Nella Rogers has been an editorial assistant and the only Black woman at the prestigious publishing house Wagner Books when a second Black woman named Hazel joins the team, also as an editorial assistant and in a cubicle right across from Nella’s. Hazel is friendly and stylish and helpful, liked by everyone, except Nella, who soon begins to suspect that there’s no room for two Black woman. Whether it’s because the company won’t offer good opportunities to them both or because Hazel is sabotaging Nella’s chances isn’t clear. But Nella is getting the feeling that everything a Wagner is going wrong for her, and Hazel’s hiring is making things worse. Plus, there are the anonymous notes telling her to leave Wagner.
One challenge of writing about The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is that a lot of what makes it interesting takes its time to reveal itself, and the surprise about what kind of book it turns out to be is part of the pleasure. The book’s premise and most of its plot is that of a socially conscious workplace comedy-drama. And it delivers in that area.
Harris’s critique of the whiteness of publishing felt authentic to me. Again and again, Nella tries to raise awareness about diversity on staff and in the books being published, and although the company claims to want to improve, they don’t want it enough to make actual changes. This is good stuff, worth thinking and talking about. And the fact that there are two Black women in the company who seem to have different perspectives on how to navigate these challenges, makes for some pleasing complications. This is all very good, but it’s not the most interesting thing about the book. What’s interesting is how Harris is bending genre.
The first clue that there’s something different going on here is in the book’s prologue, which is set in 1983 and follows a woman making an escape from some sort of scandal. From there, the book jumps to the main plot, set in 2018. Chapters are Nella are interspersed with short chapters back in following different Black women engaged in some mysterious activities, both in the 80s and in 2018, the nature of which do not become clear until near the end of the book. And here we see another genre at play, with a plot heavily indebted to some of the greats in that genre. (Although I don’t think what’s going on is a huge shock, as Harris provides the clues, naming the influences would give the whole game away.)
I enjoy seeing debut authors try doing something different and succeeding at it. Watching the pieces of the story come together here was great fun, more than I expected when I started.