Kai Harris has written a book that was pitched for fans of Jesmyn Ward. That’s a tall order to stand up to and, by golly, she did it. In What the Fireflies Knew, Harris follows KB and Nia as they are sent to live with their grandfather after their father overdoses. The coming-of-age book is soft where it needs to be but it doesn’t pull punches. KB is a character readers soon won’t forget.
Kai Harris answered the Debutiful “A Life of Books” questionnaire so readers can get to know her.
Is there a book or series that, when you think back, helped define your childhood?
Anne of Green Gables was my favorite book growing up. I loved Anne because she seemed so much like me. We were both curious, both talkative and emotional and misunderstood. I read about Anne’s struggles with trying to fit in, and it made me feel better about my struggles with trying to fit in. I spent lots of time wishing I had a bosom buddy like Anne, who would understand and love me without me having to change a single thing about myself. I regularly kept my nose in that book, where I felt like I belonged.
Would you want any children in your life (yours or relatives’) to read those too? Or what’s your philosophy on what children read?
I believe children should read whatever they want to read. If that’s Anne of Green Gables, cool. It’s a great book and it taught me a lot about myself. But I think young Black girls should also read books where they see themselves as the main character. At some point I realized that there were a few important ways that me and Anne were not the same. I wanted to read books about characters who shared more than my loquacious nature and endearing yet annoying presence. I wanted to read books about characters who looked like me. Who grew up in households like mine, experienced the challenges I faced, had parents who said all the same silly phrases that my family repeated to me daily. Yes, children should read and learn about new experiences through books. But they should also see themselves in books, as often and as authentically as possible.
Moving to your school years: what book did you read in high school and hated (or skipped reading at all) that you learned you loved later in life?
I’m pretty sure I still hate everything I hated back then haha! I will say that one of my favorite books now is The Color Purple by Alice Walker, but when I read it in high school, I found it pretty confusing and difficult to read. Stil, I was drawn to the epistolary style and thought Celie’s letters were both beautiful and heartbreaking. Despite my lack of complete understanding, I felt connected to the trauma and loss Celie experienced. I re-read the book when I was in graduate school and it immediately became one of my favorite books of all time.
What about the opposite way? One you loved in your teens, but realized you didn’t love it so much later on?
Are there any books that you read while writing your debut that helped shape the direction you took your own book?
I re-read Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward while writing my debut, because it was one of the books that inspired me to write a book in the first place. As I re-read, I paid special attention to the depiction of Black girlhood. In this novel, Esch, the 15-year-old narrator, tells the story of her family as they prepare for Hurricane Katrina. Esch’s first person narrative gives priority to the unfiltered experience of a Black girl in a moment of extreme turmoil and indecision, which as readers, we become intimately connected to. I was drawn to the power of this perspective, as well as the prioritization of this special voice. I wanted to give the same priority to my main character, KB, a curious and caring 10-going-on-11-year-old with a unique perspective on the world around her.
What is a book you’ve read that you thought, Damn, I wish that was mine?
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw. SO. GOOD. Also, Luster by Raven Leilani, which is so exquisite and heartbreaking and beautifully written and made me question everything I thought I knew about language and words.
What have you been reading / do you plan to read during your debut book tour?
I am currently finishing up The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. After this, I’m excited to read The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr., Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas, and Wandering in Strange Lands by Morgan Jerkins. Another book debuting this year that I’m really looking forward to is Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell by Taj McCoy, which will be out in March 2022.
And, finally, I have to ask… I’m sorry. What’s next? But wait! Only use three words.
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