by Elizabeth Spencer
This debut novel by Zakiya Dahlia Harris is set in the predominately white, privileged world of New York City publishing. Nella Rogers is an ambitious editorial assistant at Wagner Books—and the only Black person in the office. She dreams of becoming the next Kendra Rae Phillips, a brilliant Black woman who edited a bestseller for Wagner before disappearing from publishing and public life. Nella has a good relationship with her boss, Vera—until she decides to give an honest review of a bestselling author’s new manuscript.
Set primarily in 2018, The Other Black Girl mixes realism and horror to portray the lives and concerns of Nella and other young Black women living in New York City. The novel doesn’t shy away from contemporary issues, including office politics, mixed-race dating, “Oreos,” natural hair, tokenism, accountability, and online social justice movements. It would be a great book club choice, because there is so much to talk about. What is it like to be the “only” in an office or classroom? What would real diversity at work look like? How can professional women help each other rise, instead of sabotaging each other? Is it better to choose the hard road of being honest and working for change? Or the easier road of going with the flow and fitting in? Would you give up your authenticity in order to succeed in a competitive industry like publishing?
As I read The Other Black Girl, I thought often of Toni Morrison, who was the first Black woman editor at Random House and worked in publishing from 1967 to 1983. Morrison was known for helping to ensure that Random House published a wider variety of books by Black authors and books that centered Black characters. And, of course, Morrison’s own novels feature complex Black characters, especially women and their experiences of life. There are echoes of Morrison in the character of Kendra Rae Phillips.
Nella is a classic plucky heroine in the Big City, toiling for low wages in her dream profession and bringing manuscripts home to read at night. The novel opens with a description of the scent of cocoa butter, which heralds the arrival of the titular “other black girl,” Hazel. (Black women’s hair—and hair products—feature prominently in the novel.) At first, Nella is excited to have another “POC” to work with and embraces Hazel as a friend. However, there’s something off about the new girl, and Nella will spend the rest of the book trying to figure out what it is.
In a secondary storyline, we gradually find out what happened to Kendra Rae, who had been the editor of the beloved Burning Heart, a surprise bestseller from Wagner co-written by two Black women who had been best friends in high school, but whose paths diverge after their book’s success. The decisions made in 1983 by Kendra Rae and her best friend (and Burning Heart co-author) Diana end up having effects on Nella and Hazel in 2018. The novel also follows Shani, another young Black woman who knows the truth about Hazel’s past.
There are many things to admire about this novel, but I personally enjoyed the detail with which Harris writes about pre-pandemic office life. From the “uninvited smells creeping into [Nella’s] cubicle” to grease stains on papers, to awkward encounters in the office breakroom—where the Keurig coffeemaker is always on the fritz—Harris captures the uncomfortable intimacy of office life. There is even a character of the type known as a “cubicle floater,” who seems to spend more of her day interrupting others’ work with banal chit-chat than working herself.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Harris explains the origin of her title:
The acronym [OBG] came from a joke a friend of mine and I made whenever we attended events where there were few Black people … We would point out the Other Black Girl in the room—“the OBG”—and wonder about her … Other times, though, it’s not so simple. When there are few of us in a space, it’s easy to worry that we’re going to be compared with one another or, even worse, mistaken for the other. And that worry can breed competition to be better, to shine brighter, especially in workplace environments that were already competitive to begin with.
In The Other Black Girl, these worries turn into a very real threat, and the book’s plot-driven narrative will keep readers turning the pages until they find out who is behind that threat. This is the magic of the novel: Harris wants her readers to have a good time (as she says elsewhere in the interview), and to come away from the book thinking about the issues of race, class, and competition that drive the plot. In my opinion, she succeeds. Whether you pick up the novel in search of a page-turner, or to enjoy the fully fleshed-out Black female characters, you will be left thinking about the ending for a while afterward.