In On It

SCU creative writing professor Kai Harris’ first book, an exploration of Black girlhood at its most traumatic and most ordinary, is also the first novel from writer, actress, and comedian Phoebe Robinson’s new imprint, Tiny Reparations Books.

In On It
Image by Flash Dantz courtesy Pexels

“It’s too much to say, I know, cause it’s too much to live. I wonder if there’s any way to take all that stuff in my head and make it sound simple,” thinks KB, the just-turned-11 narrator of Kai Harris’ novel, What the Fireflies Knew. As an adult woman reading, I already knew the answer: No. There’s no simple way to scoop up all the overwhelming thoughts of a girl on the shaky precipice between childhood and adulthood and mash them into a manageable ball. Being a girl is the worst. And the best. Making sense of that isn’t easy.

Harris’s book is not an attempt to answer that question, focusing instead on what it’s like to linger on that precipice. She writes from the perspective of KB, who spends the summer of 1995 in Lansing, Michigan, with her beloved older sister, 15-year-old Nia, and the Granddaddy they barely know. Their Mama dropped them off there without warning before returning to Detroit to treat her depression after their Daddy died from an overdose. Much of what we read is how KB interprets her experiences, from the complicated and confusing to the banal and boring.

The first novel from the new assistant professor of creative writing in Santa Clara’s Department of English is making a splash, receiving reviews from the New York Times and the Associated Press, and landing on many most-anticipated reading lists from Essence to BuzzFeed. Its exploration of Black girlhood made Harris’ story a fitting choice as the first work of fiction from Phoebe Robinson’s Tiny Reparations Books. The actress, comedian, and author founded the imprint in 2020 to highlight and amplify unique and diverse voices. Tiny Reparations partners with Dutton and Plume, a division of Penguin Random House.

Ahead of What the Fireflies Knew dropping on February 1, 2022, Santa Clara Magazine sat down with Harris. We chatted about the ordeal of revisiting the headspace of an adolescent girl, coping with loss and the need for better access to mental health, particularly among the Black community, and whether Phoebe Robinson is always as hilarious as her Instagram persona would have us believe.

The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Fireflies Cover
Book jacket image courtesy kaiharriswrites.com.

Santa Clara Magazine: As a millennial who also went through puberty in the ’90s like KB, I relished how you captured that fleeting yet formative time when a girl goes from kid to young woman. Yet, as with other pop culture storytelling exploring this age (PEN15, Euphoria, Big Mouth), I find the revisiting of this age almost too much to bear. There’s so much pain and change and awkwardness; the hormones alone! What was the experience like to put yourself back in the mind of a 10/11-year-old girl?

Kai Harris: I started by trying to remember my own childhood. I wanted to put myself back in that time period because 10-year-olds are way different today than there were then. Like, KB likes to use her imagination and is interested in reading a lot and spending time outdoors. She’s very innocent.

After I put myself back in that mindset, I had to change everything. I didn’t want to make this character exactly like me because that wasn’t going to be interesting. For most of KB’s story, I imagined what it would be like for a 10 or 11-year-old to go through specific challenges. The first-person narrative was the hardest thing, just staying in her voice forever.

It was easy for me to learn and hear her voice, but more difficult to show the process of her coming to understand everything that’s going on in the world around her.

SCM: Right, because the easier way to do that would be to write it in third person. I keep going back to the scene over the Fourth of July where KB is looking for Nia, who disappears with a boy. Everyone reading knows what Nia’s up to. Like, duh. But it takes KB so much longer to get there. Because she’s a kid and finding the words to explain something you’ve never seen before is incredibly difficult.

KH: Yeah. It’d be easy sometimes to slip out of her voice, so she’d just be talking like an adult, like you and me. Sometimes I’d let myself write it and then go back and re-write in KB’s voice.

One thing that really helped me was daily writing exercises, where I would think about a scenario, and then I’d have KB talk about it in her voice. A small scene that didn’t go into the book, like getting a bad grade on an assignment. Like, “I don’t know why that happened; I feel so frustrated.” I did that regularly, and it really helped me identify her voice and thought process, so it wasn’t as difficult to think through what she would and wouldn’t say.

SCM: So much of this story deals with loss—Daddy dying, Mama leaving her daughters to seek treatment, the no-longer-close relationship between KB and Nia, who becomes sullen and more interested in boys than her sister. KB thinks early on: “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my family, it’s that when you hurt, you got to ignore it and pretend it don’t exist; otherwise it’ll swallow you whole.” How much of you set out to prove that the opposite is true?

KH: Oh my gosh, so much of me was setting out to prove that. You found me out! But, yeah, I talk a lot about mental health. I’ve previously written specifically about mental health awareness in the Black community and the stigma around mental health issues, all the barriers to access for Black people. The contradictions. [“The Importance of Mental Health Awareness in the Black Community,” The Everygirl, Aug. 2020]

I wanted to show this family as one that’s not super progressive when it comes to mental health, but I did want to show that they were trying. Like, Grandaddy. He doesn’t fully understand what’s going on with his daughter and her depression, but he’s trying and grappling with how much of it stems from the falling out they had when she was younger. And at this point, even though he doesn’t really understand, he believes in her, he knows she is strong, and that she wouldn’t have brought her kids to stay with him unless she absolutely needed to.

KB is the character doing a lot of work to teach the lesson you mentioned, about it being important to say stuff or it’ll eat you alive. She thinks she’s doing what her family has been showing her to do, which is to hide things. But she’s never successful at that, right? She’s always asking questions; she’s trying to figure things out; she’s confiding in people she’s just met, like the girl across the street. She’s writing things down and always trying to process. And little does she know that she’s helping other people to do that. People start opening up to her, like Grandaddy tells her what’s happened between him and her mom. And it’s KB who Nia finally tells what happened between her and their dad.

SCM: You’ve said this book was born from a desire to show Black girlhood at its best, at its worst, at its most dull and most exciting. Why is it important to showcase that ordinariness?

KH: This is probably the first thing that mattered to me about this project: I wanted to write a book for adults told from the perspective of a young Black girl, in her voice. I feel like that’s something that’s rarely seen in fiction. Sometimes we get portrayals of Black girls, but it’s usually not first person, in their voice, in their head. I really wanted to prioritize that, because I think there’s something so unique about the unfiltered experience of Black girlhood.

Kai Harris Headshot
Kai Harris. Photo courtesy SCU.edu.

Coming of age stories are popular for a reason. There’s so many things that are happening to you, and that’s complicated all the more by Blackness—being in these childhood moments but also having these other aspects of identity that you’re figuring out. It’s not enough that KB has to live with her grandfather after experiencing trauma in her home, but she makes friends with the kids across the street and discovers that their mother is racist. That’s going to play into the friendships that she could have.

I wanted to show what it’s like to be in this body, in this experience. How being Black impacts how you see the world: This is what it looks like, this is what it smells like, this is what it sounds like. I also didn’t want to only show the moments of extreme tragedy. Yes, there’s trauma in this book but there are also so many little moments of KB being super happy or super bored. There’s a whole long scene where I detail the process of washing and preparing greens for a cookout. I think too often we don’t see those ordinary experiences.

SCM: Let’s talk about the title: What did the fireflies know? Does KB come to understand it herself?

KH: [Laughs] I saw this on your list of questions and was like, “Oh no, Lauren thinks I know what the fireflies knew.”

SCM: I had to ask!

KH: OK, so the germ of the book was a short story I wrote while I was still in my master’s program at Belmont University in Nashville. It was called the Mayonnaise Jar, and it was just a snippet of a little girl catching fireflies in a jar. That firefly scene is still in the book. KB describes the fireflies as something so small creating something so big. She’s talking about their light but also their ability to bring her and Granddaddy together. But also that was a big part of my childhood—catching fireflies in Lansing. There’s so much to that image… I’m hopeful that it’s something people can interpret in their own ways.

SCM: Tell me about the process of being published by Tiny Reparations. How did you hear about the imprint and how does it feel to be their first published novel?

KH: I knew of Phoebe [Robinson] but I hadn’t heard of the imprint yet, because it was brand new at the time that my agent pitched it to me [summer 2020]. My agent sent it to them before she went on vacation for a few weeks and told me I likely wouldn’t hear anything until she got back. But like three days later, she calls and says the folks at Tiny Rep want to talk to me.

So it was very fast, very unexpected. I get on the call for the first time and Phoebe was there, so I spent the entire call trying to pretend I wasn’t freaking out. Like, “Hello, I’m super chill.” But in the end, I couldn’t hold it in any more. She’s just so cool. Everyone there said great things about the book and seemed to really connect with it. The entire journey has been amazing.

SCM: And is Phoebe as funny as she seems on social media or is she all business?

KH: She’s always funny. One time, like a month ago, I was on Zoom with someone in her office and we’re having this very professional business conversation. Then Phoebe comes up behind her and she’s just dancing.

SCM: I’ve long followed Phoebe Robinson on social media and admired how she built her career herself, on her own terms by connecting with her audience directly. When she chose to launch a publishing imprint as her next venture, it seemed odd at first. But it’s really just another avenue through which to lift up underheard voices (not to mention a clever way to get younger consumers interested in literature). As a creative writing professor who works with young writers, how do you view the need for outlets like Tiny Reparations to work in new, different ways to promote diverse voices and stories?

KH: It’s super important. Ultimately my decision to publish my book with Tiny Rep was based on Phoebe’s vision for the imprint. It makes everything feel so much better that I’m working with people who believe in me and believe in my book. And there’s so much diversity on the team, which has also been amazing. No one has ever tried to make me change the essence of the book or wanted me to water down anything to make it more palatable. Everyone should be able to tell their own stories, and we should all be able to pick up books and find characters that look like us and represent our own experiences. But it’s also important to see someone else’s experiences, of having a pathway to try walking in someone else’s shoes to build empathy.

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