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Zakiya Dalila Harris 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 she draws on in her highly anticipated debut novel, The Other Black Girl, which combines 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 charts how the two become frenemies, explores the challenges of surviving in a systemically racist workplace and was the subject of a 15-way auction prior to publication in the US.
Here are excerpts from an interview with her published by the Guardian.
What were your own experiences in publishing and how have they played into the book?
I worked in publishing for two and a half years. I was an editorial assistant then promoted to assistant editor. I felt fortunate, as a part of me enjoyed editing and I felt I was good at it, but it’s also an exhausting job for an entry-level person in terms of the pay. I was also one of the very few black people in the company – it wasn’t as bad as Nella in the book, but I was the only black woman in editorial in a full-time position for a while. I thought: why does it feel like we’re living in 1955 still, in terms of what we value? Publishing is such a rich, easily spoofable world.
What was your experience of diversity as an issue?
We had diversity meetings, which I make fun of in the book, which were essentially talking in circles; it felt like nothing was really changing. I wanted people to think about their own prejudices – it’s not enough to just say you want diversity; [you need to] think about how to actually get it. Where a lot of Nella and Hazel’s tension comes from is: as the only black people in the company, they are always compared to each other. That’s something subtle that white people do. Before Hazel, Nella was burdened with the responsibility of having to represent all black people. She was compared with what every white person at the company believed was “the typical black experience”. When she was no longer the only one, she was then compared to Hazel.
Which books and writers have inspired you?
Definitely Passing by Nella Larsen, which is where I got Nella’s name. For me it’s very much a thriller. I’m rereading it now and realising how much it was an influence. Octavia E Butler’s Kindred, which is set in a time of slavery. It forces the reader to think about privilege and pain. Toni Morrison’s Sula, about female friendship. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is so good, I can’t do justice to how much I love it.
What books are on your bedside table?
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell. I also started reading All Her Little Secrets by Wanda M Morris – a thriller that starts with Ellice finding her boss dead in the office.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I kept a diary from the age of six. I was writing about school and my sister. I always loved stories as a kid. My dad is a writer and also journalism professor, so I was always encouraged.
TV rights have already been optioned by Hulu; how does that feel?
I didn’t expect or anticipate it when I started writing the book. I’m amazed and excited. I’m co-writing the screen adaptation. I hadn’t written before for TV and I’m learning a lot.