Zakiya Dalila Harris: “Her Book Doesn’t Go Easy on Publishers”

From a New York Times story by Elizabeth A. Harris headlined “Her Book Doesn’t Go Easy on Publishers. Publishers Ate It Up.”:

Inspiration struck Zakiya Dalila Harris in Knopf Doubleday’s 13th-floor bathroom.

As she was washing her hands one day, a Black woman she’d never seen emerged from a stall. It was a surprise — a pleasant one — since Harris, an assistant editor at the time, was one of only two African-American people working on the floor.

“I remember being so excited,” she said. “And then being like, ‘Oh, OK, we — we’re not having a moment. Cool.’ I don’t think she noticed any of this.”

As Harris walked back to her desk, she thought about why she had been so eager to connect with this stranger. She had been the only Black woman in her department for so long, as she had often been the only Black girl in her classes growing up in Hamden, Conn. She found her first group of Black female friends in college and has often felt anxious with other Black people about “just not feeling Black enough.”

The beginnings of a story started to form in her mind.

Now that story is her debut novel, “The Other Black Girl,” and it has captivated the publishing industry’s attention since it sold at auction to Atria Books for more than $1 million. A television series, whose pilot Harris is writing with Rashida Jones (“#blackAF,” “Parks and Recreation”), is planned for Hulu. The book, a funny, sometimes creepy indictment of the book business, will go out into the world on June 1, crashing into an ongoing debate about how publishing can meaningfully diversify its work force, its leadership and its authors.

“The Other Black Girl” follows an ambitious editorial assistant, Nella Rogers, as she navigates being the only Black person at a major publishing house. When another young Black woman is hired in a similar role, Nella hopes the two will bond. It doesn’t work out that way.

“I really wanted to look at how this world affected these two Black women, and how they interacted with one another and what they said to one another, and what they felt comfortable doing when people were watching,” Harris, 28, said….“Of course there’s code switching, right? But it’s not just that. We really change ourselves.”

But the novel isn’t a straight take on the strains of professional life — it veers into horror, too. Harris credits the Jordan Peele movie “Get Out,” as one of her inspirations.

“Talking about white liberals in this way seemed so new to me at the time, and I really wanted to do something similar with the book,” she said. “Having this conversation about the way we commodify blackness and the way we commodify diversity, for the way it looks versus what it actually should be: how to meaningfully retain people in these spaces.”

Harris started at Knopf Doubleday as an editorial assistant, a job she held for about two years before being promoted in 2018 to assistant editor. She thought that was a career she wanted, but when she was given her first book to edit, she said it was like being proposed to by someone she didn’t want to marry….

Three months after the restroom encounter that sparked the book, Harris left her job to focus on writing it, staying afloat with part-time work. Six sleep-deprived months later, she had a completed manuscript.

Her boyfriend, now fiancé, Grisha Rudensky, had just moved into her studio apartment in Brooklyn, so she had someone with whom she could split rent and groceries, which made quitting her publishing job affordable. Harris said that a lot of her life had been “transmuted to Nella,” and that Nella’s white boyfriend, Owen, is somewhat modeled on Rudensky.

Rudensky served as her sounding board, talking her through details like the right name for someone from Portland, Ore. (River), and a book that a self-involved white man would love (“Infinite Jest”)….

“She is a perfectionist,” he said. “She wouldn’t let me read the book for a very long time, even though I knew every part of the story.”

In some ways, this book could have been set in any white-dominated profession, Harris said. But the book she wrote is a pointed critique of publishing — which didn’t stop the industry from wanting to buy it….

Fourteen publishers bid on the manuscript, and it sold to Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, early last year, 13 months after Harris started writing it. More than 100,000 copies of “The Other Black Girl” are being printed for the United States…. The TV interest was no less intense. Addison Duffy, an agent at United Talent Agency who, along with Jasmine Lake, represents Harris, said that deals like this usually take months, but “The Other Black Girl” closed in about six weeks….

As eager as publishing professionals may be to read “The Other Black Girl,” it was not written for them. Harris said that she had Black readers in mind, particularly Black women, and she made a conscious decision not to explain every reference that might slip by other demographics….

But many white people in publishing are sure to read it. Harris hopes that they won’t be looking for someone else to blame for the industry’s problems.

“The thing I didn’t want readers — especially ones who worked in publishing — I didn’t want them to be like, ‘Oh that’s definitely that person, and I never would do anything like that,’” Harris said. “Having them all be representative of the industry itself was really important to me, because the accountability feels that much more pressing.”

Elizabeth A. Harris writes about books and publishing.

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