Publishing is one of the whitest creative industries: Though companies vow year after year to be more inclusive when hiring people to purchase, edit, and promote their books—as well as with the authors whose books they acquire—the statistics remain the same. Lee & Low Books’ 2019 baseline diversity survey found that 76 percent of people working in publishing are white, 74 percent are cisgender women, 81 percent are straight, and 89 percent don’t identify as disabled. Zakiya Dalila Harris knows all about publishing paying lip service to the idea of inclusion: She worked as an editorial assistant at Penguin Random House, one of the country’s largest publishing houses, before becoming an assistant editor—a position so coveted that editorial assistants are encouraged to scratch, claw, and deceive one another to attain.
After Harris left publishing, she began writing what would become The Other Black Girl, a social horror that takes microaggressions in white workplaces to a terrifying extreme. Harris introduces us to Nella, a character molded in her own image and the only Black editorial assistant at Wagner, an elite publishing company, where she dreams of working her way up and eventually following in the footsteps of one of her sheroes by acquiring primarily books written by Black women about and for Black women. A lot of obstacles stand in Nella’s way: the whiteness of her workspace, her passive-aggressive boss who chews editorial assistants up and spits them out, and now, her recently hired coworker, Hazel, the new Black girl—the other Black girl.
Hazel’s seemingly friendly at first, and Nella’s excited about the prospect of having a new Black friend with whom she can commiserate about work. However, as the book unfolds, we learn there’s more to Hazel than meets the eye: She has a sinister plan for Nella and will stop at nothing to enact it. The Other Black Girl puts a contemporary social lens on the horror it details, focusing not only on Hazel’s plot but also on the broader forces that prevent Nella from achieving her work goals and moving up the corporate ladder. If you’ve ever been the only Black person in a white workplace, The Other Black Girl will chill you to the bone and make you question everything you experienced in that environment. Bitch spoke with Harris about publishing’s racist underbelly, indicting the very industry through which she’s publishing her debut novel, and writing a contemporary horror novel that doesn’t tread familiar terrain.
Before writing The Other Black Girl, you worked in publishing, which is often a minefield of whiteness, microaggressions, and racism. What inspired you to translate some of that experience into this book? Were you worried at all about how the book would be received?
Let me go back a bit: I was at Penguin Random House as an editorial assistant, and I was promoted to assistant editor after two years, which was amazing in a lot of ways. I wanted to work my way up. It was a little bit more pay, but it also meant more responsibilities. I loved that I was being trusted enough to [take on] those responsibilities. I moved to Brooklyn in 2014 to [get my] Master of Fine Arts in nonfiction writing, and I spent a lot of time in my MFA [program] thinking about growing up Black in a mostly white environment in Connecticut.
Nella and I have a lot of similarities, so I definitely put a lot of my own personal experiences [in the book]. I’m always hyperaware of being the only Black person in the room. So I was already coming to this book with that in mind, and then I had this [strange] experience. After I’d been promoted, I was washing my hands in the bathroom, and this other Black woman came out of a stall. I could tell she wasn’t an author; she had a work badge on. I worked in a big place, but I was the only Black woman working on that floor, the only Black woman in editorial. So the moment I saw this other Black woman, I knew I’d never seen her before. In my mind I was asking, Who are you? So I looked at her through the bathroom mirror. To this day, I don’t know if I was trying to signal a hello, but I definitely tried to do the nod [Black people do] to each other. And there was just no [response]. I didn’t take it personally; we were in the bathroom. It’s publishing. It’s its own world, its own bubble. And in some ways, I couldn’t fault her because she might not have even noticed me, but also, maybe she wasn’t responding to it the same way I was. I don’t know her story or her life, but I still had all these thoughts [swirling] in my mind as I walked back to my desk.
I then started [developing] this idea about two Black women working in a publishing environment. When I started writing it, I had it in my mind that these two women would work in a very white environment, and I had to keep it in publishing because that’s [the industry] I work in. Publishing is just so rich; it’s a minefield. There are so many racial problems in publishing. There are so many problems with gender in publishing: There are so many men at the top, though there are more women overall in the industry. Class is a huge thing. I don’t know if I could have afforded to work in publishing if I wasn’t raised super-duper privileged. It’s all relative, of course, but I grew up in a middle-class setting. I knew I had a safety net if I really needed one.
I thought of these two Black women working in a very white workplace and one of the Black women being weird. The first thing I thought was, What if she’s a robot? I needed to go deeper though. Who’s controlling her? Who’s behind this? I really wanted to get at the tensions of the relationship [between Nella and Hazel]. But I was also thinking about the horror of being a Black person in these white environments. In many ways, microaggressions can be just as scary as a person trying to take your wallet. And what’s even more vexing is when the one person you think would be on your side is also involved in this othering of you.
The Other Black Girl is a straight-up horror book. It doesn’t start off that way, but it slowly unfurls as the book progresses. How did you approach writing horror through a contemporary social lens? What did you read and watch as you conceptualized the book?
I started with these women and the tensions in their relationship. [I also started thinking about] all the anxieties that [arise] when you’re coming into this [all-white] setting. It can feel really suffocating. There’s also the one person you think is on your side compromising your well-being, which is also horror to me, and the hair grease, which has a magical element and is also a horror. That was all linked in my mind. I was reading Nella Larsen’s Passing for the first time, which is where I got Nella’s name. That book had me on the edge of my seat. It’s not necessarily horror, but it’s about the relationship between these two light-skinned women who know the other’s secret about passing in this upper-society group of white people. There’s all this tension [between them] that builds up, eventually [leading] one woman to push the other woman out of a window. I was definitely channeling the social horror of that book [as I wrote this one].
Of course, Get Out was a big influence on me, but also Key & Peele in general. [Jordan] Peele and [Keegan-Michael] Key play with horror, comedy, and race all at the same time, shining a flashlight on these norms that we accept and we’re okay with, but [that] are actually mortifying. Sometimes that nod we’re supposed to have with one another isn’t a positive nod. Sometimes it’s a suspicious nod. I also love Rosemary’s Baby’s [approach] to gaslighting. I’ve been talking about [Rosemary’s Baby] as we work on this show [adaptation of The Other Black Girl]. That movie has such a beautiful slow burn. Is she going crazy, or is everyone just messing with her? What’s going on here?
Let’s talk about character development. Nella is the book’s protagonist, and she has a dream of progressing her career in publishing and acquiring more Black women’s literature (as she details in her thesis). How did you conceptualize Nella and the obstacles she encounters on her journey?
A lot of Black people in jobs where we’re still underrepresented—publishing, media, higher levels of education—[have] this responsibility to represent the positives and negatives [of an entire group]. [Nella] wants to be the face [at her publishing company] that no one else is. That’s really motivating her to succeed, but it also comes with a price. She can’t say what she’s thinking. She has to really turn on the code-switching. This is part of the game she has to play to [work her] way up. But there’s more to the game than she knows. She thought she was doing the right thing, but that’s not the case. I really wanted to focus on that motivation, the thing that was moving her to feel like she needed to stay and see [her vision] through.
I was also thinking about her anxiety to fit in with the publishing world and fit in with people. I grew up in a very white neighborhood, like Nella, and I was made fun of in high school for “talking like a white girl.” So I built up this anxiety for a while because I didn’t have really good Black friends. I had classes with Black people in high school, but I was also in AP-level classes [with non-Black students] and honors classes, where I was being given these directions and different tests than everybody else. I always felt like I was on the outside, until I got to college and I found my Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl group. We were all quirky, came from really different backgrounds, and had a different way of living our lives than what we were seeing on TV [at that time]. Insecure hadn’t premiered yet; this was in 2012.
That wasn’t that long ago, but [pop culture] has gotten a lot better since 2012, and representation has moved in a more positive direction. But at the time, it was just really cool to see a bunch of other Black women who were my friends talking about natural hair. [I felt like] I’d found my people. And still, to this day, I feel this anxiety when I’m in some places, like a concert, and I’m complaining about my Blackness or questioning my Blackness. I really wanted that to be something Nella grapples with because she and Hazel are both at Wagner, so she assumes they’ve had similar [career paths]. But Hazel’s from Harlem, she’s been around Black people all her life, and she’s able to keep her Blackness in a way Nella can’t. So Nella develops a sense of anxiety and competition. [Black people aren’t] a monolith. We should be allowed to be the way we want to be and not feel these pressures from, first and foremost, white people, but also from one another.
Hazel, on the other hand, is also eager to both befriend Nella and make waves at their elite publishing house, but there’s something sinister lurking beneath her smile and killer fashion sense. When you were building Hazel, what were her essential character traits?
I wanted Nella to feel like she had finally found someone [at work] who’s as wonderful as [her friend] Malaika. But Malaika is far more confident than Nella, or Nella perceives Malaika as being far more confident. Malaika couldn’t last in publishing because she has so much to say—too much, and more than what Wagner would “allow.” But Hazel just perfectly fits into any box you want her to be in. She’s able to code-switch: She can hang out with and help young Black women who are trying to be artists, and be sweet as honey to the white editors and authors she’s working with. Hazel isn’t really a villain; it’s more like she’s Chaka Khan. She’s every woman, and she’s able to be everyone at once.
Though there’s a difference between code-switching and throwing a coworker under the bus, code-switching has been Hazel’s way of getting what she wants. She’s still trying to climb the ladder because she’s been told no in so many ways. This was the backstory I was adding in my mind as I imagined Hazel. She’s learned that the only way she can [progress in her career] is through smiling and, for lack of a better phrase, shucking and jiving for the white man. I definitely had specific Black conservative politicians in my mind as I was writing her. I’ve always found those people really fascinating. And I always thought, in some ways for specific people, who hurt you? How did you get this way? There’s not really an answer.
Hazel isn’t the traditional antagonist, and you’re careful about not treating her as a villain. She’s also been brainwashed, so she’s not totally at fault for her actions. How did you navigate that particular element of her characterization—ensuring she’s exposed for what she’s doing, [but] without villainizing her and showing that all Black women are susceptible in the way Hazel (and Nella) are?
Nella and Hazel have a lot of similarities. Nella is super headstrong, so a lot of work had to be done to convince her to [use the magical grease]. That inherent stubbornness is present in Hazel, as well, and that’s partly why when she takes the grease, she becomes more competitive in the workplace. She thinks, “Now that I’ve got the [advantage], I have to be the only person here who’s able to succeed.” We don’t necessarily get [a lot] about Hazel’s backstory or life, but we can assume Nella and Hazel are two sides of the same coin. We can sense that. A lot of Nella’s desires are also probably what Hazel wants too. Hazel says that toward the end: I wanted to enjoy my life outside of work, and I needed to [use the grease] in order to be a fully functioning, happy human being.
It seems like an oxymoron—I can’t exist in my full Black life in the way I want to if I’m not using the grease—but we’ve already seen that with Nella and a lot of the ways she’s struggling to stay afloat. There are all these expectations from her white boss, who doesn’t trust her anymore because of what happened with their author. I really hope that we [extend] the sympathy we have for Nella to Hazel. I didn’t want Hazel to be this vapid person who just wants to be the best. Young Black women have a raw desire to succeed and want to go beyond what’s expected of us because we’re hoping [we’re not getting] the shitty end of the stick: [We want to be] given the same opportunities, the same chances, and the same space to mess up. So my hope is people don’t just see Hazel as the villain; she’s a part of a bigger problem [about] what we value in a workplace. I also hope people are scared by how oppressive homogenous workplaces are.
There are two layers of horror happening at the same time: the everyday microaggressions Nella’s facing at work—being asked to read books with blatant racial stereotypes—and the literal horror unfolding around her. How did you intertwine those horrors as you wrote the book, so it’s clear everything is operating on multiple levels for Nella and for Black women and women of color in white workspaces?
It was really hard; this is my first book and it’s grounded in [publishing] but also has a speculative twist. So it was hard [to write], and it took a lot of very smart edits from my editor and my agent. We talked about the most realistic way to do this story while including an unrealistic element—the grease. I had to be really mindful of how I would feel if I were Nella and suddenly discovered this [sinister] thing is happening with my coworker. I would rethink everything I’ve seen and wonder what’s going on. It’s really terrifying.
If you’ve ever been the only Black person in a white workplace, The Other Black Girl will chill you to the bone.
The book is structured nearly day by day as Nella uncovers more of this conspiracy taking place at her publisher. Why did you decide to structure the book in that way? Did you first write out the narrative and then determine how to structure it, or did the structure materialize in a different way?
I wrote many drafts and didn’t think so much at first about the pacing, but I knew from the beginning that [the book] would take place over a small amount of time. I wanted Nella’s relationship with Hazel to seem really sweet in the beginning and then have it unfold. That’s how I built up [tension] in the day-to-day [of their relationship]. I wanted to move through that part—where things go from A to Z in such a weird way—quickly. Nella is telling us what she’s feeling and what she’s thinking, so she’s looking back on these days [with Hazel] and saying, “We had this lunch and it was great. And then this happened.” But we don’t necessarily know if that’s actually what’s happening. We know Hazel’s having all these conversations with other people in the office, but what [is] she talking about?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.