The publicity supplies for Zakiya Dalila Harris’s debut novel, “The Different Black Woman,” describe the guide as a literary mash-up of “The Satan Wears Prada” and “Get Out.” That units the bar excessive with the promise of a cultural landmark – a novel that’s well timed, hilarious, witty, mildly terrifying, emotionally textured and conversant on the social and political points that Black girls face on this planet and the office. Is the novel definitely worth the hype? Sure. It ought to be on the prime of your summer time studying listing.
The story opens in summer time 2018. Nella Rogers (see: celebrated Harlem Renaissance writer, Nella Larsen) is within the second yr of her job as an editorial assistant at Wagner Books. A College of Virginia graduate and the daughter of a school dean, Nella is privileged however nonetheless deprived relative to her wealthier white friends. Nella is hungry for a promotion and wonders if her skilled ascent is halted by her race, her marketing campaign for a extra various office or one thing else altogether. Nella depends on two sounding boards – her greatest buddy, Malaika, one other 20-something Black woman, and her white boyfriend, Owen. The guide earns its title from a brand new rent who disrupts Nella’s standing as Wagner’s proverbial fly within the buttermilk.
Nella is straight away enraptured and perplexed by Wagner’s latest editorial assistant, Hazel-Could McCall. They bond over college-educated Black woman issues – literary tastes, a Zora Neale Hurston mug. However Hazel swiftly eclipses Nella, becoming a member of forces with the corporate’s editor in chief, Richard Wagner, and hogging the mic at a fall advertising and marketing assembly. Quickly after Hazel’s begin date, Nella finds a mysterious word on her desk: “LEAVE WAGNER NOW.” Is Hazel the wrongdoer? Or are there darker forces at work?
An attractive subplot revolves round a Wagner guide that hit the bestseller listing in 1983 and the soured friendship between its writer, Diana Gordon, and its editor, her childhood buddy, Kendra Rae Phillips. Kendra flames out spectacularly after calling out, on tv, the racism of the publishing trade and America on the whole. Kendra’s subsequent disappearance and unrealized profession ambitions hang-out each Nella and this textual content. Nella and Kendra’s story traces intersect in stunning methods because the novel transitions right into a riveting thriller revolving round a covert brainwashing effort and an underground resistance motion.
One of many pleasures of “The Different Black Woman” is its unapologetic attraction to Black feminine readers. From references to ’90s Black tradition (Janet Jackson’s braids in “Poetic Justice,” “A Totally different World” reruns) to ample servings of hair-related angst, conversations and plot factors, Black ladies will respect how their experiences, views and quirks are centered on this novel. On the coronary heart of the guide is Nella’s perception – confirmed by private expertise in addition to information – that the decks are stacked towards Black girls. Nella displays upon “… the day she’d first discovered that it might not be sufficient for her to easily go to varsity, get good grades, and get the interview. That it wouldn’t be sufficient to easily present as much as work; to easily put on the suitable garments. You needed to put on the suitable mentality. You needed to stay the mentality. Be everybody’s greatest buddy. Be sassy. Be assured, but in addition be deferential. Be religious, but in addition be down-to-earth. Be woke, however nonetheless hold a few of that sleep in your eyes, too.”
Harris is a succesful, humorous author who crafts a compelling, sympathetic and complicated protagonist. Glimpsing Nella’s inside life and friendship with Malaika seems like overhearing the actual ideas and conversations of a younger Black lady. Harris creates well-written characters with out pandering to Black readers or translating African American cultural shorthand for a White viewers. Whereas I usually loved this guide, the transitions between the present-day story that includes Nella and Hazel to the previous narrative have been sometimes awkward, and one main plot level felt underdeveloped.
And but, I consider that the novel will assume its place as a cultural artifact that resonates particularly with Black feminine readers. It’s a part of an thrilling wave of current fiction by Black millennial writers, together with Alexia Arthurs’ “Methods to Love a Jamaican,” Kiley Reid’s “Such a Enjoyable Age” and London-based Candice Carty-Williams’s “Queenie.” Readers who can’t get sufficient of publishing office novels ought to see additionally Camille Perri’s debut, “The Assistants.”
“The Different Black Woman” dutifully and truthfully recapitulates the literary world’s debates about how you can redress its lengthy legacy of anti-Blackness. One can’t assist however word the irony of a significant writer selling a takedown of the trade. That stated, it’s heartening to witness a full press effort, full with important advertising and marketing, publicity and (one hopes) a big writer advance, in assist of a debut by a younger Black author. I hope this isn’t the final we hear from Harris, as its heartbreaking, creepy ending appears to vow a sequel.
Naomi Jackson is the writer of “The Star Facet of Chook Hill” and an assistant professor of English at Rutgers College at Newark.