SAM SANDERS, HOST:
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You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. So inspiration can strike in the strangest places. For my guest this episode, it struck in the office bathroom. For a while when Zakiya Dalila Harris was an editorial assistant at a publishing house, she had been the only Black woman on her floor at work, until one day, another Black woman showed up. And Zakiya expected a friendly interaction.
ZAKIYA DALILA HARRIS: In my way, I was, like, giving out signals that, like, you know - and this all probably sounds really weird. And I'm like...
SANDERS: What is the signal that you're giving up at the bathroom sink? Tell me. I want to know.
HARRIS: (Laughter) Well, I was kind of like, you know...
SANDERS: Washing your hands extra slow or what?
HARRIS: Yeah. Well, I kind of - I feel like I was smiling a little bit and, like, hey, girl. We're here. You know, like, that kind of nod...
SANDERS: Except you didn't say, actually, girl, we're here (laughter).
HARRIS: I didn't say. Yeah. No. No. I didn't. I did not.
SANDERS: So neither of them actually speak to each other in the restroom. But Zakiya kept thinking about that moment with the other Black girl.
HARRIS: I thought about that interaction. I thought about why I didn't say anything specifically. I thought about why maybe she didn't think it was a big deal that we were both in that space together and why I was so excited and then also nervous that, like, what if it was me? Like, what if she doesn't want to have a conversation with me, like, all of those kind of insecurities that I have buzzing around my brain a lot of the time.
SANDERS: Once she got back to her desk, Zakiya messaged her best friend because all those insecurities buzzing, they were becoming something.
HARRIS: I was like, hey, I just thought of this idea for a book. Like, what if there is this one Black girl, and she's in this space working in this white place. And then this other Black woman comes. And, like, [expletive] gets weird. Like, that was all I had.
HARRIS: And I - she was like, go for it. And, yeah, from there I just really...
SANDERS: Quit your job.
HARRIS: Quit my job...
HARRIS: ...As one does.
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SANDERS: Flash forward to now, that idea is a book, Zakiya Dalila Harris' debut novel "The Other Black Girl." And this book, it got Zakiya a seven-figure book deal. And it's already getting turned into a TV show with help from Rashida Jones. And the reviews of this book, they are pretty glowing. People are saying it's "Devil Wears Prada" meets "Get Out." Also, I should mention here, Zakiya Dalila Harris is the sister of Aisha Harris, one of the hosts of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Anyhoo, today we are talking about Zakiya's book inspired by that restroom interaction. We're going to talk about how it subverts the office drama and the lessons it has for a still very white publishing industry.
I want to lay out some kind of synopsis of "The Other Black Girl" as best we can without giving away any spoilers.
SANDERS: And I'm wondering, is the best way to do that not through having you try to give some plot, but having you just give us a quick character sketch of the two main characters, Nella and Hazel?
HARRIS: Yeah. So our first character is Nella Rogers. She is a young, 26-year-old editorial assistant who was born and raised in a very suburban town in Connecticut, mostly around white people. She has been the only Black person working at the very prestigious and very white publishing house Wagner Books, which is in Manhattan in Midtown. And she's been the only Black person there for two years. And she is just - you know, she's had it in a lot of ways. She has experienced tons of microaggressions, doesn't really have a space in work to talk about these microaggressions. But she does have a space outside of work with her best friend, Malaika, and her boyfriend, Owen. And then in walks Hazel, the other Black girl who...
HARRIS: ...Is another young Black woman from Harlem, has gorgeous dreadlocks. She just drips Harlem cool from her head to her toes. She very much represents in a lot of ways for Nella this other way of Blackness, this - also, I think, for her, she has a little bit of envy. I think she's really intrigued...
SANDERS: Oh, yeah.
HARRIS: ...And wants to kind of - she wants to know what it's like to have, I think, lived in that space and, like, have lived a similar life.
SANDERS: It's kind of like this Instagram-ready Blackness.
SANDERS: It is executed in a way that is just, like, beautiful to behold, if that makes sense.
HARRIS: I love that. I love that. Exactly, exactly it.
SANDERS: And so the two of them meet. And you kind of think, all right, they have to be friends. They're the two Black girls. But then - and I guess that's where I stop because I don't want to give away anything else.
HARRIS: Yes. Yes. Yes. Things get complicated, as they often do.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. You know, Nella is clearly the protagonist of this book. But Hazel, as we've just alluded to, is just so damn appealing.
SANDERS: And I kind of think that if I met them both, like, out in the wild, I would enjoy hanging out with Hazel more than Nella.
SANDERS: What do you think? If you met them both at a party...
SANDERS: ...Who would you hit it off with?
HARRIS: Easy - Hazel, for sure. For sure.
SANDERS: Right (laughter)?
HARRIS: I agree. Although, I will say, I would - between Hazel and Malaika, I think I'd choose Malaika.
SANDERS: Malaika's the one that's down to go to the second bar at, like, 11:30.
HARRIS: Exactly, on a Tuesday.
HARRIS: Yeah. No. I agree.
HARRIS: And that's the thing. I mean, I - when I was writing Nella and Hazel, they really felt - they're so different in a lot of ways. But they also are two sides of the same coin, too. Like, I do imagine, again, Hazel as this kind of idealized - for her and the white people in the office - kind of image of woke, perfect amount of sassy, perfect amount of smart, like, all of the...
SANDERS: Perfect code switcher.
HARRIS: Perfect code switcher. She can do it all. And she does it all flawlessly in a way that Nella is constantly, you know, struggling to figure out.
SANDERS: Hazel felt - and I was happy to see it. So many times, the Hazels of the offices or the Hazels of the movies and the TV shows is a white girl.
SANDERS: It is a very successful, valedictorian, blond cheerleader who just effortly (ph) is perfect and secretly mean. And you're used to that trope...
SANDERS: ...Being a white woman. And this time, it was a Black girl with dreads.
SANDERS: And I found that exciting. I really did.
HARRIS: (Laughter) Thank you. It was kind of scary. It was kind of scary to do, I'm not going to lie.
SANDERS: Really? Really? Why?
HARRIS: I mean, scary in the sense that, like, I knew what I was trying to get at in terms of the way that, like, we - I mean, I say crabs in a barrel in the book - like, the way that we can be to one another, competitive, the way that we feel like, you know, we're not - we can't be that - there can't be that many of us in one space. We have to really only be representative, like, through one person. And so with publishing, that is definitely the case. And Nella, you know, has been the only one for so long. She's been really hungry for another Black person. But then I also wanted to get at why maybe now she's not that excited about it, but then also the reasons why that happens. They're not just because they don't want each other to succeed, right? Or - that's not the point. The point is that it goes bigger than them. It goes into corporate culture. It goes into white supremacy, the commodification...
HARRIS: ...Of Black people, like, Black bodies...
HARRIS: ...And Black work and Black creativity, all of those things that cause them to compete. And so those are things that, like, Black people have been talking about and minorities have been talking about for a while. But really getting at that conversation, for me, as a Black artist, made me a little wary of, like, OK, the eyes on this work - I don't want people to be like, oh, so Black people can be this way toward one another or have these feelings. Like, then it's OK for us to have it, because that's not the point (laughter).
SANDERS: Yeah, that's not the point. Yeah. Yeah. Well, it also, for me, felt like a nice level of nuance in this moment to unpack that there are many different ways to be a Black woman.
SANDERS: You know, so much of the last year or two of activism and internet discourse has been support Black women. Believe Black women.
SANDERS: Black women will save us. Black women are the future. Black women are special aliens that can heal the world.
HARRIS: (Laughter) Yes. We do it all.
SANDERS: And it's been a monolithic interpretation of what it means to be a Black woman.
SANDERS: And your book is a reminder that there are lots of different kinds of Black ladies, OK? Deal with it. I liked that.
HARRIS: Thank you. That means a lot to me because that's what I wanted. Like, I wrote this for Black women. I wrote this for Black people who have worked in these corporate spaces, have been the only one, have felt like they've had to speak for every single body - every single person, everybody in the world, you know, who has the same skin color as them, when that's not the case. Like, we are all - we all have different opinions. These characters are so messy. They're all just trying to be and trying to succeed. And sometimes they're doing it maybe the way that you would do it. And then they're also doing their own thing in another way that you're judging. And...
HARRIS: ...There are characters to judge in this book. I think that's important because, like, we're not all - we deserve to be messy. We deserve to be, you know - just be who we are.
SANDERS: Yeah. You know, this book quickly ventures into territory that kind of made me think of "Devil Wears Prada." You know, two young folks in the office. One begins to fail. One begins to succeed. There's clearly a rivalry. It gets weirdly tense, et cetera. But then it goes further, you know? And I'm not going to say anything else about the further. But I'm just going to say, it goes further. But it's drawing some comparisons to some thrillers, some psychological thrillers. It's drawing some comparisons to "Get Out." You know, there was a world in which you could let this just be an office drama, in which two similar young women ends up on different tracks because one can make it work and the other can't. But you made that twist that made it so much bigger. What made you decide to take it there?
HARRIS: So I - it's funny. This book without the twist or the genre would just not be me. I just love twists like that in books that I read. I'm a big horror fan. I'm a big sci-fi fan. I could talk to someone for an hour about "Night Of The Living Dead" and the ending of that movie...
HARRIS: ...Like, "Twilight Zone." I hadn't really been a writer in that space, though. So figuring out how I would really implement all of these pieces that aren't just in the literary space like there are those genre elements, that was - that took some work in editing. And I will say, though, that, like, I had so much fun because I just think, also, with the topics in this book, they're heavy.
HARRIS: The line between code switching and selling out, the idea of how to succeed, you know, what it would be like to, you know, just go to work and not have to think about all of the stressors you're experiencing as a Black woman, as a woman, as a young person trying to survive off of this wage that you can't really use to live in New York - it's impossible - all of those things are heavy. And so I wanted to have this other element to really - I mean, it's still very scary to a lot of people, but it still also adds this lightness, I think, that will hopefully allow people to talk about the book in a much more comfortable way and a much more open way, Black people with other Black people, but then also all of us having conversations together about just, you know, all of the questions that Nella faces in this book.
SANDERS: Coming up, "The Other Black Girl" is also one big critique of the publishing industry. So what was it like when publishing loved the book?
This book is a commentary on race and performance, but it is also a very specific sendup of the publishing industry and the enduring tone-deaf liberal whiteness of the publishing industry.
SANDERS: And it's the kind of book that you could see a lot of agents and publishers in the publishing industry saying hell no to right off the bat. And yet, there was an insane bidding war for this book. How surprised were you to see the very industry that you were satirizing offer to pay you a lot of money to publish that satire?
HARRIS: (Laughter) It was so weird. It was so surreal.
SANDERS: Really (laughter)?
HARRIS: I mean, I - you know, in a lot of ways, I was very surprised because...
HARRIS: I did have some feedback. The fact that it was set in publishing - when I started writing it, I did kind of have, you know, plans to maybe take the publishing part out of it at some point 'cause I was like, well...
SANDERS: Oh, really?
HARRIS: Well, in the sense that I was very much aware of just what I would be going up against. And first, when I wrote it, I didn't want it to come off as a specific takedown of where I worked and who I worked with. And I'm actually still in touch with a lot of my colleagues from there.
SANDERS: OK. You didn't say all.
HARRIS: I did not.
HARRIS: And I really wanted to get at, really, publishing in general as an industry because it really is - it takes a village. It's not one specific person. It is the system. And so when I did decide, OK, this is the world I know - and then also, of course, publishing is just too rich because it's such a strange, kind of cultish industry. But I did have someone say when I was currying agents, like, I think this is great, but - I don't know - like, I don't think publishing's ready for this. But then, of course, there is this truism in the publishing world, and maybe it's extended beyond at this point, that publishing loves to read books about publishing. And that somehow still applied to this book (laughter). But - and I'll also add the thing that was really nice while we were meeting with publishing houses is that a lot of them were saying, we've - we see ourselves in this book. And that was really something to...
HARRIS: For them to say, you know, this made me really uncomfortable, and to, like, talk about it was really, really great, (laughter) really satisfying.
SANDERS: Yeah. You know, so much of the story of the publishing industry in this book is that it is an industry full of people who think they get it but don't...
SANDERS: ...People who love to say diversity as much as possible in every meeting, who love to, you know, have a Black person on the website. But when it comes down to it, they either get it wrong or they aren't really trying.
SANDERS: And I think that is something that's true not just for publishing, but...
SANDERS: ...Other arenas, maybe even public radio.
SANDERS: That said, what do you hope is the biggest lesson that folks in the publishing industry take from this book and its commentary on that dynamic within publishing?
HARRIS: Oh, yeah. I mean, one thing about this book that I really wanted to say to my old co-workers, the industry, everyone is it's really important to try to retain these young Black people, right? Like, it's...
SANDERS: That part, yes (ph).
HARRIS: It's so hard to be a person in the space and feel like no one is there for you. And I think that it's really important to know that we need to feel like we can speak out and speak up. And if we don't feel like we are being valued or if we feel like the only way to get up is not - move up is not to speak out, like, that's also a problem.
SANDERS: Yeah. You know, another thing that I've been thinking about a lot with your book and just other Black works in this moment is, like, how much of these works, even if they're fiction, is the author's biography, particularly if they're Black? And how much is that expected?
SANDERS: You know, you've talked about Nella drawing a lot from who you are as a person, which makes sense. But she's not all you.
SANDERS: But it sometimes feels as - especially in this moment where we're focused so much, it seems, on Black lives...
SANDERS: ...There's this desire from audiences and critics to make all of the work from Black people intensely biographical.
HARRIS: Yeah, yeah.
SANDERS: And I just wonder how you deal with that because it seems as if it's a higher level of expectation of what we give of ourselves than maybe non-Black people have to deal with when they're doing things like writing.
HARRIS: Right, right. Yeah. I mean, it's hard 'cause I'm in such a special situation where it's like I did work in this space, right? And, like, I - people know me, and people knew that I worked in the space. And so it's like almost - and it's inevitable for them to think that this book is really inspired by my experiences.
HARRIS: And - but I do think with the next book that I haven't started writing just yet, but it's in my head and I'm thinking about it - I do think about that all the time with the next book, whatever I write, because I did start this way. And it makes me nervous.
HARRIS: I do want to have that space to break out of, you know, what I've done here in some regard.
SANDERS: Coming up, we reflect on being Black in the workplace.
We talked a fair amount about Nella and Hazel. But for me, Hazel, who was the other Black girl, you know, this Regina George with dreadlocks...
SANDERS: ...You know, someone who is...
HARRIS: I love that.
SANDERS: ...All about the climb - you can use it. You can use it (laughter).
HARRIS: I will. I'll credit you. I'll credit you, I promise.
SANDERS: Yeah. It's all good. It's all good. You know, but Hazel is this Black girl who is all about the climb and using whatever it takes and doing whatever it takes to conquer these white spaces, even if it means stepping over people who look like her. And I got to admit, reading this book, I wondered to myself more than once, have I ever been Hazel? Have I ever been the other Black girl myself in my career?
SANDERS: Have you wondered that?
HARRIS: Oh, my soul. My soul.
HARRIS: You know, I had - well, no - yes - yes and no. Not that explicitly.
SANDERS: OK, OK, OK.
SANDERS: Yeah, tell me. Tell me.
HARRIS: Let me stop. Well, one of my - the friend that I mentioned earlier who I would send my ideas to, my writing ideas, she's another Black woman. We went to - we did the same MFA program at The New School. And we would say - we actually would use the OBG, like, whenever we were in places. Like, we'd be like...
HARRIS: ...Oh, there's the OBG, and not out of, like, a place of malice - just like, oh, there's another Black person here. And specifically in spaces like when we're at parties and when we're at certain bars or, like, that kind of thing - to be like, OK, like, there's the other Black person. And we'd wonder. We'd wonder about them. We'd wonder - if it was a party, we'd wonder what their connection was to the party because, like, we would also think about our own connection. And that was...
HARRIS: That was the thing that I - with Nella kind of sizing Hazel up and Nella and Malaika talking about Hazel - like, who is she? What is she about? Like, what kind of Black person is she? You know what I mean? Like, those are things that we have talked about. So that's - I think that's maybe OBG of us...
HARRIS: ...To be othering the other Black girl in the room.
SANDERS: Well, I thought about myself and my career, you know? I've never been....
SANDERS: I've never, I think, purposely tried to sabotage another Black person's career to advance my own. But I do think, looking back, you know, looking for Hazel or other Black girl tendencies, I have been silent when I should have said something.
SANDERS: And I think - you know? There are these things that happen...
SANDERS: ...There are these dynamics that happen where you figure out, because the signs are there, your place in the pecking order...
SANDERS: ...Your place on the stairwell.
SANDERS: And at a certain point, you feel like you're not supposed to talk about other folks who aren't at the place you are in these institutions.
SANDERS: And I think if I would have - if I could go back over my career, I would say, you should be speaking up about this stuff for these people, wherever they are at all places in the organization...
HARRIS: Yeah. Right.
SANDERS: ...Because you don't have to be actively trying to sabotage someone to not be helping somebody that needs help.
HARRIS: Oh, yeah. And if you don't speak out, who else is going to?
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.
HARRIS: And not that - not to, like, put this on you. But, I mean, we do - like, there's a truism that we can't - there can only be one of us in a lot of spaces as Black people. But then there's also the other, much better and more positive truism that we all got to help each other out. We all have to give each other a nod. Like, we are - to be in these spaces is really fortunate in a lot of ways, given all of the odds that are stacked against us. So it is really important to make sure you are doing your duty. I feel like that sounds not - (laughter) not the right word. But...
SANDERS: Yeah. It's not fair, but it's real. There is a duty. There's a duty. Yeah.
HARRIS: Yeah. Yeah. And that's the thing, talking to other Black people about this book, has been really interesting is the, like, I had a Hazel. I usually get people telling me, I had a Hazel. I don't get people saying what you said. And I think that's so important. And, again, I'm going to do some serious introspection after this and, like, think about every time I have maybe been the Hazel...
HARRIS: ...Because that's important. That's so...
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.
HARRIS: That's so important.
SANDERS: I want to close this interview kind of close to where we started. You talked about that moment in the office bathroom that inspired this entire book and your entire wild ride these last few years, you seeing another Black woman in the office restroom. And neither of you says a word to each other. If you could go back to that moment in that office bathroom next to that other Black woman but today, what do you think you'd do now?
HARRIS: Another really great thing I've never talked about with anyone else. This is amazing question. I would say, let's go get a coffee.
HARRIS: I would say let's go get a coffee. I...
HARRIS: I wish I had. I wish I had been - yeah, I wish I had spoken out. Maybe in that case - maybe that's when I was the Hazel, Sam. I think - and, boom, our work is done. No.
HARRIS: No. But I think I would have - I mean, I would have found out sooner why she was on the floor, what she was doing. And then I could talk to her now about this because I do wonder, like, has she heard this story. Like, does she even remember this happening? Like, that - it's crazy to think about all the things that could have been different.
SANDERS: But it's good that it wasn't different because you got this (laughter).
HARRIS: You know, I wasn't going to say that. But - (laughter).
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SANDERS: I got to say, this book has been my first, I think, post-vaccine, post-pandemic read. And it is setting the tone for what I know is going to be a really great year reading books all over the place. And I'm so excited that I got to start that journey with your book, "The Other Black Girl." I really did enjoy it so much. Thank you for your work and for doing you.
HARRIS: Thank you so much. This has been such an honor. I really appreciate you having me on.
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SANDERS: Thanks again to writer Zakiya Dalila Harris. Her book, "The Other Black Girl," is out now. I got to say, I sped through this one. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. Go read "The Other Black Girl."
And one more thing to ask of you - as I mentioned at the top of this episode, we want to know how we are doing making this show for you. What do you like? What do you not like? What keeps you coming back? What do you hope we never, ever do again? You can tell us all of that by taking a short, anonymous survey. Here's the link - npr.org/podcastsurvey, npr.org/podcastsurvey. I know. No one wants to fill out an online survey. But if you do this for me, I guarantee you this show will get even better. I appreciate it. Thank you.
All right. This episode of IT'S BEEN A MINUTE was produced by Andrea Gutierrez. And it was edited by Jordana Hochman.
All right, listeners, be good to yourselves. Go read a book. Thank you, as always, for listening. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.
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