PHOTO BY NICOLE MONDESTIN PHOTOGRAPHY
Have you read Another black girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris?? The best-selling new novel is about a black woman who works in the distinctly white world of book publishing, and the tension that flares up when another black woman is hired. The micro-aggressions are fading against the other sinister forces played out in this thriller that sums up the genre, which has garnered rave reviews calling it “subversive”, “brilliant” and “smart whip”.
For this our war Race Matters column, Christine Pride sat down with the author Zakiya Dalila Harris talk, write and publish.
Christine: I’m thrilled to be talking to you today for many reasons, not just our shared experience as one of the few blacks in publishing. In a recent interview with Robin Roberts for GMA, you said you were very young when you knew you were a writer. How did you know?
Zakiya: As a kid, I loved writing stories. My dad is a writer – he wrote a newspaper column and taught faculty journalism. So the skill of reading and writing was great in my household. When I was 12, I submitted a story to a competition sponsored by American Girl Magazine. The response was an illustration of a girl standing with a mailbox with a letter in her hand and two girls standing with her, looking at her like, oh my God. I wrote a story about a girl who wins two concert tickets and has to decide which friend to take. He won and was featured in a magazine – my first official publication. As a young person, I wasn’t too confident, so it confirmed that. Later, after graduating from college with a degree in English literature and earning a master’s degree from New School, I became an editorial assistant at Random House.
I’m interested in your transition from editor to writer, because I did it myself. How is it on the other side?
I enjoyed publishing, but it’s hard to be a writer i editor. There is a lot of fatigue that comes with managing the production process and trying to make everyone happy. On top of that, there was fatigue from being the only black woman in the editorial and I didn’t know if anything was going to change. After I was promoted to assistant editor, I should have been happy, but … I wasn’t. I realized that I would have to sacrifice my own creative resources to focus on other people’s work. By then I had already started writing Another black girl and so he dealt with it. Quitting was a difficult decision – I felt guilty for leaving my bosses, and I spent years settling in – but I was like, I have to do it for myself.
How a brave decision to give up a steady salary and health insurance. Has there ever been a time when you had this moment-I-might-not-be-able-to-do-this-moment?
I definitely had doubts about myself. I started writing the novel in January 2019 and I quit that April. I worked part-time and felt like I had a lot to prove to myself and others. When my draft was ready, I asked the agents, and one of them told me she liked the book, but basically said, ‘I think I should change the industry from publishing to something else.’ She didn’t think the publishing industry was ready to face any of these issues or be called to a task. I cried because I thought it would be the answer I would constantly get from agents. Luckily, it wasn’t – I met my wonderful agent, Stephanie, a few weeks after that, and we sold the book in February 2020.
At a big auction! Congratulations. One of the best parts of your book is how much you cling to what it’s like to be the only person of any category in the room. Were there moments when you felt like I just couldn’t include this real-life example?
All in all, I’ve had a really good publishing experience, but there are still times when you’re just like, wow – for example, lack of attendance at diversity meetings and circular discussions, such as: ‘What does diversity mean in general?’ Also, those conversations: ‘Is there an audience for certain books?’ Lots of encrypted whistle language for dogs. It was madness. Even outside the race, I wondered, why were there so many people at the top? It made me scratch my head. So I wanted the novel to convey what such an environment, which doesn’t make you feel like you can speak, does to you. Also, the idea that you feel small or that you want to fit in, and what it’s like to be an outsider. It is so complicated to navigate.
Who was the audience for your book while you were writing it? Is it written for black readers?
I definitely hoped this would resonate with black readers, especially black women, which is why I didn’t ‘translate’ the black cultural references that appear in this book. I wanted my characters to feel and sound realistic to Black readers. I was hoping this book would have a white audience as well. I wanted readers who don’t understand these conversations – for example, about black hair textures – to look at these things. And while the novel primarily follows black characters, many of the issues these characters face are caused by or strongly influenced by a strictly unbalanced power structure based on 400 years of white supremacy. I hope this book will encourage people to better understand their prejudices and blind spots.
Another thing we have in common is that we have the same editor, the great Lindsay Sagnette, who happens to be white. I wonder, given the topic of your book, did you have strong feelings for your editor’s race?
When I was writing the book, I thought that if one person, white or black, was in this novel, I would be happy. And realistically, given how many more white editors there are, I knew I would probably end up with a white editor. So in the end I was less concerned with race than the whole atmosphere. The other thing was that I already had a lot of black readers for the manuscript – my dad, my friends – so I thought it would be helpful to have a white editor to get that perspective. I loved working with Lindsay; she has been fiercely passionate about this book from the beginning and her critical eye has made it so much, so much stronger. I was also very lucky to receive a second round of edits from Chelcee Johns, a black editor who also applied for the book. Despite the fact that I eventually signed with Lindsay, Chelcee still wanted to be involved Another black girl, and fortunately for me, Simon & Schuster did it.
Speaking of editors, what advice do you have for blacks or POC members who want to pursue publishing?
Publishing is going through much-needed pressure to hire more POCs. Aside from looking out for official job ads, one key is networking. Social media is a good tool for building relationships; you can engage in online conversations between writers, editors, and agents. These days, there are also mentoring programs designed to give colored people access, like People in color in publishing. Don’t be afraid to send cold emails to a person in the industry. Sending a nice note to the agent or editor of a book you love can open the door or start a conversation.
Okay, one last question: the first novels are in some ways usually personal. What are the elements of your book the most you??
I’d say, Nela’s anxiety about not being ‘black enough’. I grew up in Connecticut, which was pretty white, and then I went to college at UNC-Chapel Hill, where, at least early on, I mostly had white friends. We would go to fraternal parties and it would be inappropriate for me. I had this longing for the black community, but I also felt like I didn’t really fit into it because I hung around so many whites. There was that push / pull. By my first year, I had found my own people and lived with a group of older black women, which was amazing.
Let’s end with a quick routine of fast shooting:
What keeps you awake at night?
I was worried that I would pass on my book the way I wanted to to other people. I keep worrying about saying something wrong.
What was the first book you fell in love with as a kid?
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.
Author you flat, alive or dead.
I’ve read Stephen King so much at different stages of my life, and his work and writing interviews have always told me.
If you could tell people to read one book other than yours, which one would it be?
Cult author Amanda Montell It’s about language, trends and human nature – the ways we move around the world and see ourselves and how society develops certain terms and groups and why. I found it fascinating and relevant; it changed the way I see the world.
Favorite snack or ritual.
Coffee and a plate of semolina.
Thank you very much, Christine i Zakiya. Another black girl came out on June 1, 2021.
PS More Race Matters columns, i five things I want to say to my white friends.