Today on the CC list, I saw a message from Major Jackson announcing that writer E. Lynn Harris had passed away, at age 54. I couldn't believe it, so I clicked on the link, from an Arkansas newssite, which verified that while attending a book tour-related event in Los Angeles, he had fallen ill. The very brief obit focused on his Arkansas Razorback ties--he was a huge fan of his alma mater's teams--in the course mentioning that he was a highly successful who "delved into black gay culture." That is certainly an understatement, because Harris is easily the best-known and best-selling writer treating aspects of black gay and bi male life of all time. He has also been a tremendous inspiration to countless writers because of his career trajectory, his determination, his countless kind acts and gestures behind the scenes, and his always striving to improve his work, make it accessible, and reach his fans. I mention all of these aspects of his life and work because so often nowadays when I encounter people who want to be writers, their first two or three questions hinge on graduate writing programs and how to get book deals. E. Lynn's career, however, showed people that there was another way--perhaps the old way, and maybe not so viable anymore--that I don't think anyone should ever discount.
C. and I first met Harris back in 1991 when he was selling his first book, Invisible Life, from the trunk of his car, and he gave a reading at, of all places, Harvard Law School. Keith Boykin probably told us about; he may even have set the reading up. We went and enjoyed not only the reading but the discussion afterwards, during which Harris expressed some of his difficulties and disappointments about living as an out gay man, finding love, and so much more. I wasn't sure if he was going to keep at it, given the downcast nature of some of his comments, but thankfully for the world he didn't give up, however; instead, he continued to sell his books and to self-publish them, until his books were picked up by a major publisher, a shift that prefigured the turn by the major publishers to a wide array of black popular fiction, including black urban literature of all types, which can now be found both online and in bookstores all over the country. As he continued to publish his work, he was always working to strengthen it; I would say that Harris became a master at what he did, and his legions of fans, mostly women, attest to this. You don't sell 4 million copies without doing something right.
But it's what he wrote about that I think is especially important. From his first book to his last, he repeatedly treated the lives of middle-class and upper-middle class (and sometimes working-class) black gay, bisexual and straight people, with real wit, verve, and assurance, demonstrating a deepening skill for compelling plotting and narrative drama. His characters and scenarios are grounded in a black--and multiracial, of course--milieu that millions of readers, black and otherwise, could identify with. So many aspects of our contemporary world appeared in his books, and from Invisible Life on, they have assumed a life of their own. For many people, he has become the black gay male author, and has worn that mantle impressively.
The title of that first book is now highly ironic, because the lives E. Lynn Harris portrayed are far less invisible than ever. While black queer people are still underrepresented in the black and gay mainstreams, Harris's work helped to open up an ongoing discussion about the complexity of black queer male lives among the black community. Terms like "down low," "on the low," and "undercover," as well as the mundane experience sof black queer men, which he animated so vividly through his characters and narratives, are now not only part of the public discourse but grist for academic debates and studies. We may, sadly, still be surprised if a black professional athlete comes out of the closet--even post-Roy Simmons, John Amaechi, Sheryl Swoopes--but we can imagine a raft of scenarios, richly imagined, about that person's life and what it might look like thanks to Harris. Non-queer people also have gotten not just glimpses, but complete immersion in certain black queer worlds through his work. And any number of writers, as well as people in publishing, owe a debt to Harris both because of what he accomplished, thereby making their work possible, and because of the hand of friendship, both publicly and privately, that he extended. (He was also devoted to his legions of fans.) After that initial meeting, I only came across him a few other times, and he was always amiable and generous, but a few years ago he edited an anthology in which an early chapter of the novel I'm working on appears, and as always, his communication was friendly and professional.
It is always a tragedy to me when someone is taken from the world before her or his time. I feel that way about E. Lynn Harris. A native of Flint, Michigan, he grew up in Arkansas and attended the University of Arkansas. He was an IBM salesperson before he decided to write and hawk his first book. He went on to publish 11 novels, including this year's Basketball Jones, he also published an acclaimed, pain-filled but triumphant memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted, and edited several anthologies. E. Lynn Harris, we will certainly miss you!