The Dream Team
By Tatiana Sanchez
Creative Writing Assistant Professor Kai Harris enlisted two of her brightest students to help her launch her debut novel.
Days before Assistant Professor Kai Harris debuted her first novel, What the Fireflies Knew, she leaned on her student assistants, Nadine Koochou ’24 and Nikhita Panjnani ’24, to help her perfect last-minute details for the big launch.
Panjnani spent hours on her living room floor putting tiny, white fairy lights into mason jars that would be used as centerpieces for Harris’ launch party in downtown San Jose. The lights created the illusion of captured fireflies, an ode to Harris’ book.
Koochou added the finishing touches to a promotional flyer that she designed for Harris’ book launch event at Santa Clara, and uploaded a book club kit onto her website. On launch day, Koochou briefly broke a social media cleanse—an assignment for her religion class that required her to stay off of platforms like Instagram and Facebook—to monitor the buzz on Harris’ book.
“I wanted everything to be as perfect as possible,” says Koochou. “We’d been working towards that day for a month. I wasn’t going to miss the social media buzz.”
The launch of Harris’ novel marked the culmination of the weekly zoom meetings, planning sessions and the many to-do’s—everything from social media engagement to website curation and party planning—that the trio had tackled together for a month. In hiring two of her brightest students to help her reach this career milestone, Harris built a close bond with the pair and gave them a unique glimpse into the ins and outs of the publishing industry. Koochou and Panjnani were eager to learn: the two are English majors who dream of becoming published authors.
“I don’t know how I would’ve done this year without them—that’s no exaggeration,” says Harris. “One of the things I didn’t know is that as an author, a lot of responsibilities fall on me, despite having a supportive agent and publishing team. By working with Nadine and Nikhita I had my own little team, and with their help, the experience didn’t feel so lonely or isolating. We were all working on developing a brand. We did so many things collaboratively.”
Harris’ fictional novel follows K.B., a preteen girl from Detroit who, with her older sister, Nia, moves in with her estranged grandfather following their father’s sudden death. The coming-of-age novel has been praised for its honest and endearing portrayal of Black girlhood. It was named one of Marie Claire’s 2022 Book Releases to Get Excited About and was among Essence Magazine’s 56 New Books We Can’t Wait to Read in 2022.
Earlier this month, Harris’ novel was longlisted for The Center for Fiction’s 2022 First Novel Prize, which recognizes the best debut fiction of the year. Twenty-four novels were selected from more than 140 submitted titles.
Harris hired Koochou and Panjnani in January to assist with her book launch and tour, and later asked them to stay on through the spring quarter. The trio playfully dubbed themselves the “dream team.”
Koochou and Panjnani got valuable experience in event planning, social media marketing, web design and editing—competitive skills that Harris encouraged them to put on their resumes. Panjnani designed and ordered the cake for the book party, and called bookstores across Michigan and the Bay Area to coordinate Harris’events and book signings. Koochou, who gravitated toward behind-the-scenes work, created social media templates for Harris to promote her book and added several features to her website, including a page where book club members can request a virtual appearance from Harris.
The pair also researched grant and award opportunities, helped curate Harris’ newsletter and designed a marketing plan for the first-time author. Harris also trusted them with the big stuff: the pair read snippets and gave Harris feedback on the first three chapters of her next book.
In the end, the trio not only experienced many professional “firsts” together but formed a tight bond that exemplifies the intimacy and uniqueness of being on a small, close-knit campus like Santa Clara.
“We were navigating so many aspects of the publishing process together,” says Harris. “I put a great deal of trust in them. They got to take the lead on several important projects. I hope that that helped them feel like leaders and showed them that they have the skills to do so much.”
Koochou and Panjnani said the experience showed them a more intimate side of Harris that they valued deeply. They praised her smarts, sincerity and kindness.
“One of the things I most appreciated about Dr. Harris’ experience is how real she was with us throughout it all,” says Koochou. “When she was struggling with something and things got overwhelming, she was really open and honest about that. I sincerely appreciated that because it made me realize that the entire process is a lot for one person to balance. It was a very humanizing experience. I realized that there’s a lot more that goes into being an author than just being a name on the cover of a book.”
Like Koochou, Panjnani said working with Harris gave her a unique look into the world of book writing.
“You really get a sense of it when you work firsthand with somebody who’s experiencing what you dream to experience someday,” Panjnani said. “Just the fact that Dr. Harris is an author and professor simultaneously is so inspiring, and to see all that she has to do to manage her career as an author while managing her career as a professor, we got to experience what all that entails firsthand.”