Santa Clara University (SCU) is home to one of the best English programs in the country and it continues to build that program. This fall, the faculty added Kai Harris, an Associate Professor in Creative Writing, who also recently launched her debut novel.
What the Fireflies Knew follows young KB after the death of her father. KB’s family has lost their home and she and her teenage sister are sent to live with their estranged grandfather in Lansing, Michigan. The initial idea for the novel stemmed from a short story Harris wrote about summers with her grandfather in Lansing.
“The inspiration was wanting to write something kind of based on a memory of a place,” said Harris. “I wrote a story based on the memories that I had from spending time with my grandfather in Lansing over the summer.”
Unlike her character KB, Harris had a close relationship with her grandfather. Harris says for her, What the Fireflies Knew was more about a shared experience.
“I wrote it wanting to focus in on some of these kind of more ordinary experiences of black girlhood, and just kind of showing KB, doing a bunch of regular stuff,” said Harris. “You know, catching bugs and trying to make friends and going to the neighborhood pool and learning how to cook and all of those sorts of things.”
Harris sold her novel prior to joining the staff at SCU. Around the time she moved to the Bay Area, she was also launching her novel.
“I’m basically starting both of these journeys at the same time. I showed up to the university, right at the moment where we’re getting close to the book launch,” said Harris. “It’s been really amazing the support from the university. I was able to do my book launch there…It was a dream come true because everyone had been telling me that we weren’t going to be able to do an in-person launch due to COVID. I was really pleased that some folks at the university really fought to make it happen and to make it happen safely.”
Harris has also immersed herself in the SCU community. She’s participated in a panel about the themes of mental health, self-care, grief and loss that run through her novel and she will speak at SCU Unity night later this year.
With her students, she shares her experiences of publishing her first novel.
“I think at the time, it just felt weirdly bragging to me to be like, ‘Oh, hello, I have a book.’ But it’s not that at all. Now I talk to my students about it regularly,” said Harris. “I talk to them about it from this aspect of like, ‘Hey, I’m in the middle of this life experience that maybe some of you are interested in knowing more about.’
“I have students right now that are taking me up on that,” continued Harris. “Who I’m mentoring and talking to about the publishing industry, giving them tips on how to publish your stories or how to work on a longer project if that’s what they’re interested in.”
Harris is also taking a minute to enjoy her newest adventure. During a recent trip to Disneyland with her husband and three daughters, she spotted What the Fireflies Knew on the shelf of an airport bookstore.
“That was a really, really cool moment. Because it’s such a big deal to just think that people could pick up my book and go read it while they’re flying,” said Harris. “I think what made the moment even more exciting was that my kids were there…I think up until now it was just kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah, mommy writes. It’s her hobby.’ And now, I think they’re like, ‘Oh, she wrote a book. And it’s actually at the airport now.’ So, it was really cool seeing them see it as well.”