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In the vein of Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones and Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees, a coming-of-age novel told by almost-eleven-year-old Kenyatta Bernice (KB), as she and her sister try to make sense of their new life with their estranged grandfather in the wake of their father's death and their mother's disappearance.
An ode to Black girlhood and adolescence as seen through KB's eyes, What the Fireflies Knew follows KB after her father dies of an overdose and the debts incurred from his addiction cause the loss of the family home in Detroit. Soon thereafter, KB and her teenage sister, Nia, are sent by their overwhelmed mother to live with their estranged grandfather in Lansing, Michigan. Over the course of a single sweltering summer, KB attempts to navigate a world that has turned upside down.
Her father has been labeled a fiend. Her mother's smile no longer reaches her eyes. Her sister, once her best friend, now feels like a stranger. Her grandfather is grumpy and silent. The white kids who live across the street are friendly, but only sometimes. And they're all keeping secrets. As KB vacillates between resentment, abandonment, and loneliness, she is forced to carve out a different identity for herself and find her own voice.
A dazzling and moving novel about family, identity, and race, What the Fireflies Knew poignantly reveals that heartbreaking but necessary component of growing up--the realization that loved ones can be flawed and that the perfect family we all dream of looks different up close.
About the Author
Kai Harris is a writer and educator from Detroit, Michigan, who uses her voice to uplift the Black community through realistic fiction centered on the Black experience. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Kweli Journal, Longform, and the Killens Review, amongst others. In addition to fiction, Kai 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, Kai was the recipient of the university’s Gwen Frostic Creative Writing Award in Fiction for her short story, “While We Live.” Kai now lives in the Bay Area with her husband, three daughters, and dog Tabasco, where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Santa Clara University. Follow Kai on Twitter @authorkaiharris for a healthy dose of #blackgirlmagic. Read more at kaiharriswrites.com.
Praise for What the Fireflies Knew
“Combining complex characters, writing that instantly penetrates your heart, and the restorative power of nature, What the Fireflies Knew is a luminous reminder that sometimes the only true path to healing is through facing our painful histories, and that we don’t have to do it alone. With a debut novel this remarkable, Kai Harris is a writer I hope is around for a long, long time.” —Mateo Askaripour,New York Timesbestselling author ofBlack Buck
"What the Fireflies Knew is a fabulous debut and truly a gem of a novel, full of the beauty, tenderness, and poignancy of Black girlhood.” —Deesha Philyaw, author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies
"What the Fireflies Knew is sharp and graceful, poignant in its depiction of a family learning to acknowledge what’s been broken in order to piece itself back together. Kai Harris beautifully captures what it feels like to be out of place—in a city, in a body, in a family, in the turmoil of adolescence— and then just as gracefully reminds us what it can feel like to find your way back to yourself in spite of everything. This book introduces a bold and necessary new writer, generous in her capacity for holding onto hope without erasing trauma." —Danielle Evans, author ofThe Office of Historical CorrectionsandBefore You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
"In this gorgeous and poignant novel, Kai Harris writes a stunningly crafted tale that explores the beauty and hard truths of life, loss, and survival through the lens of an unforgettable narrator. This story of a young black girl navigating the labyrinth of self and family secrets is told in an authentic voice, filled with well observed details and elegant prose. Harris's first novel showcases her gift as a superb storyteller." —Nicole Dennis-Benn, bestselling author of Patsy and Here Comes the Sun
“Kai Harris's fierce, lyrical writing drew me in from the first page. KB is an unforgettable narrator whose voice comes vibrantly to life through her journey from childhood to adulthood, even as she grapples with the forces that tear families apart and the power that holds them together. This is an extraordinary, powerful debut, and I hope there will be more to come from Harris.” —Abi Daré, New York Times bestselling author ofThe Girl with the Louding Voice
"A story of Black girlhood from a promising new voice in fiction." —Kirkus Reviews
“Kai Harris’ debut novel is a stirring story of a transformative summer for a Black girl growing up in 1990s Michigan. . .This elegant and eloquent novel is perfect for readers who loved Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.” —BookPage (Starred review)