Zakiya Delilah Harris He 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 in which she builds on her highly anticipated debut novel, The other black girl combining 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 describes how the two become enemy friends, explores the challenges of surviving in a systematically racist workplace, and was the subject of a 15-choice auction prior to publication in the US.
What were your own publishing experiences and how have they influenced the book?
I worked in the publishing industry for two and a half years. I was an editorial assistant and then I was promoted to assistant editor. I felt lucky as a part of me enjoyed editing and felt like I was good at it, but it’s also a grueling job for an entry-level person in terms of salary. I was also one of the few black people in the company; I wasn’t as bad as Nella in the book, but I was the only black woman in publishing in a full-time position for a while. I thought: why does it seem like we are still living in 1955, in terms of what we value? Publishing is such a rich world and easy to fake.
It’s not exactly a brilliant portrait of the industry. How have your former colleagues responded?
They really enjoyed it. One of my former bosses read it when it was available and wrote a lovely email about it. Other black women in the publishing world have responded well, which is great, although I am also saddened that it is so relatable. I am still friends with a lot of people that I worked with. They said I really cut down on office life, which was satisfying to hear. While the publication is at the center of the book, it is about corporate structures, so I think it is relevant to many industries – it is about someone who feels tokenized.
What was your experience with diversity as a problem?
We had diversity meetings, which I make fun of in the book, which basically talked in circles; it felt like nothing was really changing. I wanted people to think about their own prejudices; Simply saying that you want diversity is not enough; [you need to] Think about how to get it. Where much of Nella and Hazel’s tension comes from is: As the only black people in the company, they are always being compared to each other. That’s a subtle thing white people do. Before Hazel, Nella had a responsibility to represent all blacks. They compared it to what all the whites in the company believed to be “the typical black experience.” When she was no longer the only one, they compared her to Hazel.
Do you think things are getting better?
It’s so hard to tell. I am skeptical but also hopeful. Last year the publication really had its own calculation. There were conversations surrounding #PublishingPaidMe. I don’t want to dismiss things on Twitter as performative, but I take it with a grain of salt. There is a commodification of black thinking, which can be bad if it is for the wrong reason. George Floyd has not been forgotten, but I realize that the movement for change is not as strong as it was last year; there is something about the attention span and its maintenance.
Could you define the code change and its place in the book? Has it played a role in your own life?
Code switching is the act of changing the way you speak, although I also think it can also mean changing your behavior, depending on the environment you are in. All the black women in my book code change to some degree because they work in majority white environments, especially Nella, who is generally closed and conservative when it comes to her interactions with her white colleagues, but much more open and comfortable when Talk to Hazel or Malaika, his best friend.
The code change has definitely played a role in my life. When I go out with black people, there are things that I feel much more comfortable joking about or referring to than I do with non-black people. For the scenes where only Nella and Malaika are hanging out, I was able to draw on my own conversations with my black friends, particularly their conversations about 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 together. Nella is still Nella at the center, but how does Nella-with-Malaika change when Owen is there? How does your presence change the flow of the conversation? The changes are subtle, but they are there, and it was very easy for me, and important for me, to bring them into Nella.
Hair is a big problem everywhere …
I was channeling my own memories, from getting soothing to the feeling of touching someone’s hair, to people asking questions. It has been a big part of my journey as a young black woman. I wasn’t always hugging my natural hair for a while, as I was in very white spaces; So when I was 10, I started taking relaxants and did it for about 12 years. I was starting to feel my natural hair coming in and I thought it was time to get rid of it. It took me a while to realize I was doing that and understand why. I went to a hair salon one day and they cut it off and I became natural. I have had natural hair for six years. My experience with hair has also mirrored my experience with blackness.
What books and writers have inspired you?
Definitely He passed from Nella Larsen, which is where I got Nella’s name from. For me it is a thriller. I am rereading it now and realizing how much it influenced. Octavia E’s Butler Family members, which is set in a time of slavery. It forces the reader to think about privilege and pain. By Toni Morrison Sula, about female friendship. Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s is so good that I can’t do justice to how much I love him.
What books are on your nightstand?
Cultish: the language of fanaticism by Amanda Montell. I also started to read All your little secrets from Wanda M Morris: a thriller that begins when Ellice finds her boss dead in the office.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
I have kept a diary since I was six years old. I was writing about school and my sister. I always liked stories when I was a kid. My dad is a writer and also a journalism teacher, so I was always encouraged.
Television rights have already been chosen by Hulu; How does it feel?
I did not expect or anticipate it when I began to write the book. I am amazed and excited. I’m co-writing the screen adaptation. I had not written for television before and I am learning a lot.
Anita Sethi’s memoir, I Belong Here: A Journey Along the Backbone of Britain (Bloomsbury), is now available
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism