Author Zakiya Dalila Harris chats about the inspiration for her debut novel, racism in the workplace, and Black hair
At just 28, Zakiya Dalila Harris is living inside the whirlwind of her new life—she has a best-selling book on the shelves, a television show based on that book in the works (she’s co-writing the teleplay), and an upcoming marriage to her partner. But just two years ago, she was working as an assistant editor in a publishing house and helping other people realize her own dream of being a published novelist.
At least at the very beginning, The Other Black Girl represents Harris’ own story: the main character Nella grows up in suburban Connecticut and dreams of becoming an editor. But when she lands a much-coveted job at a leading publisher, she finds herself one of the only Black employees, where microaggessions and other forms of subtle (and not so subtle) racism are part of her day-to-day.
Here’s where Harris’ and Nella’s stories diverge, though: Nella begins receiving threatening, anonymous notes at work, opening her up to a strange, disturbing, and sinister world.
And Harris? She quit her job and wrote Nella’s story.
We sat down with Harris to talk about it all: the path to her book, the process she went through to write it, and what’s next on the horizon.
Q: Like Nella, you started out in publishing. Is that where your inspiration for the story began?
A: The inspiration for this book came from a lot of places, but I was working in publishing at the time. I had been an assistant editor, but before that I was an editorial assistant. I had this wild moment that actually precipitated me sitting down to write the book. This moment was essentially me running into another Black woman in the bathroom at work and being very confused because I knew as far as I knew, I was the only Black woman working on the floor at the time. I had a moment thinking, maybe we would talk. I looked at her in the mirror, and nothing happened.
I went back to my desk and I was thinking about that interaction. And I was like, that so strange, why was I being so strange? And I started writing the book at my desk in that moment: Nella and Hazel, or characters who would be them, working in a mostly white workplace.
That was this immediate event, but I’ve been thinking a lot about being one of very, very few Black people in publishing. And that’s also been my experiences for most of my life. I, like Nella, lived in a suburban area in Connecticut. Almost all of my friends were white as a kid. Navigating these two kinds of spaces was something I was really interested in.
And then you had to bring the book you wrote to the publishing process in that same world. How was that experience?
Navigating the publishing world as someone who had worked in publishing was such a trip. Even before I had a publisher, we did submit the book to both of the imprints I worked at at Penguin Random House. It was less than a year later. My agent and I are walking into the office I worked at and going up in the elevator—I’m seeing the security guard. I used to know, seeing the front desk. People are like, oh, wait, you used to work here. It’s such a surreal experience.
It was good though, because I didn’t know if publishing would be ready for it. And I did have one agent say, you know, this is great, but change the industry. And that was early on. So I was like, okay, this might be the reception, but having so many wonderful conversations with so many different publishers who were like, yes, we see ourselves in this book. And having Black people who worked in publishing say, thank you for writing this. That was really validating.
One of the books we recently read for Scary Mommy Book Club was Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters. She talked a lot about the challenge of writing for trans readers and non-trans readers at the same time. How did you approach writing for both a Black on non-Black audience?
It’s funny, when I met her a few weeks ago, we had a similar discussion. We were on a panel. There’s that feeling like you do want to speak to both sides. I know for sure when I was writing, I constantly, partly because I’d worked in publishing, but also because I had done my MFA at the New School in non-fiction writing, I was already thinking about audience a lot. I really wanted this to resonate with, first and foremost, Black women—Black readers who have been the only one, or know what this feeling is like, or have had conversations about Black hair at work and are kind of looking around them to see if anybody’s curious or listening, all of those kind of nuances and subtle things.
But you never necessarily get to see it in books, or if it does those books do not make it to all the right places. So being able to keep that integrity was really important to me and Atria and my publisher in the UK—because a lot of these references are specifically Black American references. It was wonderful that there was never even a conversation of moving those or taking them out or explaining them. And context clues—I made sure that there was enough information that the reader will keep going along and it wouldn’t take them out.
And I think on the other hand, people who aren’t as familiar with 4C hair, I’ve got a lot of feedback from them saying, we looked this up and it was great, now I know so much, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And it’s just a really good feeling as a writer.
You mixed two things in the book: the reality of being Black in a workplace and also these very traditional horror and thriller tropes. We have reality and then we have this literary template that you project onto it.
I came up with the idea to make this book multi-genre because that’s a lot of who I am. I am a big horror fan. As a young person, I was really into Twilight Zone. My dad and I would watch The Fly, The Blob, Night of the Living Dead, all of those films, together. I was really big Goosebumps kid. So I’d always been thinking of those kinds of things, but never had actually really thought about putting them into a book.
But around the same time that I started writing The Other Black Girl, I’d seen this documentary called Horror Noire and Tananarive Due—an academic and a Black horror professor, says Black history is Black horror. And I used her quote for the epigraph of the book. [The movie] is just an exploration of the way Black people have been portrayed in the horror genre from Birth of a Nation to Get Out. Get Out was the moment I think when Black and horror really seemed to blow up, and now we’re seeing so many reverberations of that, which is really cool and fun. But really, representation hasn’t been amazing. We haven’t made it into certain genres. So it was really fun to be able to put Black people into this space and then also add comedy and literary parts as well.
I wanted to show that they all can work together and help talk about certain social ills that we would have a hard time talking about otherwise.
Is Nella named after Nella Larsen?
I named Nella after Nella Larsen because that’s another influence that I had been reading when I started writing the book. I’d been reading Passing and I didn’t know too much about it except for the fact that two Black women are passing as white women in Harlem in the 20s. It’s a thriller. It’s very horrifying. The social tension—will they or won’t they be caught? Will they be outed as being Black women moving through these white spaces? The parallels between those two women and Nell and Hazel are really obvious now because Nella and Hazel of course are presenting as Black women, but they’re still passing in their own way.
This is your first book. Tell us about how you became a writer and and what your experience was writing your first novel.
I loved writing as a kid. My dad is a writer. He’s made a living off of writing and being a journalism professor. So having that as an example, as a young person, that was really big for me. When I was really young, reading and writing skills were very important in my house. And so I read a lot, I was a big Goosebumps fan—although they still hold up.
Around the age of 11 or 12, I entered a writing contest for American Girl magazine, which is sadly no longer with us, as a magazine. But I loved it as a kid. And my entry won. And so my short story was published in the magazine and they published a little booklet that I still have in my bookcase. It was really cool cause it was like, okay, it’s not just my parents and my teachers. I’m a pretty good writer.
While working in publishing, it was like the best of both worlds because I got to work on other people’s writing, obviously get free books, make connections, and just meet people who are also passionate about writing. Then this idea for the book for The Other Black Girl hit after a little while of working there and I had had to decide: assistant editor means more responsibility, which means less time to work on my own stuff. Cause the whole time I’ve been in publishing, I was still freelancing. I’m still trying to write and hoping that would work out too. I finally was like, I have to do this. This idea is too much fun to be working on, to be at my desk still.
And so I quit and I have never written anything so fast in my life. I started it in January 2019 and I finished it in October 2019 and I got an agent shortly after that. And then a few months after that we sold it. Then the month after we sold the book, the pandemic hit.
How was your pandemic and 2020?
My pandemic was not bad. Knowing that I had this book definitely played a big part in that, besides just being healthy and being fine and being very lucky to still be in this stable situation.
The George Floyd, Breonna Taylor stuff really, really wrecked me. I’m not gonna lie. Like I was exhausted last summer and was supposed to be working on edits and getting into that head space took a lot more work and a lot more intention. But one thing that came out of it was with my frustrations I was able to make certain parts of the book better. Like the moment with Nella and Hazel in the bathroom scene—that moment was different before last year. I put in so much of my personal grief and hopelessness into that scene. I made the best of it as much as I could.
What are you reading?
One of my favorite books I’ve been reading is Seven Days in June by Tia Williams. Oh my goodness. I am so into these characters and the story is wonderful. It’s also Black writers and I of course have a bias toward any books that are about Black writers who are also having similar conversations that I am about what it is to be a Black writer. But it’s also not just that. It’s also about love and addiction and trauma. So I love that book.
What else? The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton is phenomenal. Opal is based on an amalgamation of Tina Turner and so many other Black rock musicians. And it’s just the story of a Black woman and a white British man and their career. It’s a really well-written book and makes you want to listen to all this Sly and the Family Stone and all this Tina Turner.
Also The Atmospherians by Alex McElroy. I’m not sure if I call it a dystopia, but it’s definitely set in a time in which men are forming these… hordes. And these two main characters set out to start a cult that reforms these men. And it’s very funny. It’s very witty and pretty dark and it’s so well-written as well.
What are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on the TV pilot of The Other Black Girl TV show. It’s been a lot of learning, but it’s been a lot of fun. I’m co-writing it with Rashida Jones. We are imagining the book and re-imagining the characters and getting to lean into a lot of people I didn’t get to lean into in the book.
I’m also working on a part of co-hosting a podcast called Dead Writer Drama with Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, who writes about TV and pop culture. She’s amazing. And we’re doing this podcast for the American Writer Museum in Chicago, and we basically just chat with another academic or a writer about a dead writer. And we talk about all the things you don’t learn in high school about these writers and put them into a modern day context.
And then of course I’m working on is brainstorming. I have a chalkboard wall that’s not visible and that’s an accent wall to my Viking Yellow wall. So really just thinking about my next book!
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