Effective satire is steeped in truth. Zakiya Dalila Harris spent three years working in the blindingly white world of New York City book publishing, and in her debut novel, she leverages that experience to get the details right about the precarious and awkward life of an African American editorial assistant whose dream job turns into her greatest nightmare. Brilliantly positioned at the intersection of satire and social horror, The Other Black Girl incorporates subversively sharp and sly cultural commentary into an addictive and surprisingly dark tale of suspense.
Raised in suburban Connecticut and a graduate of the University of Virginia, Nella Rogers has spent a lifetime being the only Black girl in predominantly white spaces. But she’s grown tired of the cautious calculations and compromises she must constantly make at Wagner Books, as well as the microaggressions she’s expected to overlook, just to tread water in her theoretically high-status yet low-paying entry-level post. Nella carefully chose Wagner for its racially progressive track record, having published a literary masterpiece that was written and edited by Black women decades before. But by the time Nella arrives, those women are long gone.
After two lonely and frustrating years as the only Black girl on the editorial staff, Nella is harboring high hopes that her first Black female colleague might offer relief from this sense of isolation. Nella’s optimism turns to trepidation, however, when it appears that her eager new co-worker, Hazel-May McCall, may be undermining rather than bolstering Nella’s position in the department, papering over offenses to get along and get ahead. Even worse, anonymous notes start to appear, warning Nella to get out while she can.
Soon, Nella’s living out a racial allegory reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s powerhouse social horror blockbuster Get Out or Alyssa Cole’s gentrification thriller, When No One Is Watching. There are also shades of Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age in keenly observed scenes of awkward interracial interaction. But Harris displays a distinctive style all her own. With a flair for metaphor and a carefully calibrated surrealist perspective, she stops just short of over-the-top, as in this claustrophobic internal narrative: “What concerned me more were the things I couldn’t name: the things that were causing me to buzz and burn. That made me want to flee not just my home, but the tightening constraints of my skin itself.”
Thoughtful, provocative and viscerally entertaining, The Other Black Girl is a genre-bending creative triumph.