By Sophie Bierhuizen
“Don’t touch my hair – don’t touch my crown,” was singer-songwriter Solange’s request in 2016, and she was right to state her boundaries. A woman’s hairdo encapsulates her personality and is an extension of her being. This is especially the case when it comes to black women, whose hair is often an expression of their heritage, culture, and a source of black pride. Therefore, it might not be surprising that black hair and its care regimen are major themes in Zakiya Dalila Harris’s debut novel The Other Black Girl.
The novel kicks off with a thrill-inducing runaway scene of a woman fleeing Manhattan who cannot stop scratching her scalp. Harris’s writing style immediately drew me in, making me wonder, ‘Where is this woman going? What is making her scalp itch? What – or who – is she running from?’ But without providing any answers the story jumps ahead 35 years, to introduce the only non-white editorial assistant at Wagner Books: Nella – a reference to Afro-American author Nella Larsen.
Employed at Wagner for two years and in desperate need of a promotion, Nella comes across as plain-looking, hardworking, and is described as walking on eggshells to sidestep racial issues. However, used to her homogenous workplace and numbed by its ‘office odours’, Nella is stunned to one day smell her favourite hair grease, Brown Buttah. Certain that her white colleagues did not stumble onto the black hair aisle, Nella comes to the only other possible conclusion: there must be another black girl on her floor.
She is proven right when introduced to her new colleague Hazel: darker skinned, impeccably dressed, and charismatic. Although ecstatic that her place of employment is diversifying, Nella quickly realises there is something off with Hazel. While Hazel is on the frontlines of black representation and mentors underprivileged black youths in her free time, she appears to be too complacent to her white superiors, and too eager to sidestep microaggressions. It does not take long for Nella and Hazel to compete for the position as ‘go-to black girl’, which inevitably raises the question, ‘Why can there be only one?’ Still, slowly, Nella feels her stability at Wagner slipping, and her insecurities are validated when she receives anonymous notes telling her to leave Wagner immediately.
Harris, having worked for the editorial department at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, has had first-hand experience in the publishing industry. With this expertise, she constructs the publishing industry as the stage of workplace scheming at Wagner Books. Harris cunningly uses every staff meeting to create a bigger divide between Nella and Hazel, making the first an outcast, and the latter the office darling. Distracted by the cut-throat environment, I was delighted to discover that this becomes the backdrop to much bigger themes.
Wagner Books is the place where, 35 years prior, the fictitious novel Burning Heart was published – written and edited by Nella’s childhood heroes Diana and Kendra Rae. Their storylines foreshadow the dystopian world in which the novel takes place. Being childhood friends, Diana is quick to call out Kendra Rae’s confrontational side towards their white colleagues, whilst Kendra Rae fights tooth and nail to enable her friend’s – otherwise repressed – career. That is, until Kendra Rae is ostracised by the media and disappears. Their friendship is the root of the mystery surrounding Hazel’s complacent attitude and the notes left on Nella’s desk telling her to leave Wagner.
Harris plays with voices in her novel by writing multiple characters from the first-person perspective. Nella, however, is composed from the third person, separating her storyline from the others. It appears to be a conscious choice from Harris to have the reader observe Nella from a more distanced perception as her life seemingly falls apart. Interestingly, there is one character that seems to be on her side: Shani, who in a shocking turn of events has similarly been duped by Hazel in the past. This has me wondering, ‘Will she be able to protect Nella from her fate?’
Throughout this unfolding thriller, Harris deftly employs humour into tense situations. When Nella receives her first threating note, it worries her, but she is mostly confused since the note is typed in the least threatening font: Comic Sans. In a similar vein, Shani recalls her interaction with a nightclub bouncer, whom she describes as: “Tall, dark and cute […] with a smile that suggested he’d much sooner call a woman ‘brown sugah’ than ‘bitch’” (Harris 99). It is this quick humour interwoven in the story that takes your mind off the more troubling “other black girls”. This interplay with characters and humour cuts through the tension and mystery whilst simultaneously providing the characters with personality. Nella’s best friend, Malaika, is fleshed out with her dialogue and actions which has her personality flowing from the pages. For instance, when Nella considers confronting Hazel, Malaika responds, “’Right. So when you say you want to ‘talk’ to Hazel, do you mean…?’ Malaika’s outline mimed removing her earrings one by one” (196).
Harris’s characters never feel gauche or as a simple trope, rather they are but reminiscent of the various qualities a person can have. She plays with stereotypes and authentic personalities as seen in the real world. This is also evident in her description of Nella. She feels as if she does not belong to either the black or white community due to her prosperous upbringing and her string of white boyfriends. Harris also interjects a diverse range of white characters in her novel, such as C.J., the white working-class mail delivery man, and Nella’s app-developing boyfriend Owen, who was raised in a lesbian household.
Harris’s world reflects reality without resorting to previously established class systems or often segregated relationships. This vast portrayal of black characters is an important feature of The Other Black Girl. As pointed out by Nella herself, black voices in literature are often portrayed as caricatures and not resembling real people. A character named Shartricia, written by a renowned white author in the novel Colin Franklin, illustrates this. Described as a teenage mother with seven children, and suffering from an opioid addiction, Shartricia is the catalyst of Nella’s demise at Wagner, when Nella voices her concerns of this token-of-diversity character. Mirroring the effect the novel Burning Heart has on its readers, The Other Black Girl provides a platform for black narratives and characters to move away from the stereotypical depiction, and it motivates us to look for more authentic People Of Colour representation in authors and their novels.
The characters of The Other Black Girl are interlinked partly by the publishing industry, but more importantly by their hair. Harris describes the expression and embrace of black identity through this. For instance, Hazel is stunned to find out Nella does not have the skills to tie scarves or do flat twists, which are classics in black hairstyles. “How had she made it this far without knowing how to style black hair?” (86). This discovery spurs an inner dialogue in Nella that informs the reader about her history of relaxing her hair, a practice that chemically straightens afro hair, and only recently cut it off to see what her natural curls would look like.
Although new to the natural hair scene, Nella knows the importance of black hair and how it can portray personality. She accepts an invitation to a hair party by Hazel to learn how to tie scarves and snoop on Hazel. The following scene jolted my memory, in which my mother would braid my hair for school, and seeing this echoed in Nella made her feel more real to me:
In almost every other instance, she’s hated it: when she was getting cornrows; when she was getting DIY relaxers; when her grandmother insisted on pressing the curlers so close to her forehead that she could feel her skin sizzling, even if “it’s not touching!” like Grandma always promised. […] There’d also been something profound in those moments; it was in the nature of this elongated physical contact that most non-black teenagers didn’t have with their mothers, but she did. And it was in the little things such contact taught her about the women in her family. (311-2)
This significance of hair and the familial connection is underlined throughout this story and its characters. Diana, who chooses to wear wigs because she is never confident enough to show her black hair, is described reminiscing on her friendship with Kendra Rae when curling her wig before a big event. Hazel herself is “natural”, a term describing a woman with natural afro hair, dreadlocked, and dyed ombre – a feat that labels her with a high level of coolness. Even Shani is instructed to chop off her hair when moving to Manhattan, to produce a clean slate and claim anonymity. Lastly, Malaika is keen to take good care of her hair since she has experienced hair grease that dried out her ends, making it a rule of thumb to read the fine print of labels before she uses hair products. As a proprietor of wisdom, she is right since we should all be careful with what we do to our hair, especially when it is discovered that Hazel’s hair grease is mind altering.
The Other Black Girl is a thrilling novel that stands on its own as an enthralling piece of dystopian fiction, making you re-evaluate society’s diversity and numbness to racial issues, and it is truly a grand debut in the world of literature, demonstrating Harris’ broad range as a writer. This is a must-read for anyone eager to read more diverse narratives and is keen to feel the hairs on their neck stand up in excitement.
Sophie Bierhuizen’s interest in multicultural societies stems from her international experiences: being born in Switzerland and raised in the Netherlands. This curiosity developed further when she was living abroad in the UK and Finland. These experiences ignited her attentiveness to diversity and its often underrepresented portrayal in literature. She is currently studying for her M.A. degree in Literature Today at Utrecht University and is a Managing Editor of RevUU.
- Harris, Zakiya Dalila. The Other Black Girl. Bloomsbury, 2021, United States.
- Solange. “Don’t Touch My Hair.” A Seat at the Table, Columbia Records, 2016.