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A weekly look at creativity, arts, and culture in southwest Michigan, hosted by Zinta Aistars.Fridays in Morning Edition at 7:50am and at 4:20pm during All Things Considered.

Art Beat: Through a young Black girl's eyes

Author Kai Harris
Fran Dwight Photography
Author Kai Harris

Detroit native Kai Harris wrote a story about summers with her grandfather that cried out to be expanded. A short story turned into her debut novel, What the Fireflies Knew (Penguin Random House, 2022). It is a story about a world turned upside down as seen through the eyes of young Kenyatta when she and her sister lose their father to his addiction, their mother to depression. They are sent to live with their Granddaddy in Lansing.

A conversation with Kai Harris

“The book is a coming-of-age story about a young girl named Kenyatta, who most people call KB,” Harris says. “She and her sister are sent to spend the summer with their grandfather, who they barely know, after the death of their father. They drive to Lansing with their mother, and they think that they are all going there together to spend a few days, but to their surprise, their mother drops them off and doesn’t know when she’ll be back.”

The cover of Kai Harris' book
Penguin Random House
The cover of Kai Harris' book

The two sisters handle the situation very differently. Among all her losses, KB must handle the loss of her older sister, Nia, with whom she’d been close but now finds herself distanced. While KB would love to talk about fond memories of their father, Nia doesn’t seem to talk at all. Out of her loneliness, KB reaches out to make friends with two white children across the street, but that, too, falls apart. A painful scene of betrayal and racism unfolds in the book as KB faces the realization that being a Black girl comes with negative stereotypes she does not deserve.

“I want readers to be really immersed in KB’s experience,” Harris says. “The story is told first person, present tense, so it’s very immediate. Everything is through her eyes. You hear everything in her voice. By doing that, I really wanted the reader to get a sense of what it looks like, and what it feels like, and what it sounds like and smells like to be a young Black girl in this moment of her life.”

Harris’ work has appeared in Guernica, Lit Hub, Kweli Journal, Longform, and the Killens Review, among others. She 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, Harris now lives in the Bay Area where she is an assistant professor of creative writing at Santa Clara University. Harris will be reading at this is a bookstore/Bookbug on Monday, March 21, at 6:30 p.m. This event is being hosted in partnership with and support of The Face Off Theatre Company and Read and Write Kalamazoo

Zinta Aistars is our resident book expert. She started interviewing authors and artists for our Arts & More program in 2011.