Zakiya Dalila Harris: ‘Publishing is such a spoofable world’

The author of a debut novel about diversity in the workplace on how black people act around white people, embracing her hair, and what’s changed a year after George Floyd’s murder

Zakiya Dalila Harris was born and raised in Connecticut and is currently based in Brooklyn. Now a full-time writer, she previously worked in book publishing, an experience she draws on in her highly anticipated debut novel, The Other Black Girl, which combines thriller with social satire to tell the story of Nella, the only black employee at a fictional publishing house, until Hazel joins the company. The book charts how the two become frenemies, explores the challenges of surviving in a systemically racist workplace, and was the subject of a 15-way auction prior to publication in the US.

What were your own experiences in publishing and how have they played into the book?
I worked in publishing for two and a half years. I was an editorial assistant then promoted to assistant editor. I felt fortunate, as a part of me enjoyed editing and I felt I was good at it, but it’s also an exhausting job for an entry-level person in terms of the pay. I was also one of the very few black people in the company – it wasn’t as bad as Nella in the book, but I was the only black woman in editorial in a full-time position for a while. I thought: why does it feel like we’re living in 1955 still, in terms of what we value? Publishing is such a rich, easily spoofable world.

It’s not exactly a glowing portrayal of the industry. How have your former colleagues responded?
They very much enjoyed it. One of my old bosses read it when it was out on submission and wrote a lovely email about it. Other black women in publishing have responded well to it, which is great, though it also makes me sad that it’s so relatable. I’m still friends with a lot of people I worked with. They’ve said I really got office life down – which was satisfying to hear. While publishing is at the book’s centre, it’s about corporate structures, so I feel it is relevant to many industries – it’s about someone who feels tokenised.

What was your experience of diversity as an issue?
We had diversity meetings, which I make fun of in the book, which were essentially talking in circles; it felt like nothing was really changing. I wanted people to think about their own prejudices – it’s not enough to just say you want diversity; [you need to] think about how to actually get it. Where a lot of Nella and Hazel’s tension comes from is: as the only black people in the company, they are always compared to each other. That’s something subtle that white people do. Before Hazel, Nella was burdened with the responsibility of having to represent all black people. She was compared with what every white person at the company believed was “the typical black experience”. When she was no longer the only one, she was then compared to Hazel.

Do you think things are improving?
It’s so hard to say. I’m sceptical but also hopeful. Last year publishing really had its own reckoning. There were conversations around #PublishingPaidMe. I don’t want to dismiss things on Twitter as performative, but I do take it with a grain of salt. There’s a commodification of black thought, which can be bad if it’s for the wrong reason. George Floyd hasn’t been forgotten, but I notice the movement for change isn’t as strong as last year – there’s something about the attention span and keeping it.

Could you define code-switching and its place in the book? Has it played a role in your own life?
Code-switching is the act of switching up how you speak – although I also think it can mean switching up your behaviour, too – according to the setting you’re in. All of the black women in my book code-switch to a certain extent because they work in majority-white environments, most notably Nella, who is generally closed-off and conservative when it comes to her interactions with her white colleagues, but much more open and at ease when she’s talking to Hazel or Malaika, her best friend.

Code-switching has definitely played a role in my life. When I’m hanging out with black folks, there are things I feel much more comfortable joking about or referencing with them than with non-black people. For the scenes in which just Nella and Malaika are hanging out, I was able to draw on my own conversations with my black friends – particularly their conversations surrounding race. And since my partner is white, it was easy to write the scenes where Nella, Malaika and Owen, Nella’s white boyfriend, are all hanging out. Nella is still Nella at the core, but how does Nella-with-Malaika change when Owen is there? How does his presence change the flow of the conversation? The changes are subtle, but they’re there, and it was really easy for me – and important to me – to incorporate them into Nella.

Hair is a big deal throughout...
I was channelling my own memories – from getting relaxers to the feeling of touching someone’s hair, to people asking questions. It’s been a big part of my journey as a young black woman. I wasn’t always embracing my natural hair for a while, as I was in very white spaces; so when I was 10, I started to get relaxers and did it for about 12 years. I would start to feel my natural hair coming in and think it was time to get rid of it. It took me a while to realise I was doing that, and understand why. I went to a barber shop one day and they chopped it off and I went natural. I’ve had natural hair for six years now. My experience with hair has mirrored my experience with blackness too.

Which books and writers have inspired you?
Definitely Passing by Nella Larsen, which is where I got Nella’s name. For me it’s very much a thriller. I’m rereading it now and realising how much it was an influence. Octavia E Butler’s Kindred, which is set in a time of slavery. It forces the reader to think about privilege and pain. Toni Morrison’s Sula, about female friendship. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is so good, I can’t do justice to how much I love it.

What books are on your bedside table?
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. I also started reading All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M Morris – a thriller that starts with Ellice finding her boss dead in the office.

Did you always want to be a writer?
I kept a diary from the age of six. I was writing about school and my sister. I always loved stories as a kid. My dad is a writer and also journalism professor, so I was always encouraged.

TV rights have already been optioned by Hulu; how does that feel?
I didn’t expect or anticipate it when I started writing the book. I’m amazed and excited. I’m co-writing the screen adaptation. I hadn’t written before for TV and I’m learning a lot.

• Anita Sethi’s memoir, I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain (Bloomsbury), is out now

• The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is published by Bloomsbury (£14.99). To support the Guardian order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

Anita Sethi

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