THE OTHER BLACK GIRL by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Atria Books, 2021
The Other Black Girl is an interesting one — I don’t think this wholly succeeds either as a piece of literary fiction or genre fiction, but I still had a lot of fun reading it. Set at a fictional competitive publishing house in New York, Wagner, whose toxic work environment is captured with aplomb, it follows Nella, an editorial assistant and the only Black employee who is thrilled when a new Black girl is hired in a role similar to her own. But shortly after, Nella starts receiving cryptic messages begging her to leave Wagner, and she doesn’t know who she can trust.
Where this fails as a thriller, it succeeds as literary fiction: the pace is practically glacial, but not for nothing; Zakiya Dalila Harris uses that time to wholly develop her characters and depict the toxic insularity of workplace microaggressions. There’s a lot of sharp, biting commentary in here about what it means to be Black in a white office, and what it takes to get ahead in the publishing industry; it’s an incisive read in that regard and I would happily have read an entire novel devoted solely to this element. But then the day-to-day office drudgery starts to fade into the background when the mystery element comes to the forefront.
Where this fails as literary fiction, it succeeds as a thriller: the writing itself is engaging but otherwise nothing special, there’s a weird, quasi-speculative twist that comes out of nowhere, there are random POV chapters interspersed from other women embroiled in the bigger picture thing that’s going on that don’t further the story in any way, but which I assume are there to add tension and intrigue. But the tension and intrigue are never fully there because the pacing is so uneven.
You could certainly laud this book, as many have, for being a sort of ‘genre-defying’ creation, but for me, this was just an overly ambitious project, especially for a debut. Its refusal to fit staunchly into a ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ box isn’t the issue; it’s that we end up with a book that’s half scathing social commentary of racism in corporate America, half a Get Out-style thriller, and it didn’t fully execute either of those aims as well as it could have. That said, even though this never came together in the way I was hoping for, I certainly did enjoy reading it — it’s unexpected, it’s original, it’s sharp, it’s funny — and I think Zakiya Dalila Harris is an author to watch out for.