In the minefield of microaggressions, marginalization and outright racism that can plague the modern office environment, it’s often a relief to see another Black face amid a predominantly white world of cubicles. But as editor-turned-author Zakiya Dalila Harris deftly reminds us in her much-buzzed-about debut, The Other Black Girl: A Novel, all skinfolk ain’t kinfolk. In fact, as she tells me on this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!, her novel began in the cubicle she once inhabited at Knopf/Doubleday, after a somewhat perplexing encounter—or, lack thereof.
“I had this encounter at work in the bathroom and this other Black woman came out of the bathroom stall. And when I say encounter, I mean, we’re both in the same space. Nothing happens,” Harris recalls. “I feel like looking back on it, I was like kind of like, you know, we’re both here. We’re two Black women in the bathroom at this place that’s very white...But there is just nothing. I didn’t get anything from this woman in the bathroom—which is cool, like no judgment. But I went back to my desk and I just thought about how desperate I was to have something, some kind of conversation,” she continues. “[I]t definitely made me think about my own insecurities and my own desires to just meet more Black women and meet more Black people...so that was the immediate encounter that inspired the book. And I started writing it at my desk.”
The resulting novel has been described as a cross between Get Out and The Devil Wears Prada, and has garnered acclaim from no less than bestselling writer (and former It’s Lit! guest) Walter Mosley, who praises it as “A brilliant combustion of suspense, horror and social commentary that leaves no assumption unchallenged and no page unturned.”
Having practically inhaled this book from cover to cover, I’m inclined to agree, but as Harris tells me during our chat, her own intentions for the narrative are much closer to home.
“My biggest hope was that Black readers—Black women, especially—would feel seen by this book...Like, I just really hope that other Black women will still feel seen by these references, by these hair conversations. All of those things were so important to me,” she says. “[M]y hope is that it works on a lot of different levels...I want people to feel thrust into this wacky, bizarre kind of cult world of publishing. But I do hope and I really just want to make readers think twice and really think.”
You can hear more from the insightful Zakiya Dalila Harris in Episode 37 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: Zakiya Dalila Harris Makes Us Think Twice With ‘The Other Black Girl’, available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. A transcript is also available for this episode.