Zakiya Dalila Harris
Photo by Mark Elzey
Emerging Masters

Zakiya Dalila Harris: “That’s the essence of it”

Short Profile

Name: Zakiya Dalila Harris
DOB: 1992
Place of birth: Connecticut, United States
Occupation: Author

Zakiya, how do you know when an idea you’ve come up with for a novel is good?

It’s interesting because honestly, every day of my life when I'm working on a book, there's something that happens — a thought that I have, an encounter, or a song that I hear — that fits really well with the book, or that helps me in my creative process. I’m constantly keeping feelers out for those moments because it’s just a really nice feeling. It helps me to stay engaged.

It’s almost like the universe is telling you you’re on the right path.

I mean, I still have times during the writing process where I’m like, “Why am I doing this?” (Laughs) The new book I’m writing now is based on an idea that I’ve been chewing on for about two years, it’s something that I’ve just kept coming back to. It’s taking place on an island that doesn’t exist, I’m making it up from scratch. And there’s something about that that’s keeping me challenged, there’s something about it that scares me, that’s keeping me engaged despite having those questions sometimes.

“It was an almost therapeutic writing process, almost too much so, because I put myself into it a little more than I had even planned to do...”

What about for TheOther Black Girl? Apparently you were so engaged with writing that book that you would secretly work on it from the desk at your publishing job.

That was a great feeling because I had been working on another book for a couple years but it just wasn’t working. But with The Other Black Girl, it was like escaping to this other world. I was imagining it like a movie that I could pause and press play on, it kept me so motivated because the story was always there and I could return to it whenever I wanted. It also grew very organically because a lot of it came from my real-life experiences: I knew my two characters, I knew their arcs, it just came out of me, in a way. It was an almost therapeutic writing process, almost too much so, because I put myself into it a little more than I had even planned to do. That’s something my dad always encouraged me to do, to put myself in my work as much as I could. For black people in this country, we haven’t necessarily seen that enough, so I really liked the idea of centering your work around yourself and your experience.

Do you mean in terms of your main character, Nella?

Well, there was definitely that element for both of us of trying to work in publishing, in this corporate space and working your way up and what that means for someone. She’s not the powerful black woman that we see in Scandal, she’s just kind of figuring things out. That represented so much of my experience; worrying that you’re not corporate enough, that you’re not black enough, that the job isn’t worth it…

You eventually quit your publishing job to work on that book, right?

Yes, I did. And I am not a quitter! I do not do things irrationally or without thinking. But it was like this make-or-break moment, like when I cut my relaxed hair off to grow it out naturally, or when I got my first tattoo: it felt like there was something in my soul telling me that this job was not for me. I was an assistant editor, I had a lot more responsibility for not that much more pay. I was having to neglect all my own stuff because I was working all the time. I just didn’t want to do that anymore. I’m lucky because I had a lot of cushions to fall back on if needed, I was living with my boyfriend at the time so we were splitting rent, my parents told me to go for it, that they would be my insurance if I needed it.

It all worked out — there was even a bidding war between 14 different publishing houses for your novel.

Sometimes I think about that and I’m like, “Was that real?” (Laughs) I did not expect that. I was working in publishing so I knew how unpredictable that world can be, that it has its own agenda and plans. So it was really flattering, it really knocked my socks off! Then of course it was also right around the time the pandemic hit, so I felt like I had really struck gold with that opportunity at that time because I had a year of non-pandemic time to work on it and make my passion my full focus.

“Even though I was very involved in the series, there was a lot of letting go required because now not only is it a reflection of me, it’s a reflection of the other writers. It’s like a group project.”

How was it to then turn the novel into a television series? Was it hard to let go of such a passion project and put it in the hands of another team?

It took down the ego part of it, for sure. I worked on The Other Black Girl series as a co-creator and executive producer alongside Rashida Jones. So even though I was very involved, there was a lot of letting go required because now not only is it a reflection of me, it’s a reflection of the other writers, of the showrunner, it’s a reflection of how much money we get to put into it, it’s a lot of things. It’s like a group project. For example, the ending of the book is very different to the ending of the series. And I think that’s important, because the book has more of a cynical point of view and the show ends more optimistically… I understand the need and the want for that, to get to see a little bit of joy on the screen, to make the show a bit lighter.

It was probably also a big challenge learning how to work in this totally new field, learning how to write a screenplay…

Oh, it was so many new things at once because I was part of every process, interviewing, casting, costume design… I used to think publishing has a lot of roles and it could be kind of confusing, but TV is really confusing. There were a ton of people I didn’t even get to meet in person. I started working with Rashida in 2020, we created a pitch, a full outline of not only a whole season but a whole series. I had to distill the entire book down, plus we had to incorporate any kind of cultural changes that had taken place since I wrote the book in 2018, things like the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. I have such a big respect for anyone who adapts books into movies or TV series, the artistry and amount of work that goes into them is amazing. It was really such an incredible learning experience.

It seems like these days, the market for adaptations is expanding more than ever before.

You know, it's funny because it's hard not to think about what this next book I'm writing would be like if it was adapted! And I think it would be so fun to adapt someone else's book, to get into that space of translating. I just think there's something so powerful in that, especially for classic works or older works where the author is no longer with us. There's something really beautiful about the idea of carrying the torch. I think that’s one of the most important things to to attain with an adaption, that’s really the essence of it.