It's my pleasure to welcome Zakiya Dalila Harris.
MS. HARRIS: Hi, Robin, how are you?
MS. GIVHAN: Hi, there. It's very nice to see you. Thank you for joining me.
MS. HARRIS: Thank you so much for having me and for chatting with me, today.
MS. GIVHAN: I wanted to start out by asking you what sparked the idea for this particular story in this setting?
MS. HARRIS: Yes, absolutely. So, I worked in book publishing myself for two-and-a-half, close to three years. And while I was there, I loved a lot of parts of it. Of course, I loved editing, I loved being around authors, but I also loved writing. So, there is--I mean, there are a lot of different things that sparked this book, but the one thing that really caused me to sit down and write it was this moment in the bathroom when I was working there, still. And this other Black woman came out of the bathroom stall and started washing her hands and I looked at her, and I remember being so baffled because I knew I was the only Black woman who worked on my floor at the time. And I hoped, at least looking back--I'm pretty sure I gave off signals of wanting to say hello, do the nod thing that I know most Black people do, or what I was taught to do growing up when you see other Black people in spaces where you wouldn't normally see them, or aren't used to seeing them.
But there was no kind of interaction. So, I went back to my desk and wasn't really thinking about her as much as much as I was thinking about myself and how, in those few moments, I had been so tense but also so excited about having this kind of connection with another Black woman and hoping she would feel the same way. And when that wasn't returned, I sat back down at my cubicle and started writing chapter one, where Nella's sitting at her desk smelling those smells of hair grease.
MS. GIVHAN: One of the things that's really interesting to me is that the novel really sort of indites the publishing industry and the way in which it sort of deals with diversity. And yet, I mean, this book was subject of, like, a 14-publishing house battle. I mean, how surprised were you that the very industry that you were looking quite--somewhat harshly at was really excited about this book?
MS. HARRIS: I was pretty surprised. I was not expecting anything close to that level of, you know, appreciation. It was really baffling, in a way, for that to happen. And I know for me, when I was writing it, a big part of me, even though I knew I had to keep going with publishing, but a part of me, while I was writing, knew that some of this was damning, in ways. And I wasn't trying to specifically when I started writing talk about publishing in this way. I was really more so interested in Black women and working in corporate America, as the only ones. But then, the more I wrote, I was like, oh, but there are all these things that I have felt about this industry and I feel like other people in other industries have also felt, of being old-fashioned, of being stuck in this time period of really Mad Men, in a lot of ways, it felt like, looking around the table.
And so, having publishing see this book and feel like I got it right and not being offended was really, really great for me.
MS. GIVHAN: One of the--I mean, the most fascinating relationship, of course, is between Nella, who is the original Black girl, and Hazel, the more recent arrival. And it's a really nuanced and complicated relationship that you sort of see unfold as the story goes on.
Can you talk a little bit about the difference between their backgrounds and the way in which certain sort of presumptions about what those backgrounds might mean actually don't, really?
MS. HARRIS: Yeah, yeah. So, while I was writing, I was really interested in kinds of blackness and the ways in which we ourselves categorize blackness within the black community.
And so, with Nella, I was really thinking, honestly, of a lot of my own experiences. So, Nella grew up in Connecticut in a suburb, mostly around White people. She of course knows her history, knows a lot about Black literature, Black things, but most of her best friends were White as a young person. And so, it took her a little bit of time for her to find her community. And she doesn't find it until later on after college and she meets her best friend, Malaika.
Whereas Hazel is born and bred in Harlem, has really cool dreadlocks and was raised around Black people, runs a young women's writers' group for high school in Harlem, is very involved, has grandparents who were involved in the civil rights movement.
So, for Nella, Hazel is this kind of person that Nella always wondered if she might have been, or would have wanted to be, and it's kind of this alternative Nella in a lot of ways, I like to say. And so, however, despite this, Nella's also natural and Nella has expectations for what this relationship with Hazel is going to be like. She's like, okay, well if Hazel is able to jump through all these crazy hoops because there are so many hoops to get into publishing, into industries like this, as a Black woman, especially, Hazel must be the same kind of blackness as Nella is. She must be, you know, dating a certain kind of person. She must speak a certain way.
And when Nella sees that Hazel isn't necessarily fitting herself into these boxes that Nella spent her entire life fitting herself into, she is really surprised, and it causes friction between them.
MS. GIVHAN: In the conversation with--between Nella and Hazel, one of the first things that comes up, one of the first sort of bonding moments is the topic of hair, which I know you've talked about before. But it is--I mean, hair, hair products, hair accessories, the entire universe of hair--
MS. HARRIS: Yes.
MS. GIVHAN: --is central to the story. Why did you zero in on hair?
MS. HARRIS: Yeah, so, as I mentioned before, a lot of me is in Nella, a ridiculous amount, and for me my hair journey has been so closely tied to my own identity as a Black woman, as someone who wasn't secure as a younger person without Black friends for a while.
I know when I was young, I wanted to relax my hair immediately because I wanted to have pony tails. Like, that was the holy grail for me as a nine-, ten-year-old. And so, I started doing that at--
MS. HARRIS: --it was such--did I lose you? Sorry. Can you hear me.
MS. GIVHAN: Yeah, you closed there for just a second, but I think you're back.
MS. HARRIS: Okay, sorry about that. So, I'll start over a little bit.
So, yes, I wanted to relax my hair. I straightened my hair for a while, and it was the right thing for me at the time, or so I thought. But then, years later, I had my own kind of realization through a series of events. I mean, a lot of it was moving to Brooklyn as a person in my early 20s, seeing what was happening in the news. Eric Garner, at the time, protests were happening all over the city. And so, I ended up deciding to do the big chop one day.
And it was such a big moment for me because, after that, I felt so much more tied to my blackness in a beautiful way. I started to wonder why I was doing all these things to my hair for the last ten years. And not to knock it for other people, everyone has their own reasons, but mine weren't the right ones. And so, I knew that would be the thing for Nella that, even though Nella and Hazel grew up in very different backgrounds, it's the thing that unites them, is their natural hair. But of course, it's more complicated than that, I'll just say.
MS. GIVHAN: Yes, it is. I don't want for there to be any spoilers, here.
MS. HARRIS: Yes.
MS. GIVHAN: And in the conversations between Hazel and Nella, a lot of things come up that people talk about when they are in the minority in a workplace, the idea of code-switching, and the idea of sort being the sensitivity police.
And Nella has revealed sort of the complicated feelings about that, the sort of desire to want to speak up, but also the worry that, by speaking up, she might say things that those in charge don't want to hear. How much did you, if at all, experience that, and why was it important for you to address those kinds of topics?
MS. HARRIS: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I have to say a lot of what Nella experienced fortunately were not things I specifically experienced. They were moments that I've heard from other Black people, but also moments that I can completely see happening where I did get close to having a certain kind of situation happen.
And it's like--I mean, one example would be just in terms of talking about the audience for a book, and who would actually read this book, right? And those kind of coded questions were things that, at the time, I, as a young editorial assistant who had really--it took me a lot to get the job in terms of just, like, how much time it took. I didn't feel comfortable saying anything about it, honestly. And the environment of these kind of workplaces, I think, for a lot of people, especially young people who have been wanting to get into these spaces and finally feel like, okay, I'm here. Once I'm here, I can kind of just keep my head down and hopefully bring other people in. And once I go up in the ranks, I'll be able to bring other people in and make this a more inclusive place.
And so, the questions of the long game versus the short game that are so hard to answer, and I still don't have an answer to them, because everyone has their own kind of, you know, goals and their own ideas of the best way to succeed, those are things I've always been thinking about.
And my hope is that, with this book, I'll be able to, I mean, empower other people to actually speak up in these moments, because we are talking about these things, and having these conversations that I think are just really important to making workplaces more inclusive and feel more inclusive for people, especially people who are just starting out and people who have a lot to lose.
MS. GIVHAN: You know, for anyone who's sort of in the minority in an office place, one of the phrases that we hear a lot is being able to bring your entire self into the workplace. Can you talk a little bit about the nuanced way in which the book really sort of deals with that question, and you know, whether or not you really should bring your entire self into the workplace, and what it means when you make a decision not to do so.
MS. HARRIS: Right, right. I mean, yeah, I think that's a great question, Robin. I think that certain jobs ask you and require you to bring different amounts of yourself to work. And for publishing, I think it's really interesting because, in a lot of ways, it does come off--or sometimes the idea is that it's very objective.
But of course, it's not, right? We're working to sell books. Opinions go into what the entire process of publishing a book, of obtaining a book and the marketing behind the book. So, there is a lot of bringing yourself to work; because otherwise, it's not as fun, I think.
And so, that gets more complicated, though, when there's only a certain kind of self that is represented there, that is acceptable there. And for Nella, I mean, she's had this whole idea that she can't bring a certain part of herself to work. And throughout the book, we see her trying to do that and what that means for her. But then, when Hazel's able to bring that self, it's of course making Nella feeling as though, like, why was my self not okay?
And again, I think for this there's no right answer, either. I think everybody's different, but I do think that again, we're--we as Black women and Black people are generally told, or it's suggested very--not-so-subtly and sometimes very subtly--that we have to be a certain way in this workplace. We don't want to come off as the angry Black woman. We don't want to come off as the person who's too sensitive, right? But other people often are not given those same boundaries.
But I will say, of course, that women in general--there is a history of all women not being able to bring their full selves to work, too. And so, there are a lot of layers to that. And even with Nella and her White coworkers, the women in her workplace, they also are negotiating their own kind of boundaries, too. I mean, no one's off the hook in this book, I'll just say.
MS. GIVHAN: Yeah, I was going to say that, you know, it speaks to a lot of different audiences, because certainly a woman who is the lone woman in a workplace would find much to relate to in this.
MS. HARRIS: Definitely.
MS. GIVHAN: And it also--I'm curious about the tension also between--within Nella and the idea that, on the one hand, she is excited to see this other Black girl appear. But on the other hand, there is a kind of--you know, she had gotten used to, accustomed to this place that she occupied in the company as being the only one. I mean, can you talk just a little bit about how you developed that sort of tension within Nella?
MS. HARRIS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I was really thinking about the ways in which we are often pitted against one another, for various reasons--again, sometimes on purpose and oftentimes not, it's very subtle. But there is that expectation, of course, that there can only be one of us, and that's often because we're only seeing one of us in a lot of situations.
And for Nella, she has been the only one. She feels like she's been playing the long game, and kind of assumed everybody else would have to do it. And so, she's envious of Hazel partly because it's a different case for Hazel. But she also feels really guilty about that envy, too. But I think that envy is so real, and it's one that we need to talk about, and we need to talk about where that comes from, that possessiveness, even though Nella didn't love her coworkers, she wants to still be shining in their eyes. And these are all really sticky feelings to talk about and weird, and I definitely, when I was writing, was a little nervous, because I was like, ah, I don't want to portray Black women in this way, because it's a fine line because we're often not allowed to be certain ways with--well, certain ways in general in literature, but also with each other. There's this expectation that we're all just going to get along, but I really wanted to dig into those feelings, because I do think that it's something, especially after hearing from people, Black readers, about this book that it's something that they totally understood.
And Hazel I often hear is--some people see themselves, parts of themselves in Hazel, or see why Hazel is the way she is, and that's really what I wanted.
MS. GIVHAN: Well, you really get into the idea of ambition and competitiveness and that really delicate ground between wanting to be a supportive colleague to another Black person; but at the same time, recognizing that in many cases, you know, professional success is a kind of competition and sometimes that competition is quite healthy.
MS. HARRIS: Right, right, definitely. Well, and there's also this kind of idea, too, I mean, we are supposed to help each other up. That is the thing that I was told as a young person, in terms of we are supposed to--you know, if we're looking around the table and we don't see other people who look like us there, if we don't help them in, who else will?
I know when I was younger my dad would say that about characters I was writing, because I was very young, I was writing White characters, because that was mostly what I was around. But he would say, you know, if you don't write Black characters, who will? Which is huge and important, but it's also a lot of responsibility. And sometimes, that responsibility, on top of all the other responsibilities and feelings that we're representing everyone, we have to always be looking out for one another, so important but also sometimes it's just a lot, and you just want to be, and accepting and just admitting that you just want to be sometimes, and don't always want to have to be representing Black thought. You don't always have to be this or that. Those are all pressures and things that, again, it's been really interesting talking to other people about, because we're often just looking at the end goal, but we're never actually getting to talk about what that means. What goes into working our way up these mostly White--working our way up these ladders in these mostly White spaces, I should say.
MS. GIVHAN: And then, there's also the character of Kendra Rae, who is sort of a different generation than Nella and Hazel, and I mean, her experience is quite different. I mean, why was it important to you to have that generational aspect to the novel?
MS. HARRIS: Yeah, I know for me, when I was working in publishing, I would often talk to other Black people who have been in spaces like that, where they've been the only one or they've been one of two.
I know I'm again talking about my dad, again, but he also had a similar situation where he was the only Black person in--or one of very few in a mostly White company in the '90s. And to hear all of the things that he would tell me, I mean, clearly a lot has changed in the last 30 years, but also a lot hasn't changed, just as 30 years before that, and so on and so on. And so, when I was writing this book, I first had Nella's perspective. I knew Kendra Rae and Diana would be a big part of why Nella decides to be at Wagner Books, because Kendra Rae, of course, was an editor at Wagner Books years before.
But I also knew there was more to her story. The more I wrote, I was like, this can't be all sunshine. Like, there has to be more to it, just as we often romanticize the past--and sometimes we have to in order to keep moving forward, you know? And so, writing Kendra Rae's character for me was important because I wanted to, again, comment on how much has changed, specifically in this case it's in the publishing industry; but also, how much really hasn't changed, how there are these waves of, blackness is in; blackness is cool; like, everybody will spend their dollars on this fad or this Black writer, or this kind of thing. But then, of course, when things are not going as well, suddenly, we don't want to be involved with that anymore.
And I was really interested in the ways in which blackness is commodified. Because that happens, I think, over and over and over again. We see it in pop culture, we see it in music, all of those things. So, yeah, it was just really fun and important for me to show those generational strands happening at the same time.
MS. GIVHAN: And I mean, to be clear, Kendra Rae sort of speaks--she speaks up. She speaks her mind. She speaks the truth as she sees it, and is not rewarded for doing so.
MS. HARRIS: Yes, I know [audio distortion]--yes, I was just going to say she is also--just as Hazel, I think, is like someone that I kind of in another life think of me being, I think Kendra Rae is also that person I wish I could be in some ways--not all ways, but some ways.
MS. GIVHAN: Well, one of the--you just mentioned the idea of sort of commodifying blackness, and the book does deal with the way in which the publishing industry sort of zeroes in on the topics of the moment and elevates those stories that deal with those topics.
I mean, do you--how important do you think just sort of the timing and zeitgeist was to the acceptance of this book by the publishing industry? I mean, do you think they would have been as open to it five years ago, ten years ago?
MS. HARRIS: That's a great question. It's funny because, I mean, in the book, I do talk about those--a wave of, you know, diversity meetings are happening. Time to have everybody sit in on this because this event happened, a police shooting. And then, months later, everyone forgets about it. And so, that wave that I was talking about in the book, I was thinking of the wave I talked about earlier of Eric Garner and Philando Castile, like, that happened five or six years ago.
So, then, to have last year happen was pretty wild, but it actually was--I mean, I sold the book in February 2020, so it was before Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. But that doesn't quite answer your question.
I mean, five, six years ago, maybe. But I do think--even though I can be pretty cynical about if this wave--this latest wave is actually making a change, I mean, I do think that we've made some progress since the last five to ten years. So, I do think that this book, especially in terms of how Black it is, there are references in it, there are Black conversations in it that are really not explained. And I do think that a lot of things that have happened in recent years--I mean, "Insecure," the rise of Issa Rae, the rise of Jordan Peele, of course, I do think that there is now--I mean, there's always been an audience for these kinds of works, of course. We've been out there, but I think now that a lot of these things have made mainstream, I do think that had a lot to do with this book finding a home.
So, yeah, I mean, I think about it a lot, too, in terms of timing, like, how interesting it was that it really was months before the year we had last year. It was so meta working on the book, the edits, during the protest last year.
MS. GIVHAN: Well, and also what you just said about there are these references in the book that go unexplained. And I mean, I think for a lot of people reading who do get those references, I mean, it seems like I think they will appreciate that, but in this book, their experience is the central experience; it's not the "and also" experience.
MS. HARRIS: Yeah, definitely. And that was really important for me. I mean, people have asked if I did it on purpose or if I had any pushback, and the answer was really no, for the most part. I was writing from my firsthand experience, my firsthand conversations. And I--you know, it all just continued on. I never heard from editors or readers saying, you know, maybe you should tone this down, and I'm thankful for that because--
MS. GIVHAN: Well, explain what 4a or 4b is in haircare.
MS. HARRIS: Exactly, exactly. A kitchen, right? Like, I have heard so many people tell me they have googled these things and they were so happy they did and they know so much more. It's just what we've been doing for years.
MS. GIVHAN: And the next journey for this story is television. Can you just talk a little bit about what is going to be happening and how you feel about seeing these characters in two dimension?
MS. HARRIS: Yeah, walking and breathing, it's wild. I truly never--I never imagined that happening.
But yeah, so, I am cowriting the TV pilot at the moment with Rashida Jones for Hulu. So, it's been an adventure. She's wonderful. She's been a wonderful mentor, and I've learned so much just over the past few months. And the thing that has been so much fun has been really getting to just dip into people, really dive into people that I did not get to dive in that much in the book. Because of course I really wanted to focus on Nella and Kendra Rae and [unclear] and Diana.
But getting to go into Nella's personal life a little more, getting to really explore the history of Wagner Books, it's been so much fun and I think people are really going to enjoy it. I know I will, but I'm biased.
MS. GIVHAN: Well, congratulations on that, and I'm afraid we're going to have to end here, because we're out of time, but thank you so much for joining me today.
MS. HARRIS: Of course. Thank you so much, Robin. This was such a nice chat.
MS. GIVHAN: And to check out other interviews, please head to WashingtonPostLive.com to register, and you’ll find all the information about other programs. I’m Robin Givhan for The Washington Post, and thank you very much for joining us.
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