The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris: A review

 


Harris' book begins as a straightforward literary fiction telling of the systemic racism that is inherent in the publishing industry in this country. The protagonist, Nella Rogers, is a young Black woman who works as an editorial assistant to a demanding White woman editor at Wagner Books in Manhattan. Nella is very ambitious and longs to advance to being an editor, but upward mobility seems very limited with her employer. Add to that the fact that Nella is the only Black person employed in the mid- to upper levels of the company; the only other Black employees work in the janitorial or mail departments. Her position seems fraught with expectations as to her "representing" Black people and at the same time, any weakness or perceived error is magnified. A "perceived error" as when Nella speaks frankly in a conference with her editor and one of the firm's most successful writers, an older White man, about the main character in his new book. The character is a Black woman and she is a "collection of tropes...all the unflattering ones." In fact, Shartricia (for that is the name he gives her) is an excellent example of every derogatory stereotype ever imposed on Black women by the dominant White culture. Nella's boss and the author are shocked and angry at her criticism.

So, shortly thereafter, when another young Black woman named Hazel-May McCall is hired as an editorial assistant for another editor, Nella is thrilled. At last, she feels she will have an ally at Wagner Books, someone she can talk with, commiserate with, someone who will understand and relate to her life. Her joy is short-lived, however. Soon, she begins to suspect that Hazel is undercutting her in order to advance herself. Hazel, for example, puts a more positive spin on the book that Nella had criticized, much to the delight of Nella's boss. Hazel's influence grows as Nella seems to fade into the background in spite of all her hard work. And then the threatening notes start appearing.

The notes turn up on Nella's desk or in her portfolio and their basic message is that she should leave Wagner Books now! It is dangerous for her to stay there. Of course, Nella does not report the notes to HR or to the police or to her boss. She does tell her best friend and she tells Hazel. And somehow after that, word does get around to the president of the company who confronts Nella and assures her that she is appreciated and that he has her back. Nella is not pleased that he knows or that he seems quite close with Hazel, who she is beginning to suspect is her enemy and may even be the one leaving the notes.

What had been straightforward literary fiction now becomes a mystery-thriller. The twisty turns keep coming and it begins to take on aspects of the horror genre, sprinkled with more than a little magical realism. And the ending? Well, sci-fi maybe? So which section should this book be filed in? Fortunately, that's a question for librarians and not for me.

Harris is very good at delineating the experience of working in an office in close quarters with other human beings. She gives full rein to the everyday grievances and tensions and she does not even spare us the odors, from stomach-turning food smells to people's farts - it's all here in glorious detail and is, in my opinion, one of the strengths of the book. And, of course, there are the hair odors, particularly cocoa butter, which it seems is a staple of Black hair care. This book contains more about the different types of Black hair and their care than I, frankly, ever knew existed. I knew that Black hair is fragile and requires special care, but that was the extent of my knowledge. I resorted to Google frequently to explain to me what 4A, 4B, 4C, etc. hair types were and how they related to different hairstyles. A Black woman reading this book would probably understand the nuances immediately and feel a connection to the narrative. For the rest of us, all of this was a revelation.

I was less enamored of Harris' genre-bending switching of styles in the book. I found it all a bit disorienting and I generally don't like being disoriented. I like the author to pick a style and stick with it. Overall, the book was saved for me by its sense of humor which seemed to say, "Yes, this is a serious subject, but you don't have to take everything quite so seriously!"        

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. This one is getting quite a bit of hype right now, but it sounds as if it's kind of all over the map even though it looks like it ended up working pretty well for you based on your rating. I'll probably take a pass on this one.

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    1. The reviews that I've seen of it have been mixed and that pretty well reflects my feelings about it - mixed. Although there were parts of it that I really enjoyed and thought were well done.

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  2. Wow, another great review, Dorothy! Sounds like a great read and I'll be adding it to my ever growing reading wishlist.

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    1. If you read it, I'll be interested to read your thoughts on it.

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  3. I had been hesitating to get this. I can download it right now from the New York (City) public library (they expanded eligibility for taking out eBooks during the pandemic to anyone living or working in New York State) and I have two books on reserve so...maybe. I'll think about it and maybe I'll give it a try.

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    1. It has much to recommend it in spite of my annoyance with parts of it. You might quite like it.

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  4. I'm waiting for this book to come in for me at the library. I appreciate this review. I'm not familiar with gender-bending switching of styles, but I don't think it is something that I would like. I shall see.

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    1. The genre switching was just confusing. I would have personally preferred if she had stuck with one genre.

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  5. it does sound like the author is trying to fit six gallons into a five gallon bucket... sometimes that works, though...

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  6. Great review of this book! I've been undecided about reading this one because I'm not sure it's a book I'd end up liking. I think some of the things you point out in your review would really frustrate me.

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    1. There are certainly elements of it that are frustrating, as I've mentioned, but there were also entertaining parts that recommended it.

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  7. I always enjoy your reviews, Dorothy, and they often help me to make up my mind whether or not to read a title. I saw this one advertised for Kindle and wasn't sure. Based on your review, although the book obviously is not all bad, I believe I will give it a miss.

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    1. Unless you have a high tolerance for disorientation and frustration, it might be wise to do so.

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  8. I'm also not a huge fan of genre-bending. I think the switch to magical realism/science fiction will throw me off... Still, I want to give this book a try! I'm seeing it everywhere! Thanks for the review.

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    1. I agree that it is disconcerting, but as I've indicated, in spite of that, overall I found a lot to enjoy about the book.

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  9. The style of the book sounds pretty crazy -- so I'm glad for your warning about it. But it seems I should try it out hmm.

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  10. I think I would quite like this one - wonderful review as usual, Dorothy.

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