"The Other Black Girl" — part workplace caper, part thriller and fully awash in questions of racial identity — is set in the New York publishing world of 2018. Nella Rogers, a Black assistant at prestigious Wagner Books, is initially thrilled when another Black woman joins the company. The hiring of Hazel-May McCall is a relief to her; as her best friend Malaika puts it, Nella will "no longer [be] the Only One."
Malaika's quippy humor is always welcome on the page — as are the insights often tucked inside her jokes — and her nod to the pressure of "being the Only One" is reflected in many of Nella's interactions with her colleagues.
In this debut novel, Zakiya Dalila Harris is particularly skilled at writing dialogue that has a sheen of politeness over its infuriating subtext; likewise, her protagonist, Nella, hides much of what she thinks at Wagner in order to keep her job. When she receives anonymous notes ordering her to leave the company, Nella's instinct is to uncover the source, rather than to protect herself.
Hazel's professional ascension at Wagner is swift and threatening to Nella, especially after Hazel's public opinions turn out to be radically different from her private disclosures. Harris crafts a believable, empathetic character in Nella, whose feelings about Hazel are in constant flux: she has begrudging admiration for her style and yearns for her friendship, but she also envies and distrusts her.
"Everybody at Wagner is obsessed with her," Nella complains to Malaika. She also credits Hazel's popularity to the company's inclusivity shift: "Well, for some reason — cough, Hazel — we've finally made our way into the twenty-first century." Hazel's relationship to her racial identity makes Nella question her own, and Harris layers the many aspects of Nella's history in exquisite detail.
One of these details is Nella's uncertainty about the idea of a "not entirely organic sisterhood." The specific context is Nella's consideration of sororities in college, but the question of "organic" connections can be read more widely into Harris' work. Nearly every choice Nella's co-workers make can conceivably be filtered through a "[concern] about optics," making it hard to trust the most casual interactions.
Hazel undermines Nella's trust by being disingenuous during a meeting; later, when Nella tries to find out who is leaving her threatening notes, she has a more deeply alarming exchange with one of Hazel's former colleagues, who warns, "Her name's not Hazel." With this message, identity becomes both a literal and figurative matter, and the novel grapples intelligently with both.
Harris intersperses the tension between Nella and Hazel with dispatches from secondary characters, some of whom still haunt Wagner: a famous Black author from the 1980s and her equally famous editor, who disappears from public life after a cultural controversy; Shani Edmonds, a former colleague of Hazel's in Boston. There is humor in these sections, and a surprising network of connections that Harris skillfully builds from the novel's first page: The work is expertly paced. Despite the more daring, absurd and surprising elements, they do not overshadow how superbly drawn Nella's character is — a true accomplishment in this remarkable debut.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy's writing has appeared in One Story, Electric Literature, Lenny Letter, Narrative, Harvard Review and elsewhere. She held a 2014-16 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
The Other Black Girl
By: Zakiya Dalila Harris.
Publisher: Atria, 355 pages, $27.