Huge amounts of brouhaha surrounding Zakiya Dalila Harris’ debut, stretching back many months as publishers tweeted their joy at getting their hands on a copy of The Other Black Girl. I’ll admit to suffering proof envy with this one, resorting to NetGalley when it turned out there were none left. Set in a prestigious New York publishing house, it follows Nella, the only Black employee on the editorial staff until Hazel is installed in the cubicle next to the one she’s occupied for two years.
‘Didn’t we publish this book by that Black writer just last year?’
Nella spends much of her time second guessing the reactions of her colleagues, not least her boss who has yet to give her the responsibility she craves. Harvard educated, the daughter of comfortably off parents, she knows that she must work twice as hard as the white editorial assistants, all of them hoping to increase their lowly status. When Hazel arrives, Nella’s thrilled. Perhaps all those diversity meetings paid off, despite the ever-diminishing attendance of her colleagues, but she’s a little disconcerted by Hazel’s confidence, her ability to slip into her role with ease, quickly becoming popular with everyone, from the receptionist to the head honcho. When Nella confides her worries about confronting Wagner Books’ bestselling author into whose latest offering a painfully stereotypical Black character has been shoehorned, Hazel urges her to do it. Perhaps Nella has found an ally at last. Then anonymous notes appear on her desk, urging her to leave Wagner. When Hazel’s behaviour turns distinctly unsisterly, Nella begins to wonder if she’s behind what seems to be a campaign to oust her but the truth, it seems, is not nearly so simple.
In their eyes, she was the exception. She was “qualified.” An Obama of publishing, so to speak
It’s often the case that a long-trailed book turns out to be disappointing, expectations raised too high, but not with this one with its irresistible setting, at least for me. Harris’ novel pulls no punches, shining a piercing light on the dazzlingly white world of publishing which she clearly knows well, choosing to do so via satire. The result is a great piece of often blisteringly funny, page-turning storytelling. Events are seen from Nella’s point of view as she unearths a shocking conspiracy to make Black candidates more acceptable to a white world by being less themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed it, dismaying though its ending is, and wondered how all those publishing employees felt as they read it, particularly those of colour who seem as rare on the ground here in the UK as they apparently are in the States.
Bloomsbury Publishing: London 9781526638755 368 pages Hardback read via NetGalley