(CBS Local)– A lot can change in a few years and author Zakiya Dalila Harris will be the first to tell you that. Two years ago she was working in publishing as an editor and today she is a New York Times bestseller thanks to her outstanding debut novel called “The Other Black Girl.” The book has been selected by book clubs at the New York Public Library and Good Morning America and has resonated with audiences across the country in a profound way.
The novel is about two Black women named Nella and Hazel who are navigating the predominately white world of book publishing in New York. The book has been described as “Get Out” meets “The Devil Wears Prada.” CBS Local’s DJ Sixsmith talked with Harris about how she went from quitting her job in publishing to becoming a best-selling author, what she wanted to say about privilege and racism and Black hair.
“I can’t believe the reception. I never imagined it. In 2019, I had just quit my job and I worked in book publishing for two and a half or three years, which is very much what inspired this book in a lot of ways,” said Harris. “I was an editorial assistant for a while and I got promoted to assistant editor and I was really excited about it and about the idea of getting more responsibility and getting to work on all the Black books, but I was also experiencing burnout. I had the idea for this book in January 2019 and from there I just started writing it.”
“The first thing I was thinking about when writing this book was Nella and Hazel, these two Black women who work in this very white work place and what it’s like to have to have this urge to be a community, at least on Nella’s part, and to also have this pressure of also feeling like they have to be a community because they are the two Black people at the office,” said Harris. “There is this truism that we are all supposed to help each other out and we’re supposed to nod at other Black people when we are in the same room, especially when there are mostly white people around. There there is this other sense that there can only be one of us because there are so few of us in so many different industries still. Those two truisms that are at odds are what I was really fascinated by.”
Harris wanted to use her novel to explore many nuances in the conversations about Black hair and the pressure felt to speak for all Black people all the time. One of the most fascinating scenes of the novel comes when Nella is in a meeting with her boss and a famous author and she is asked to give her opinion on his book. The editorial assistant is unsure whether to remain silent or criticize the author for his troubling depictions of Black characters in the book.
“What is the best way to bring about change? Do you sit quietly and work to be within the system and then hopefully bring other people in or do you automatically say what is on your mind,” said Harris. “For someone who is in in this kind of environment, and I had worked in it myself, of being an entry level employee and really worrying about your stature there and making sure you are on the path to promotion and being an editor. It’s a lot of pressure. I wanted to show all the conflicts within Nella. It was intense and therapeutic to write it. It explores things we don’t talk about often.”
Harris’ book is available now wherever books are sold.