Meet Kai Harris, Author of What the Fireflies Knew

San Mateo County Libraries welcomes Kai Harris on Wednesday, February 8 at 6:30 PM. Kai will discuss her debut novel, What the Fireflies Knew, before engaging with your questions!

What the Fireflies Knew

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A Coming-of-Age Story Centered on Black Girlhood

Kai Harris writes, “This book was born from a desire to show Black girlhood at its best, at its worst, at its most dull and most exciting.” The result is the immersive story of KB, the nearly eleven-year-old narrator who carefully observes and questions everything around her, hungry to understand adult choices and her own place in a confusing world.

From its very first words, What the Fireflies Knew sweeps readers into KB’s voice, experience and imagination. The novel begins in January 1995, as KB grapples with discovering her father’s body. But this is not just a story about grief—as KB copes with her father’s passing, she also absorbs new sensations, experiences and even words with the hungry mind of a child.

While reading Anne of Green Gables, she narrates, “I roll the new words over my tongue slow like dripping honey. Myriad, myriad, myriad. Orchard, what is an orchard? Bridal flush of pinky-white bloom. Sometimes I try to use words like in my book, but when I do Nia teases me, saying I don’t even know what I’m talking bout. But even if me and Anne don’t look the same, we can still talk the same and be alike in other ways.”

Such observations and curiosities continue to drive the narrative, especially as KB and her sister, Nia, soon find themselves living with their grandfather in an unfamiliar place.

To borrow some words from the publisher, “As KB vacillates between resentment, abandonment, and loneliness, she is forced to carve out a different identity for herself and find her own voice. A dazzling and moving novel about family, identity, and race, What the Fireflies Knew poignantly reveals that heartbreaking but necessary component of growing up—the realization that loved ones can be flawed and that the perfect family we all dream of looks different up close.”

Get to Know Kai Harris

A writer and educator from Detroit, Michigan, Kai Harris uses her voice to uplift the Black community through realistic fiction centered on the Black experience. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Lit Hub, Kweli Journal, Longform, and the Killens Review, amongst others.

In addition to fiction, Kai has published poetry, personal essays and peer-reviewed academic articles on topics related to Black girlhood and womanhood, the slave narrative genre, motherhood and Black identity.

A graduate of Western Michigan University’s PhD program, Kai now lives in the Bay Area where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Santa Clara University.

Praise for What the Fireflies Knew

“Kai Harris’s debut novel is a stirring story of a transformative summer for a Black girl growing up in 1990s Michigan. . .This elegant and eloquent novel is perfect for readers who loved Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” —BookPage

What the Fireflies Knew is the best novel I have read in a long time, and Harris has brilliantly captured KB’s voice. She jumps off the page so strongly that I was invested not only from the first page but, indeed, the first sentence.” —Free Lance-Star

Combining complex characters, writing that instantly penetrates your heart, and the restorative power of nature, What the Fireflies Knew is a luminous reminder that sometimes the only true path to healing is through facing our painful histories, and that we don’t have to do it alone. With a debut novel this remarkable, Kai Harris is a writer I hope is around for a long, long time.”—Mateo Askaripour, New York Times bestselling author of Black Buck

“What the Fireflies Knew is a fabulous debut and truly a gem of a novel, full of the beauty, tenderness, and poignancy of Black girlhood.” —Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies

What the Fireflies Knew is the first fiction title from Tiny Reparations Books, “a highly curated imprint dedicated to publishing both literary fiction and nonfiction as well as essay collections that highlight and amplify unique and diverse voices.”