions to] the ending. A lot of people ask me about whether or not I saw it before I finished writing or if I planned it. I did because I'm a big fan of horror, thriller, and sci-fi-like endings that end on a question mark. I love hearing people talk about whether or not they saw it coming.
Let's talk about hair in the book because it played such a crucial role. I loved when we found out Hazel’s locs were fake.
I don't think anyone's actually mentioned that point. We talk about the hair, but no one's ever actually like, “Yeah, but it wasn't even her hair.”
Exactly. And so many people were commenting on the “coolness” of it. I can relate to the hair aspect because I've been relaxing my hair since I was nine and I finally stopped in January.
Oh, congrats. Also, I get it. I did the same when I was 10.
Thank you! I loved how the first thing Nella realized about Hazel was the smell of the Brown Buttah hair product. Obviously, the hair grease is how people were getting…let's say changed, for those who haven't read it yet, which is so creepy. Did you always know that that was going to be how it happened?
I wrote that scene of her in the cubicle at the very beginning of chapter one when I was sitting at my cubicle. I knew that hair would be the thing that connected Nella to Hazel because Nella had a really complicated relationship with her hair, just like I did. I wanted to show that, despite the fact that Nella was raised in New England around white people and middle-class families, she still has those anxieties about not being Black enough.
They both know what it's like to feel stigmas about their hair from other people. I knew that would be what connected them, but it's funny because the grease itself didn't become an actual part of the book until I was talking to my partner about it. I knew there would be some kind of mind control. I didn't want it to just be [publishing magnate] Richard, an evil white man at the top—we've seen that before. My partner was like, “What if it's the grease?” And I was like, duh. It just made the most sense because I'm putting product in my hair almost every day. The amount of time that we spend on our hair, the amount of money, the investment. It already controls us in some ways—that's not always bad, but it has a hold on us. It was just so much fun. I love those kinds of stories too. I love Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I love Get Out.
I also love the Black character in [fictional novel] Needles and Pins, Shartricia. It's true that sometimes when you talk to white people and you’re trying to discuss a racial issue, they can go on the defense so hard.
Right, and it's not black-and-white—it’s a gradient. There can be shades of it.
I agree and I like when Nella is trying to explain that it’s a feeling. Do you think that the idea of not being able to put that feeling of racism into words is something Black readers will relate to?
It's a vibe. It's not that easy to be able to point out, especially to well-meaning white people, liberals. One example is the “I don’t see color” comment. I think at this point everybody knows that's not the thing you say. I'd like to think people would know that. It’s one of those comments where you're trying to seem like an ally, but you're also diminishing the facts. There are so many other things you're ignoring to make this point. I think what I really found fascinating about Get Out and a lot of Key & Peele sketches is that they're able to get at the ridiculousness of this idea that we're in a postracial society, which is another phrase I think most people don’t use anymore for good reason.
I really wanted to get at those spaces of unspoken subtext and microaggressions. I think of it this way: When I go into small stores or really, any store, I always make sure my hands are out of my pockets. I say hi to the shop owner because I don't want to be seen or assumed that I'm going to steal something.
Do you feel like there’s a way to better convey that to white people without hitting that defensive wall?
That's a hard question. I think you need to listen to the person who's being affected by it. They can't exactly put into words what it is, but there's a feeling. There are a lot of things that we can't put into words. I also struggle with sensitivity readers as an idea because I understand it completely, and I do think it's better in most cases, but I also cringe against the idea of making a certain person be the person who decides this is okay.
That’s interesting that you mention the weight of Blackness because isn't that essentially what the grease is supposed to lift?
We don’t necessarily know what was going through Nella’s mind when she gave in to the grease. Was that a conscious choice of hers?
This is another question I don't get asked. I wonder if it's because it's a spoiler, but I love talking about it because I do think it's really important. I was revising that scene last summer, which was when I had edits back at my desk. It was George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and COVID-19, obviously. Everything was happening. I was in a particularly not great space. Mentally, I felt betrayed. I felt hopeless. I felt numb. I felt a lot of feelings about what was going on. So that scene where Hazel is telling Nella, “Don't you want to be free?” That scene was me taking my own personality and my own perspective of what it was like to work on my book and feel like it mattered when, on the other side of it, people are dying.
I want to talk about the Hulu adaptation for a second. That’s really exciting!
I can’t believe it.
That last Hulu adaptation I saw was Little Fires Everywhere.
I read that book—by Celeste Ng—and then watched the adaptation. They did a good job at making necessary tweaks. I know you’re a cowriter on the show too. Are you prepared to sacrifice some parts of the story?
At the beginning I was like, I didn't do this to get a TV show. I don't know how this would work. But the more we talked about it, I could see it. There is a lot I had to cut. And the end—there's just so many places it could go if the story and the show were to [continue]. We've been talking about plans if it were to go past one season. Wagner Books is so rich for storylines.
What’s your dream casting?
I go back and forth. I feel like I give different answers every single time. I could see Keke Palmer. I could see KiKi Lane for both Nella and Hazel. They're both the same dial turned a slightly different way. Angela Bassett…I feel like it's clear from the book that I love Angela Bassett. I could see her as [other characters] Diana or Kendra Ray, especially Kendra Ray. She could have any role.
What’s next for you?
I can spread myself a little too thin sometimes with projects, so really just taking it in and working on the Hulu adaptation and getting to spend more time with the characters in that way. But definitely planning to write another book and planning for it to be about Black characters in the U.S.
Lastly, between the bidding war and a true taste of financial success, how does it feel to have a bit of a cushion?
It's a big relief. Money was very, very, very tight before the book, even with my partner sharing the rent. So the advance was huge. It also allowed my partner and I to move out of our tiny studio and into an apartment that had real rooms and doors. Now we're owners; whereas two years ago, I would never have imagined ever being able to own anything.
Paulina Jayne Isaac is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. You can follow her on Instagram @paulinajayne15.
Originally Appeared on Glamour