This Korean Woman Reads: Review Of “The Other Black Girl”

Written By Guest Contributor “This Korean Woman Reads” – Anna Yeon

“This Korean Woman Reads” is a book review series by Anna Yeon, who will be writing for the site reviewing books written by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) writers in Australia and from other parts of the world.

Headlines: Reading Zakiya Dalila Harris made me feel (almost) woke. This book marries Black Lives Matter with women’s office politics and makes brilliant use of the thriller-suspense-horror genre in literature. 

Mood: Young and fierce during the gloom and doom of a pandemic

Pair with: Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee or Late Night on Netflix.

Another lockdown is coming, said the news headlines; this one would be Melbourne’s fifth.

I needed a plan to ride yet another dark winter out: a story to escape to in a book to hold onto. I walked down to Brunswick Bound, my local bookshop where the words ‘The Other Black Girl’ caught my eye reflecting against the sunshine yellow cover on display .

Prior to the prologue, the author had noted 

Black history is Black horror.

  • Tananarive Due, Horror Noire: A HIstory of Black Horror

Instantly, I felt this book had the promise of telling an old story in a new way. BLM and George Floyd had brought ‘Black history’ up to the surface of global consciousness of late, but the genre of horror for a story arc about young black women in the workplace was pushing the narrative to a deeper place about how such horrors are played out in the day to day for people of colour.

The opening sentence reads Stop fussing at it, now. Leave it alone; as a woman scratches her hair in an expression of anxiety while (too) closely observing a mother, her baby and a man on the train. 

A good book has a strong opening, and Zakiya Dalila Harris creates a multi-sensory opening scene for me in this book that complimented my mood (feeling the predatory advance of Delta, the COVID variant) without confronting it. I had found my perfect ‘lockdown reading’.

The main protagonist of ‘The Other Black Girl’ is a young Black female junior editor Nella, whose life takes unexpected and dramatic turns over six months in 2018 with  the arrival of another Black colleague Hazel-May. But there is a subplot that starts in 1983 and spans over 35 years. This structure reminded me of ‘Your House Will Pay’ by Steph Cha, fiction based on Black Asian histories in the US, centred around Soon Ja Du’s shooting of Latasha Harlins. In both books, weaving two narratives with different timelines adds richness to a story that aptly reflects the complexity of unpacking historical injustices. 

‘The Other Black Girl’ is also a novel about office politics as experienced by women, young people and people of colour (and yes, sometimes, we belong to all three groups at once!). The beauty of this book, for me, is that the main exploration is not about how a Black woman relates to other white people in the workplace as a minority but how she navigates the other Black woman in the office as Women of Colour in a competitive work setting in the New York publishing industry. 

Because the racial minority experience is not limited to those ‘against the white folks’ or our interactions with them in the room. At times, dynamics with ‘our own kind’ can be trickier or more subtle and definitely more interesting to a reader like me. Because not all Korean women like to read like I do or talk about the political representation of ‘the Korean woman’ in the media in Australia over brunch like I do (this is a hard earned reflection after many eye rolls from friends, trust me!). But when we are at the workplace, I feel like these personal preferences or perceptions make their way into our professional ‘brand’ that does impact our promotions (or demotions!). Any workplace can be competitive and for those of us with the drive to succeed, managing our own collective identities as minorities present a particular challenge that I feel contemporary literature has left much unsaid, until this book. And it took me this book to realise that I hadn’t read about it, but had just lived it. 

And while I have these conversations with my BIPOC friends, I shy away from having them with those who have only lived as the majority because either it feels like airing our dirty laundry in front of our ‘frenemies’ or having emotionally invested conversations with people who simply ‘won’t get it’ and stare back at you like a brick wall. At such a social impasse, a good book can act as a bridge between those who lead different lives and a kind teacher who can share ‘how real it can get’ without exhausting BIPOC or intimidating non-BIPOC folks.

Putting race relations and office politics aside, I really enjoyed Zakiya Dalia Harris’ book. It read to me like a story only a Black woman of this time can write: from her refreshing use of phrases and metaphors (like ‘eyes green as cucumbers’ and not your traditional ‘emerald’ or ‘hazelnut’ green) to scenes describing a ‘hair party’ (a peek into the mysterious world of scalp care, braiding and dreads) the paper these words were written on might be beige, but certainly not the content. 

Buy this book for anyone who needs reminding that not all the people who look like us think like us, or live lives the way we wish them to live them. And any one of you who still – despite the main theme of this book review column – needs convincing that BIPOC people do read and are an integral part of the publishing and literary world.

Here’s to happy reading!

This Korean woman reads

You can follow Anna Yeon on Instagram by clicking on Annayeonwrites

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