Nella Rogers is happy at first to see that another Black woman has been hired as an editorial assistant at Wagner Books. She's tired of being just about the only Black person in the room — or really any room at Wagner. And then one morning, Nella looks through a small crack in a cubicle and sees what she calls "the flash of a brown hand."
It's Hazel-May McCall, resplendent in locs, "every one as thick as a bubble tea straw and longer than her arms," a sharp marigold pantsuit and red patent leather ankle boots "that Nella would have broken her neck just trying to get into."
Nella and Hazel are at the center of Zakiya Dalila Harris's debut novel The Other Black Girl (full disclosure: Harris is the sister of our own Aisha Harris, one of the hosts of Pop Culture Happy Hour). The book draws on her own experiences in publishing.
Harris says Nella is fascinated by Hazel. "She is so curious, she is really just genuinely excited. She has been the only Black person at Wagner Books for the last two years. And so to have this flash of color in this space that's usually really drab — and frankly, very white — Nella's enthusiastic and excited about that and what that could mean for her."
On Hazel-May's backstory
She is really kind of the poster child for Blackness in a lot of ways ... she comes from civil rights kind of royalty. She expresses her opinions about things in a very confident way. She is really the millennial who is speaking out. But at the same time, she's also able to navigate this very white world of Wagner books in a very smooth kind of way that Nella actually doesn't necessarily navigate as well. And so that contrast really sets up a lot of interesting — I'll just say interesting — dynamics between them.
On what Nella faces every day at Wagner books
Being the only one means a lot of things for Nella. The thing that is really hard for her is the fact that she feels like she has to speak for every Black person, every Black opinion. She's expected to speak, but in a certain way, right? She she has to come off in a way that's also appealing to her co-workers. And that can change depending on what's in vogue, what's popular. So she really has to kind of fit herself into the mold that they believe she should be in.
On how much is fiction and how much is memoir
A lot of it is fiction. A lot of it is exaggeration. I fortunately did not have it nearly as bad as Nella does. I also wasn't the only Black person where I worked. I was still one of few, not many, and the only Black woman in editorial. So, so that that part of looking around the table and not seeing anyone who looked like me, that part was very real. But the characters were very much a fun amalgamation of certain quirks, certain conversations I've overheard. All of those zany hijinks that you see in an office when you're close with other people like that. So that element was was pretty on point.
On the sinister notes that begin to appear on Nella's desk
I mean, I wanted to have this mysterious element that kind of throws a wrench into Nella's plans, her life at Wagner Books, but I really want the reader to think about the note. It was more for the reader, because I want them to think about who they think would have left it for her. And I think you can tell a lot about a reader by what they expect ... There are a lot of people who could have done it. And throughout this book, I really wanted readers to question their own prejudices, their own kind of analysis of certain interactions.
On Nella saying Hazel makes her feel redundant
Yeah. I mean, it really goes into my own ideas that I have about — I mean, it's not only publishing, I think it's a lot of industries that are mostly white where we commodify Blackness, where you only need this one version of this thing for this one purpose. Whereas diversity is not like that. You have to be thoughtful about how you are speaking with people, how you see the office, because all of those things matter. They make a difference into whether or not a place feels inclusive. So when Hazel's in the space, Nella feels like, OK, well, they have someone else who dresses cooler than me, who speaks on these things much more clearly and confidently than I do. Everyone seems to love her. My purpose here and my worth here is in question now.
This story was edited for radio by D. Parvaz and Samantha Balaban, and adapted for the web by Petra Mayer.