Written by Randi Adams
Photographed by Cameron Ohls
There’s always a momentary pause before Jenni Harris answers any question put before her—in every literature class I’ve had with her and as we laugh our way through a spur of the moment interview. If you pay attention, her eyes glance upward as if scanning every word she’s ever come across in order to explain what’s on her mind in the most perfect way she can. She never disappoints, as her responses are always meaningful. Her literary works have heavy underlying themes, but Jenni never shies away from a chance to laugh and she always smiles a little bit bigger when talking about her cat, Bev.
Jenni took her first creative writing class during high school in Gastonia, North Carolina, where she grew up, and jokingly admits everything she wrote was “garbage.” Even before coming to college as an English literature major, she’s always liked writing. When she got to Anderson, there was a mix up that had her listed as a creative writing major, and instead of having the issue fixed, she decided to pursue both literature and creative writing. Within the literary realm, Jenni’s biggest influences are Barbara Kingsolver and Anne Lamott. She finds Kingsolver’s use of imagery and language compelling and tries to emulate a similar use of description in her own work. Of Lamott, Jenni says her writing is incredibly honest and candid and that “she isn’t afraid of mixing irreverence in with religion.” Jenni is adamant about exploring truth within her writing.
In a more personal sense, she has been most inspired by Dr. Teresa Jones. “It has made such a difference—having someone believe not only in me, but believe in me as a writer and in the stories that I’m telling.” Jenni laughs about “falling into nonfiction” and points to the opportunity to work independently with Dr. Jones as highly influential. Most of her work is inspired by people that she’s come across by accident—through travel or otherwise. She also prefers writing about family, as opposed to friends because with family, “you get what you get,” whereas with friends, “there’s a measure of choice.”
Much of Jenni’s body of work is inspired by the two months she spent on a mission trip to Perú during the summer between her sophomore and junior years at Anderson—the people she was seemingly thrown together with, the experience of surviving in the middle of the Amazon jungle, and “learning to see God in new ways.” “Princessa” is the first part of a series of eight nonfiction essays that Jenni is completing for an independent project with Dr. Jones. These longer essays will be separated by punch prose vignettes. “I’m working to chronologically walk through those two months from the feelings of abandonment and frustrated expectation to feeling my own religious shifts occurring. I saw God seemingly transform in front of me as we did ministry, grew closer as a team, and shared those surreal experiences.” Whether it be the coincidental creative writing major mix up, the chance encounters with people that would inspire some of her best works, or the mission trip that placed her in the middle of a dangerous jungle and sent her home with a story to tell—as readers, we’re all the luckier for these moments of fate.
As for future endeavors, Jenni is pursuing graduate school in English literature and her ultimate goal is to teach at the collegiate level. She admits to becoming increasingly fascinated with the “idea of narrative—the power that it has to bring people together and the way that people interact with texts and, in a sense, have their own stories that come out of those interactions.” On the power of literature, Jenni says, “I just think literature and writing offer endless possibilities for how other people will receive it and what that can do to a person’s life. If you read something and it’s influential, it can alter the path you take. I just think it’s so cool that the written word can do that—that we connect with people through stories. I just want to study that forever.”