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The Other Black Girl Reinvents the Office Novel

Zakiya Dalila Harris’s psychological thriller grapples with ambition and inequality in the workplace.

The office novel is a deceptively orderly genre. Its settings are quiet cubicles and solitary glass towers; its characters share a carefully circumscribed world, governed by its own set of rules and social codes, undergirded by the incentives of capitalism. Yet they quickly find ways to resist. Like Bartleby, in Herman Melville’s portrait of a dysfunctional office, the heroes of this genre reject the roles that their bosses and colleagues assign to them, and bristle at the conformity that the workplace itself imposes. It is under the burdens of corporate life—the repetitive and often meaningless activities, the arbitrary goals, and strict hierarchies—that the white-collar worker comes to insist on their sense of self.

The Other Black Girl
by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Harris Atria Books, 368 pp., $27.00

Despite the proliferation of novels about the office, about working life, and about how much of ourselves we give to our jobs, only a handful of these texts have engaged substantially with the experiences of people who aren’t white. In Ling Ma’s lucid, post­apocalyptic debut, Severance, there is Candace Chen, who keeps showing up to work even as the world is ravaged by a catastrophic unknown virus and her colleagues die off. In Mateo Askaripour’s satirical novel Black Buck, there’s Darren Vender, a Black barista who undergoes a radical transformation when he lands at job at a start-up. Both of these novels—as well as the comically lascivious early scenes from Raven Leilani’s recent novel, Luster—tackle racialized difference within the office setting, underscoring the often-absurd experiences of employees who are not white and highlighting the ambient tragedy of it all.

Zakiya Dalila Harris’s The Other Black Girl picks up where these books left off, drawing out the tension between corporate America’s expectations of conformity and its performance of inclusion. Harris’s protagonist, Nella Rogers, is a Black and ambitious 26-year-old editorial assistant, whose attempts to navigate the opaque and alienating workplace culture at a prestigious, ultra-white publishing house lead her to a set of existential questions. What do survival and success look like for Black women in predominantly white professional spaces? What do they stand to gain? To lose? And what does it mean for her and another Black employee to try and make those spaces better?

Her concerns are familiar: Over the last couple of years, revelations of working conditions for people of color at media organizations such as the food magazine Bon Appetit have publicly raised similar questions. Yet The Other Black Girl isn’t a story about finding solidarity or even about speaking up; it probes something more unsettling. As the novel presents competing ideas of success at the office, and the sacrifices that might entail, it evolves into an intense psychological thriller. The world Nella inhabits can equally be evoked as an office novel and as a work of horror. They might even be the same thing.

The Other Black Girl begins with cocoa butter. Nella, who has been working at Wagner Books for two years, smells it in the air one summer day in 2018. She quickly realizes that the scent means one of two things: Either “one of her white colleagues had started using Brown Buttah. Or—more likely, since she was pretty sure none of them had accidentally stumbled into the natural hair care aisle—there was another Black girl on the thirteenth floor.” Upon this realization, Nella becomes giddy. Maybe, she starts to think, her attempts to diversify her office—which had been previously characterized as “extracurricular” by her direct manager, Vera—have finally paid off.

Conversations about diversity at Wagner have up to this point been tortured, the word rendered virtually meaningless by continuous overuse. In company meetings on the subject, awkward interactions proliferate, as Nella explains why others should care about trying to include more people of color. She encounters the usual defensive explanations (“Didn’t we publish this book by that Black writer just last year?”); obtuseness (her co-workers offer “their own examples of ‘diversity,’” including left-handedness and nearsightedness); and general avoidance (“It didn’t surprise Nella, then, that the next non-mandatory Diversity Town Hall had half as many attendees as the first”).

In these uncomfortable opening pages, Nella finds herself trapped between some colleagues who are totally indifferent and others whose well-meaning questions and comments never quite land the right way. Her co-worker Sophie is a caricature of the white colleague who too willingly engages in diversity and inclusion matters, as she floats from desk to desk, striking up ill-timed conversations. Her attempts to relate come off as awkward and intrusive: She confidently presumes to know Nella’s feelings about the new girl, Hazel (“This is so great for you, right?... You must be so excited”); yet she is coy when it comes to describing Hazel as Black. (“And I don’t know for certain, but she seems like she might be … you know.”) Sophie’s engagement with race and racism gives her a way to demonstrate a moral superiority to other white people and to feel good about having The Right Opinion. None of this is much use to Nella.

Hazel strikes an altogether more confident pose. With an aesthetic that is part Erykah Badu, part Issa Rae, she projects a wry knowingness. Before they meet in an editor’s office, Nella overhears Hazel explaining to a group of white colleagues that “ACP” is shorthand for Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, a street that runs through Harlem. Nella snorts in an attempt to make a connection. And it works for a while. The novel’s early chapters capture Nella’s relief at Hazel’s presence and a growing closeness between the two women. They bond over their matching Zora Neale Hurston mugs and their love of Burning Heart, a book written and edited by Black women at Wagner decades before. They grab lunch at a hole-in-the-wall café far from the office to dish, and they commit to supporting one another. Their conversations are a healthy mix of classic millennial anxieties about success in the workplace, as they trade secrets about their bosses and remind themselves they “should be thankful” to be at a place like Wagner, “because really, it was so hard to get a job.”

But that first lunch also reveals the extent of Nella’s loneliness. She falls into easy and confessional conversation with Hazel, airing her frustrations about a job that’s frequently self-defeating and a boss who is impossible to read. She puts in long hours, staying late to read manuscripts for Vera, while her life outside work ebbs away. Her most diligent efforts are rarely rewarded: She sifts through the emails of a cranky writer about designs for his book cover, digests the important details, and relays them to Vera. As her boss eyes the cover options in front of her, Nella is “silently bemoaning how much ink had been wasted not just with this task, but with every single task she’d ever been asked to complete at Wagner. Nine times out of ten, the pieces of paper would end up in the garbage.” The endless grind of thankless tasks makes her second-guess herself. “And I wonder,” Nella tells Hazel, “am I just crazy? Am I overreacting?”

Nella’s doubts underscore a consequence of office life for some Black women: the slow erosion of confidence and mistrust in your own sanity. To be Black in America, W.E.B Du Bois theorized, is to live in the shadow of white America and to measure oneself against the standards of the oppressor; to be both Black and American is to inhabit a tension between “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.” Nella continually experiences the kind of “two-ness” Du Bois articulated, particularly when it comes to interacting with her boss. In one of the novel’s main arcs, Nella tries to provide feedback on a manuscript by one of Wagner’s bestselling white authors. “The book wasn’t all together terrible,” Nella thinks of the novel, a fictional account of the opioid epidemic in the United States. “It did a nice job of conveying the bleakness of the countrywide opioid epidemic, and it contained some moving scenes rife with moving dialogue.” Nella’s frustration lies with Shartricia, the book’s one Black character: “She came off flatter than the pages she appeared on.”

In the office with Vera, Nella wrestles with how to phrase her concerns, aware that, while her manager asked for her feedback, what she really expected was validation. In the first of a handful of meetings with Vera, Nella treads carefully, testing the waters. She calls the book “timely,” a buzzword favored by her colleagues, and examines “Vera’s expression carefully, searching for what Vera wanted her to say.” Before she goes further, she foresees the consequences of giving her honest opinion and what this might spell for her own ambitions. She wonders “what her true purpose as Vera’s assistant was. If Vera didn’t trust her opinion, then Nella would never be more than just an ‘assistant’; if she didn’t become more than just an ‘assistant,’ she’d never become an editor. It was a dream she’d been nursing for ten years.” Honesty could lead down a dangerous path and interrupt her striving, but the alternative does not feel great either.

If Nella looks to Hazel for support, she is ultimately disappointed. Whereas Nella tries to understand and articulate how the company’s inequities directly impact her, Hazel begins to cozy up to the boss, and as Nella starts to lose her footing at Wagner, her performance sinking, Hazel thrives. “Validation was important to Nella,” Harris writes, “and watching Hazel move through Wagner like a knife through whipped cream made her begin to question her own presence there.” Around the same time, Nella starts receiving anonymous notes, telling her to leave Wagner and to stop trusting Hazel. She is not sure what to make of them: Are they threats from someone who wants to harm her, or warnings from someone concerned for her safety? As the novel turns into a propulsive psychological thriller, it presents Nella with a shocking ultimatum: abandon her identity, or lose her career.

Although Harris’s book takes up the office novel’s critique of opaque and soul-crushing hierarchies, it also flirts with race transformation, a theme explored in decades of African American literature. In George Schuyler’s 1931 novel, Black No More, Black people undergo a procedure that turns them white, causing an identity crisis across the nation. The changed people no longer experience the material and psychological conditions of a racist society: They get the jobs they want, live where they like, and walk the streets without fear of police brutality or the white gaze. What does it mean to be Black, the novel asks, if you have the option of ease? As the distance between Nella and Hazel grows, The Other Black Girl investigates a similar question.

The cocoa butter that first drew Nella to Hazel turns out to have a sinister meaning. Hazel, Nella discovers at length, is a part of a secret army of Black women who, through the use of a cocoa butter–scented hair grease, have been turned into ideal corporate automatons—a kind of office equivalent of Stepford Wives. The people behind these “Other Black Girls” want to “fix” Black women in offices around the country. They use the pomade to “make you more amenable when it comes to working for and with white folks. But the best part is that they’ll preclude any guilt you may feel from doing so. You won’t feel like you’re compromising anything,” Hazel tells Nella during a final confrontation. This formula dissolves any sense of twoness, and makes it easier to live with the terms of the color line.

The product was originally created to placate Black women who called out racism and bias in their workplaces, actions that gave them reputations for being “difficult.” However, it had an unintended side effect: It made those same people hypercompetitive with other Black women, creating a situation in which there could only be one per office. Hazel wants Nella to use the pomade, become an OBG, and leave Wagner for a different workplace. During their ultimate encounter, Nella resists. What is the point of the struggle, she asks, if you end up submitting to white palatability? “Who are we as people, if we’re not … if we’re not...,” Nella says. Hazel counters, with a sentiment articulated in Schuyler’s novel, too: “If we’re not what, Nella? ‘Suffering?’”

“Is that what you want? To feel overextended? To feel worn down by every microaggression you experience in the office, and every injustice you see on the news? Are those the kinds of things that make you feel like you?”

Harris formulates a central dilemma: For many Black people, the office setting becomes a microcosm of the version of the United States that sees them as vessels of struggle and tension. To push back against that system feels essential. And yet the Black experience in America has never been solely defined by struggle. Nella and Hazel both know that, too. Outside of work, Hazel runs “Young, Black ’n’ Lit,” a nonprofit poetry organization for Black high school students in Harlem. It represents exactly what Nella and her best friend, Malaika, wanted to do, “being engaged in the communities in which they lived, partaking in Black extracurriculars.” Yet, Nella realizes, she hasn’t. Consumed by her struggles at work, she never had the time.

Hazel and Nella are far from the first to face these questions and play out these contrasts; they are not even the first at Wagner. Harris embeds their story within the story of two Black women at Wagner decades earlier. In 1983, Kendra Rae Phillips, a Black editor at the company, edited and helped publish her friend Diana Gordon’s book Burning Heart—the book that Nella and Hazel later bond over. It became a New York Times bestseller and catapulted the two friends to literary fame. They had proved the publishing industry, unable to overcome ideas that Black books would not sell, wrong. But just as quickly as they reached the apex of fame, they fell—or at least one of them did.

In the prologue to The Other Black Girl, Harris narrates Kendra’s escape from New York. The reasons for her flight are initially murky, but soon it becomes clear that Kendra chose to air some unvarnished feelings about white people in an interview about Burning Heart. For that, she paid a price, and Diana, focused on keeping her own spot in the literary establishment, disavowed her friend and told the world that Kendra had “severe mental stability issues.” This experience irreversibly marks both women: Diana goes on to become one of the masterminds behind the OBG network, while Kendra becomes a symbol for (and perhaps member of) an anti-OBG resistance army.

Diana or Kendra, Hazel or Nella, career or identity: This is the binary that pulses through The Other Black Girl. The novel shows a workplace pushing individuals into ever-hardening, limiting roles. It captures, through Nella especially, the stories some Black employees feel they must tell themselves about themselves to survive all-white environments: stories that privilege struggle, tension, and an ultimately distracting need to continuously prove themselves to white colleagues and managers. The grease Hazel uses, in this case, becomes a metaphor for permission—to cast off institutional burdens, and to tell a different story. Of course, at the end of the day, each of the women in this story loses, and the institution wins. Diana and Kendra are enshrined in the illustrious history of Wagner as tokens, inspiring future generations—the Nellas and Hazels—while the place that forced them to make impossible decisions remains unchanged.

This dissatisfaction with their place of work—with work itself—they share with innumerable other protagonists of office novels. Like those other assistants and clerks and middle managers, their problems stem from the undue meaning they ascribe to work: Their jobs are not just a means to material satisfaction, they are inextricably linked to their identities. They can never reward the striving and torment they require. If The Other Black Girl often swerves beyond the conventions of the genre, into territory between psychological thriller and sci-fi, it may be because the specific experience of the Black employee—haunted by precarity and tension—can be almost otherworldly. In this ambitious if sometimes uneven book, Harris reinvents the office novel around her characters’ abiding concerns, putting some readers in positions they might never have imagined.