In different guises, the same character appears in Lisa Harris’ first novel and her forthcoming second.
Harris, a poet and author who grew up in Snow Shoe, doesn’t use geography as a mere backdrop for her stories. It becomes a central figure, shaping the narrative as much as the people populating her worlds.
“I think landscape is sacred,” she said, speaking on the phone from her Ithaca, N.Y., home. “It’s a sacred thing. It has as much or more personality than we do as people.”
Coastal Georgia’s environment plays a major role in Harris’ first book, “Geechee Girls,” published earlier this year by Ravenna Press in Spokane, Wash.
Earning glowing customer reviews online, her tale drops readers into a semi-tropical land of snakes, cypress swamps, the Ogeechee River’s black waters and humid air perfumed by magnolias, azaleas and oleander.
Through the mysterious country move best friends Tessie Harnish and Annie Osaha, one black and one white, both with ties to the region’s Geechee culture.
“Lisa Harris has spun a tale about the Deep South as a world full of opposites,” author Martin Sweeney wrote in an online review.
“Making use of impressively marvelous poetic prose, she manages to weave several characters’ viewpoints together in telling a tale of feminine coming of age and of coming into self-awareness. She skillfully blends the natural and the supernatural, the mundane and the lofty, the sane and the insane, the masculine and the feminine, the black culture and the white.”
Though she wasn’t born into the culture, she possesses firsthand knowledge.
Starting in 1975, she lived in Savannah for eight years, teaching at Armstrong Atlantic University and earning a master’s degree in education at the school. She also has a master of fine arts.
Around Savannah, she found herself a long way from her Mountaintop childhood.
“It was like traveling to another country,” she said.
But the self-described “consummate learner” studied her surroundings — the wildlife, the accents, the customs — absorbing them into her marrow to produce a novel more than 20 years in the making.
“I really learned about people there by being in the landscape with them,” she said.
She’ll discuss the world of “Geechee Girls” at a 6 p.m. book signing Oct. 30 at Webster’s Bookstore Café in State College.
Harris’ environmental sensitivity formed early on in Snow Shoe, where she lived for her first 15 years before attending a Wilkes-Barre boarding school.
“My family impressed upon me a sense of history, of responsibility, and love for the land,” Harris has written. “Land, perceived as character, as a sanctuary, as a companion, as a responsibility, informs all my writing and thinking. I make relationships with the land, often before I can make relationships with the people who live on it.”
Nestled in the Allegheny Mountains as a child, she developed a close tie to the countryside her family first settled in 1740. Her formative experiences have inspired her second novel, “Allegheny Dream,” which she hopes to finish by next June.
“I think people in my family and people in that area love and respect nature,” she said. “I think that was significantly important to my telling stories. Those stories wouldn’t be the same if they had happened in Iowa.”
Gradually since 1989, she has been working on the tale of Ezra, a Mountaintop man, and his daughter Eliza — part of a long balancing act for her.
During her career as an educator, she wrote several poetry collections and collaborated with visual artists while teaching creative writing at Ithaca College, overseeing grant and academic programs for the Ithaca City School District and serving a year as an elementary school principal.
Now retired and no longer needing to juggle, she wants to plunge into finishing “Allegheny Dream.” Like her Southern novel, it portrays dark moments and twists.
But Harris, ever the teacher, hopes the sadness of damaged lives and lands spawns wisdom.
“I think the nature of language, of stories, of poems, is to help transform us,” she said. “So I write trying to say what I see, and when someone reads it, I hope they get a better understanding of how we can take care of things — of each other and the world.”
Chris Rosenblum writes a weekly column about news in the Upper and Lower Bald Eagle valleys. If you have news to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 231-4620.