Infusing Fiction with Reality: How Belmont Alumna Kai Harris Published Her First Novel

Photo of Kai Harris
College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences

Infusing Fiction with Reality: How Belmont Alumna Kai Harris Published Her First Novel

April 8, 2024 | by Nolan Galbreath

Growing up surrounded by the noise and sights of Detroit, there was a unique peace that alumna Kai Harris surrendered to when she made the 120-mile trip west to visit her grandfather in rural Lansing, Michigan. That sense of tranquility never left her as memories of endless days outside catching caterpillars and lightning bugs, spending time with family and burying her nose in books were not only cemented in her past, but would become a cornerstone of her future.

Harris developed a passion for reading much earlier than a desire to write. Coming-of-age stories such as “Anne of Green Gables,” “The Secret Garden,” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” were favorites of hers as a child. In late elementary school, Harris was assigned the role of Maya Angelou for her school’s living wax museum. After hours spent researching Angelou and memorizing her poems, Angelou quickly became one of the first authors that Harris ever loved.

While her love for books never faltered, Harris tried to pen her own fiction stories on several occasions throughout high school and her undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, but something was always missing in her writing.

“I realized that I was writing characters who weren’t anything like me,” Harris explained. “Maybe it was because I didn’t read much Black fiction until I was older, so when I started writing fiction, I was writing about the characters I thought I was supposed to write about and I never got very far. Now I know it’s because I was trying to write about characters with perspectives that I didn’t fully understand. I didn’t have much to say about their experiences because they weren’t mine.”

In college, Harris began reading other Black authors such as Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. She realized how these authors used the characters they created as a vehicle for their own perspectives. In the process, those same authors unknowingly provided Harris with the framework to do the same.

Harris attended Belmont to earn her master’s in creative writing in 2013. It was during a fiction workshop that Dr. Susan Finch instructed the class to write a short story based on a memory that could be vividly depicted. Harris drew upon her memories of Lansing as a little girl for the assignment and quickly realized she wanted to turn her 15-page assignment into a novel. However, she wanted to set the story within a fictional narrative rather than biographical, and that’s how the initial idea for "What the Fireflies Knew" was born.

In her debut novel, Kenyatta “KB” Bernice is on the precipice of turning 11 years old when she is sent to live with her estranged grandfather in Lansing after her family is forced to move from Detroit and breaks apart. During a time in which KB’s world comes crashing down, KB is presented with the chance to discover herself and forge her own path forward.

“Two scenes from the 15-page story I wrote at Belmont survived and made their way into the novel, but the novel as a whole tells a different story than the original,” said Harris. “When I wrote the original, it was meant to be a standalone work, and writing 15 pages is very different than writing a 300-page novel. I still kept the story set in Lansing and KB shares many of my traits and experiences, such as being a bookworm. I really had to think about how her character would be interesting in that setting and what are some compelling things that could happen to her. If I just wrote everything that happened to me in Lansing, it wouldn’t make for an interesting book.”

wtfk-cover-w_-blurb.webpUpon her Belmont graduation in December 2015, Harris wrote her entire novel the same month and began querying for an agent. Meanwhile, she was applying to schools across the nation to get her PhD and began teaching writing classes at Belmont as an adjunct professor as well as Nashville State Community College. Her adjunct experience, although short, prepared her for her doctorate journey that commenced in 2017 at Western Michigan University.

“I was way ahead of some of my classmates at Western Michigan who had never taught in a classroom setting before,” said Harris. “Meanwhile, I had been juggling so many classes between different campuses that one class during my doctorate program felt like a breeze.”

Despite her doctorate workload, Harris continued to workshop “What the Fireflies Knew,” taking every opportunity to share her story at workshops, with her friends, with her professors and with potential agents. At long last, Harris received her first offer of representation after winning a pitch contest on social media. At her professor and mentor's suggestion, instead of accepting the offer, she slyly suggested to other potential agents that she received an offer. The strategy paid off as her dream agent, Ayesha Pande, offered Harris representation in 2019.

Further workshopping and rewrites ensued until the novel was finally published on Feb. 1, 2022, by Penguin Random House.

“On publication day, I decided to take a break from the press interviews and podcasts. I just wanted to be with my family,” said Harris. “My husband took off work and we went to Marcus Books bookstore in Oakland, one of the oldest Black-owned bookstores, and then grabbed lunch at a place by the water. I had promised myself ice cream, so I had to do that. Then we took my daughters to a bookstore so they could see it for the first time on a shelf.”

Currently, Harris teaches a variety of writing courses at Santa Clara University while she works on her second novel currently titled “Any Other Place.” The story takes place during the formative days of the Black Lives Matter movement and focuses on a Black high school student who witnesses an assault against a fellow Black classmate at a predominantly white school. She then must decide if she wants to become a leader in a crusade for justice, or quietly fit in as she always has.

While both of her novels center around the experiences of Black characters, Harris stresses that her stories are not written only for the Black community. Any reader can find something to relate to or a new perspective to view unrelatable circumstances through in any story — all it requires is empathy.

Stories by a Black woman about a Black woman’s experience are not just for Black people. It’s all about empathy. We can deeply relate to characters in stories without having the exact same experiences as them.

“As I mentioned, I didn’t start reading Black books until I was about 20 years old, and I never felt that I couldn’t understand or relate to a character before then,” Harris said. “One class I taught was about the coming-of-age stories of Black women, and I was the only Black person in my class. It was the highest-reviewed class I’ve ever taught and I got nearly a perfect score from every student that evaluated the course. When we fully empathize, we not only learn new things or about new communities, but we learn about ourselves from people that aren’t like us.”

Harris’ second work is currently in the editorial process and tentatively scheduled for a 2026 publication.