Friday, July 24, 2009

E. Lynn Harris

Today, even as I waited to hear confirmation and wished I’d read wrong, I kept thinking about how E. Lynn Harris was a game changer.

He wrote 11 novels. The first one, Invisible Life, was self-published and wildly popular. Even though or because he told a story that was diverse in a way we didn’t usually accept in “African American” fiction. There were gay and bisexual men in the story.

Stop and think about that.

He was the first writer to do that in contemporary popular fiction with mostly Black characters.

Harris wrote about the down low well before that other guy.

He sold books out of his car to Black women and we continued to buy them.

A Black woman lent me Invisible Life to read as I waited on the phone to ring at a temporary job. The job didn’t turn into something permanent and I left it and the book. Weeks or months later, I picked it up at the library and finished it.

It was a few years before I realized that the first copy I’d read was one of the copies Harris had self-published. He was one of the first big self-publishing successes.

His story of men on the down low changed the game and showed that maybe readers weren’t so narrow after all.

Harris was telling stories that were new to some people, but not everyone. He helped us recognize and talk about questions that were there all along. Recognizing the stories is part of what made his books so readable and popular.

Today I wondered how his books have affected us. How many people found courage and comfort reading his stories? Or in seeing that other people were reading E. Lynn Harris and that maybe others weren’t so narrow?

Last fall, after the election and the success of Proposition 8 in California, there was some sharp focus on homophobia and conservative leanings in the Black community.

Yet I know that some Black people, okay probably a lot of Black people, in California read E. Lynn Harris. He opened minds and reflected real lives.
He could not have been successful without many open hearts and minds. And his stories opened some of those hearts and minds.

I’m sad that there won’t be any more E. Lynn Harris novels. I’m overjoyed that he gave us so many characters and so much to think about.

AP obit on Wall Street Journal web site with quotes from Tananarive Due and Tina McElroy Ansa

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