Book review: The Other Black Girl spins horror from workplace racism

Zakiya Dalila Harris' debut novel revolves around a lone black editorial assistant who has to silently suffer microaggressions at a major publishing house.
Zakiya Dalila Harris' debut novel revolves around a lone black editorial assistant who has to silently suffer microaggressions at a major publishing house.PHOTOS: BLOOMSBURY, COURTESY OF ZAKIYA DALILA HARRIS

Thriller

The Other Black Girl

By Zakiya Dalila Harris
Bloomsbury/ Paperback/ 355 pages/ $29.95/ Available here

4 out of 5

In the prologue of The Other Black Girl, a black woman claws at her itchy, burning scalp as she flees New York by train.

It is a powerful hook that opens African-American author Zakiya Dalila Harris' debut novel - a daring, darkly funny thriller which uses black women's hair, an important part of their identity, as a key motif in its narrative.

The novel revolves around Nella, the lone black editorial assistant who has to silently suffer microaggressions at a major publishing house.

When a new black girl, Hazel, joins the team, Nella is eager to make friends.

But Hazel begins to eclipse her in office popularity and threatening notes start showing up on Nella's desk, demanding she leave her job. Soon, Nella is swept up in a conspiracy far bigger than her career.

Harris crafts a truly ominous atmosphere, depicting the office as a place of horror as Nella spirals into paranoia - the claustrophobic walls, the printer humming away, the cubicles obscuring colleagues from view and the dimmed lights after hours.

The book is primarily a workplace drama about how fraught and exhausting it is to be a minority employee, even in an ostensibly liberal industry like publishing.

Harris - who worked for three years in publishing, an industry that remains predominantly white - depicts that tension brilliantly.

She makes one feel the visceral weight on Nella's chest as she carefully considers her every move so that she remains acceptable to her all-white colleagues and bosses, while also staying loyal to her black identity.

Hazel's arrival deepens Nella's insecurity over how culturally black she really is, having grown up in white spaces and chemically relaxed her natural hair for years.

The book also weaves in the stories of three other black women: Nella's idol Kendra Rae, a legendary editor who disappeared at the height of her fame; prolific author Diana, who used to be Kendra Rae's best friend; and Shani, a recently fired magazine employee.

When all the strands come together, the novel switches gears from workplace satire to science-fiction horror, a sharp left turn that makes it feel as though you are reading two different books. But it is so entertainingly told that it sustains one's interest throughout.

By the time it arrives at its bold, brutal ending, it has deftly served up the fissures within the black community and shown how horrifying it can be to be a minority.

If you like this, read: Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid (Bloomsbury, 2020, $18.95, available here), about a young black babysitter who is wrongly accused of kidnapping her white employer's child while shopping at a high-end supermarket.

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