Most authors go their entire writing career with the dream of getting their book reviewed in The New York Times Sunday Book Review. First-time author Kai Harris has already checked that off her list with her debut novel, “What the Fireflies Knew.”
Harris, who grew up in Detroit, spent summers in Lansing with her grandfather, “granddaddy Grady.” She completed her Ph.D. in fiction at Western Michigan University. Harris turned her summer experiences with her grandfather into the setting for her book, which is the coming-of-age story for a 10-year-old black girl, Kenyatta, or “KB” as she is known.
“It was tricky writing a book tied to my life,” Harris said.
The book follows KB and her older sister, Nia, as they are dropped off at her grandfather’s Lansing home following the tragic drug overdose of their father, the loss of their Detroit home and the unravelling of her mother. Both girls think their mother will return soon, but as the sweltering summer moves into the dog days of August, the girls are no longer sure that will happen. And as the summer winds down, the unlikely family will confront decades-old secrets that have been percolating.
Harris used one of her favorite childhood books, “Anne of Green Gables,” as a totem for KB’s storytelling. The age difference between the sisters becomes more pronounced as Nia, who is five years older, grows into adulthood. The grandfather, who in many ways is a man of mystery, becomes closer with the young girls and is a powerful advocate for their growing independence.
Although the book is set in the ‘90s, the young girls still face instances of racism. A couple of white kids who live across the street are instructed to not play with KB. Harris said only the setting is autobiographical, but the themes of family and the angst of young adulthood are universal.
Harris, an assistant professor of creative writing at Santa Clara University, said the book began in 2014 as a short story. By 2016, she had transformed it into a novel.
“The hardest part was the rewriting,” Harris said. “I wrote the book before I knew what I was doing.”
She said her writing is inspired by other Black women writers, like Toni Morrison and Jesmyn Ward.
“I met Ward at a conference at U-M, and I had I whole speech planned for when I met her,” Harris said. “But I ended up speechless.”
Harris said one of her goals in writing about the young Black woman experience was to create an “unfiltered black girl.”
“I wrote it in first person so it would be more immediate as seen through KB’s eyes,” she said. “Above all, KB learns how family is there for each other.”
The New York Times’ review put Harris among a number of talented, young Black women, like “The Hate U Give” author, Angie Thomas. The Times reviewer wrote that Harris’ book “is best when its touch is the lightest.”
“It was surreal and really unexpected,” Harris said.
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