Brown Girl in the Room is an all too realistic and relatable story of being a woman of colour and building your career. The events and themes in this story will likely feel familiar to anyone who’s dealt with office politics and difficult co-workers, and Ramsingh does a great job of depicting the insidiously subtle form racism can take in the professional world.
Sara Ramnarine is hired as a senior public relations officer for a community non-profit called Albatross. While her name is South Asian in origin, her parents immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean, and Sara herself grew up in Toronto and doesn’t herself have lived experience of being a newcomer to the country. Yet Albatross views her hiring as a highly political act, even though her bosses and co-workers won’t quite admit it. Her bosses are hopeful she will help the company build stronger relationships with the South Asian community they serve, and Sara has an uneasy feeling that their faith in her has less to do with her public relations abilities and more to do with the brownness of her skin. I love how subtle the wrongness in her environment is; Sara herself can’t pinpoint why some of the things they say make her uncomfortable, and often ends up questioning her own discomfort. Early in the novel, she talks about a ‘diversity’ question that came up in her interview, and how worried she is that Albatross expects her to speak a South Asian language, even though she is fluent only in English.
I also love how the author humanizes even the bad characters in the beginning of the novel. Sara’s professional rival Anna is small-minded and mean, constantly criticizing Sara’s performance, but she’s also ultimately an insecure older woman who fears that she’s hit the peak of her own career. Sara’s manager Phillip ends up allowing other employees to infringe on Sara’s authority, but he comes off mostly as well-meaning yet ineffective rather than cruel. I only wish this level of complexity continued for the entire book. As the story started to shift towards Sara’s growing awareness of the injustice in the way she’s treated, Anna and Phillip become more two-dimensional as characters and their actions become outright malicious, which in turn felt repetitive after a while.
I liked the shift in dynamic when Venah joins the company as a ‘diversity expert’, and how her role heightens Sara’s own insecurities about her own relationship to ‘diversity.’ Venah insists on calling Sara by her more South Asian-sounding full birth name Saraswati and single-mindedly views her responsibility as hiring South Asian interpreters and serving South Asian food, regardless of the languages spoken and the cultural backgrounds of the communities attending Albatross events. She felt fairly one-note as a character from the beginning, but I like how she embodies the surface understanding of diversity that Phillip and leadership at Albatross appear to be interested in.
The author also does a great job in portraying how slowly and deliberately Sara’s confidence is chipped away. Ramsingh makes it clear that Sara has talent: board members and managers in other departments, who are either women of colour themselves or at the very least not threatened by Sara’s success, praise her work. Yet whenever Sara accepts the praise, she gets into trouble for not being a team player, and all the while, behind the scenes, Phillip and his boss Mara are making sure the credit is redirected to another employee. It takes Sara a while to realize that she isn’t imagining things nor overreacting when she feels mistreated, and it’s easy to understand why it took her so long.
The ending fell short for me, just because it was so abrupt. I can understand that situations like Sara’s don’t have neat resolutions in real life either, but the final few scenes had such a big build up towards a big event that it was disappointing to have it cut off before that event even started. New elements as well were brought up and new characters were introduced in the last few chapters, but their stories didn’t really go anywhere, and I felt like more closure for that subplot would have been a more fitting end.
Brown Girl in the Room is not an easy read, and I may suggest a trigger warning for anyone who has dealt with workplace harassment and discrimination in their own lives. Sara is bullied throughout the novel, and while the form of the bullying is often subtle, the author’s writing isn’t. The novel is admirable in its realism, and I hesitate to call it heavy-handed, because what Sara goes through doesn’t feel exaggerated in the least. But the book does tackle its subject with utter seriousness, and while I understand it’s a serious subject, the lack of levity is hard to deal with on a sustained basis. I deliberately stayed away from this book over the winter holiday break, because I didn’t want to mar my enjoyment of my days off. Possibly this heaviness is precisely the effect the author is going for, but I don’t think I quite realized what I was getting into when I started.
Thank you to Tightrope Books for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.