When Kai Harris was writing What The Fireflies Knew, it was important to her to tell a story about Black girlhood.
“I have always enjoyed reading about Black girlhood,” she tells me over Zoom. “When I was doing my Ph.D., I was reading The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I read The Color Purple. I read Annie John. I read Jamaica Kincaid. I really love Black girlhood stories and seeing Black girls doing their thing. I wanted to really immerse the reader in nothing but that experience.”
I love that she mentions Morrison, because from the very first page of her debut novel — a story of both Black tragedy and hope — it feels as if Morrison is speaking through her. Harris tells me that Morrison, one of the foremothers of Black girlhood storytelling, is one of her biggest literary inspirations. “I spent a lot of time just listening to her talk, finding interviews that she's done, watching documentaries, and just learning about her, her process, her understanding of the world and her place in it, [and] her role as an activist through writing.”
Harris is a champion of Black girl voices. What The Fireflies Knew follows KB, a girl sent to live with her grandmother after her father dies of an overdose and her family loses their home in Detroit. In the literary world, Black authors are often told that Black girl stories are not enough, that they won’t sell. Phoebe Robinson, whose Tiny Reparations imprint published Harris’ book this year, knows this well as an author who was once told people aren’t interested in stories about Black women’s experiences. Harris chose to see KB’s story through anyway.
“I would say one of the biggest things I learned was that it's OK for me to write a book that's not about anything else besides Black girlhood,” she shares. “It was really big for me to realize that that's all the book has to be about, both as a writer and as a Black girl, and it was affirming to then sign to Tiny Reparations, being with this imprint that is prioritizing voices like mine being authentic in the ways that I wanted to be.”
Below, Harris talks about telling Black coming-of-age stories, writing through personal trauma, and the ways that love fuels her writing.
It's very difficult to deal with trauma in writing, even if it's not your own trauma . . . Ultimately, I felt that there are young people who have lived these moments, and I thought it was important to get this down.
R29Unbothered: Something that immediately struck me was how this coming of age story is also tied to coming into the realization that our loved ones are not perfect. If you’re comfortable, can you speak to how you may have experienced this in your own life?
Kai Harris: I think one of the biggest things that I wanted to do with Fireflies is showcase exactly that, for the reader to be able to observe KB trying to get an understanding of her adult family members and what their motivation is behind some of the actions that they take. One of those characters is her mom, who leaves her and her sister at her grandfather's house unexpectedly. The reality is she's been dealing with mental health challenges since the death of her husband, but KB is [only] learning this along the way.
I wanted to write [that] as a way to mirror some of my own experiences. I think that looking back later, KB is going to understand a lot of things about her mother's decision that maybe in the moment of the story she doesn't quite understand. It was very similar for me growing up, and there were a lot of moments [shared with my parents] that I didn't quite understand. Now looking back, I'm like, Oh man, I see what my parents were doing and what kind of hard choices they had to make."
Why was this particular story one that you wanted to tell as your debut?
KH: “I don't even know that I necessarily had it planned. I think the story chose me more than I chose the story. I would say that the setting is pretty autobiographical in that I grew up in Detroit and I would spend time in Lansing in the summer. I think I really wanted to recreate the magic of some of those summers that I spent in Lansing with my grandfather, and the rest from there is fictional. There's a scene in the book where KB learns how to catch a firefly for the first time, and that scene is the first thing that inspired all of this. That's the first scene I ever saw, the first scene I ever wrote."
What does the writing process look like for being able to tell a traumatic story in a way that still leaves space for hope and inspiration?
KH: “That's a big one.”
Take your time.
“It is a great question. My writing process ended up looking different than anything I had done before that time and really was more intuitive. It's very difficult to deal with trauma in writing, even if it's not your own trauma, because I felt so connected to KB after creating the character and getting to know her. There were lots of times where I didn't want her to experience certain things because I loved her and I was like, I don't want you to have to deal with this and I don't want you to have to go through this. Ultimately, I felt that there are young people who have lived these moments, and I thought it was important to get this down. I think that a lot of times it required me stepping away and doing things that I needed to do to make sure that I was processing anything that was coming up, to make sure that I was giving myself space and time when I needed to be."
I was just going to ask you if there were any parts of the book that were difficult to write and how you got through them, because I imagine that telling such a story during the pandemic was particularly hard. Which were especially difficult to write through?
KH: "Yeah. One thing that surprised me that was a bit of a challenge was writing some of the happier moments, especially when I was remembering moments with her dad, who passed away at the start of the novel. One thing that I didn't imagine was that this would bring up things for me personally. I also lost my father, but in a completely different way when I was 22. I don't think that I had felt as close to my dad after his passing as I did when I was writing this book. Because writing scenes about her and her dad, trying to put myself in her head, think about what moments were going to stand out to her, and what memories of him she really wanted to hold on to [brought up a lot for me]. What challenges are there for her in holding on to these memories because he was flawed? She's grappling with that and also trying to keep the memory of her daddy, who she loved so much. She tried to keep that alive and as pure as possible.
In writing that, I realized some of the challenges that I was having with those same things in my grieving process. After it was down on the page, I was really happy to see it there, and I hope that it'll impact readers in the way that it impacted me."
In the beginning of your book, you thank your mom, your big sister, your husband, and then you say, “My definition of love was born with the lives of each of you.” With our beloved bell hooks passing this year and so many of us continuing to reflect on the lessons of love that she taught us while she was alive, I wanted to close by asking: how do you define love?
“I think that love is so many things. It's so complex and I think we have to realize how much it's it's action, it's intention, it's thought, it's energy, it's belonging, it's commitment. I think that when I said that my definition of love lives with those people like, those are the people who taught me about love because of their commitment to me, their intentionality, their loyalty, and their ability to to see me. I think I'm a person who cares a lot about being me and being loved while being me. I don't want to change or manipulate or alter myself to be loved. I think love is about showing up exactly as I am and giving the other person the space to show up exactly as they are, then we meet in the middle. We try to figure it out. It's messy sometimes, and it's complicated and it's difficult to do. But that's it for me — that we can be fully who we were created to be with one another and accept that, cherish that, protect that, fight for that. That's love."
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.