“Black people in publishing need space to complain”
Zakiya Dalila Harris reflects on a past life, her own. The 28-year-old channeled some of her experiences as an editorial assistant at publisher Doubleday into her first novel, The other black girl, which follows two competing women, Nella and Hazel, to a fictional New York City publishing house where things take a dark and horrific turn. It’s a genre thriller with social commentary on white corporate structures and black identity that feels very real – but how close is it to reality?
“There were a few smaller incidents where I felt I couldn’t say what I wanted to say because of the power dynamics,” she reflects via a video call from Brooklyn. “When you have to be like, ‘Yes, you’re right,’ but you’re actually thinking, ‘No, you’re not, but I want to keep this job and other black people to see me. I wanted to reinvent this for someone else.
Passionate about writing diaries, Harris grew up in Connecticut. As a child, his love of horror was encouraged by his father. “My dad watched 50s horror movies and loved it [the 90s TV shows] Are you scared of the dark? and Goose bumps, which we were watching with my sister.
A self-proclaimed “worry,” Harris believes it influenced his writing tastes, with The other black girl switch from desktop drama to Get Out-style horror in the final chapters. “I think a lot about things that go wrong,” she admits. “That’s why I love horror and real crime – I’m so far away from it that I can control it.”
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In 2014, she moved to New York City to study Creative Writing at The New School and held several jobs (in a cupcake shop and pie shop, as well as receptionist roles) before landing her job as editor through a teacher – something that I notice she’s uncomfortable with saying because, she says, “these connections come from privileges that a lot of blacks and brunettes don’t have. It is a problem. If things were more even, I wouldn’t feel anything about it.
Harris is clear, however, about what editors can do to increase the range of dark stories being told: hire without nepotism and focus on retention. “Make sure the black people in these roles have a space to bring up things or complain instead of feeling pressured into hiding it. What good if it’s just tokens? We are all individuals and we deserve our voices to be heard. “
One big difference between her and Nella, the book’s main character, who faces structural barriers to advancing at work, is that Harris’ former colleagues largely agreed with the diversity behind the scenes. And, unlike Nella, Harris wasn’t the only black person in her mark. “But I was the only one in the editorial office where I worked for three years,” she notes.
The idea for her novel came to her during a bathroom break at the office when she saw another black woman. “There was no eye contact and I thought, what would happen with two black women in a white workplace, so shit gets weird?”
Harris wrote most of the book in 2019 and believes if she had tried starting it last year it wouldn’t have gone as well. “The assembly during the pandemic was quite difficult. I like to write in the world. The weather outside is important to me. I like to come home and turn it off.
She was once a fan of a rigid writing schedule, but things are a bit more manic following the immense success of her book (which was auctioned at 15 before it was released in the States. -United). Harris is now co-writing the screenplay for a screenplay adaptation and says music – jazz, Erykah Badu (pictured left), TLC – is important to her. She’s already designing the soundtrack for the film and “imagine what music Nella listens to on the way to work – that’s just as important as the casting.”
The other black girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris is now available on Bloomsbury (£ 14.99)