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Passages: E. Lynn Harris dead at 54
by Tracy Baim and Andrew Davis
2009-08-01

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E. Lynn Harris, a former Chicagoan and author of best-selling books about Black gay life, has died at age 54, according to his publicist. He was on a tour for his new novel, Basketball Jones.

Laura Gilmore said he died July 24 at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. The cause of death is still unknown.

Harris was a pioneer in Black gay fiction, once selling his books out of the back of his car when no one would pick up his works for mainstream distribution. Born in Flint, Mich., and raised in Little Rock, Ark., Harris spent some time in Chicago before hitting it big as an author.

In 1991, he self-published Invisible Life, which three years later found a new life through Anchor Books. He eventually published 10 more novels and a memoir, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. His books had not just a gay following, but also many straight women could relate to the emotions Harris wrote about.

On his blog for TheDailyVoice.com, activist Keith Boykin wrote that he has been friends with Harris for 17 years, and that he owes his own literary career to Harris. "Lynn was also one of the most prolific writers I've ever met. I think he was the most prolific popular African American male writer in America the past 15 years," he wrote. "As someone who takes years to write a single book, I always envied Lynn's ability to produce on deadline."

"He was also a man of the world," Boykin wrote. "When I first met him, he lived in Chicago, but he had lived in many places since then. He had a beautiful home in Atlanta, loved going to his alma mater at the University of Arkansas to teach and work with the cheerleaders, and loved to visit New York City, where he once lived in a beautiful apartment in the Trump Tower building in Columbus Circle."

Patrick Henry Bass wrote on Essence.com that Harris "single-handedly carved out a space for contemporary African-American male novelists such as Eric Jerome Dickey, Colin Channer, RM Johnson, Carl Weber, Van Whitfield, and Omar Tyree. He was a tireless champion for the Hurston/Wright Foundation and had his own foundation. Harris was known in the literary community for his generosity to his fans ( often remembering birthdays and holidays ) ; his love of the Arkansas Razorbacks ( he was the first Black male cheerleader for the school ) , and his support for burgeoning writers."

In The Life Media ( ITLM ) —producer of the only national public television program documenting the people and issues shaping the gay experience—issued a statement about Harris' passing. ( Harris was profiled in the ninth season of In the Life and was a guest host of the April episode of its 11th season. ) ITLM Executive Director Michelle Kristel reflected on meeting the author: "I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Harris on the set of Stealing Home, filmed during a blizzard in February of 2003. Although we faced several weather-related delays, Mr. Harris remained in good spirits, regaling the crew with tales of his early 'beauty parlor' days selling his books from from the trunk of his car."

Local activist Marc Loveless e-mailed Windy City Times that "E. Lynn's watershed work gave voice to African-American same-gender-loving [ SGL ] Black men who had never been heard before. His work was a gentle bridge between African-American Black women and African-American [ SGL ] Black men. The grace that he exhibited extended to anyone and any where he was called."

Chicago educator/writer Kennette Crocker e-mailed about meeting Harris: "On Aug. 6, 1994, I was covering a book-signing at a small Black-owned bookstore in the Rogers Park neighborhood for an up-and-coming author. This author's story was unique in that he had self-published his own novel, Invisible Life. He had gone on to sell enough copies to secure a publishing deal with Doubleday.

"E. Lynn Harris' fiction, his rise to literary fame and his down-to-earth assessable personality—and now his untimely death at the age of 54—made him an anomaly in the publishing world. Like his stories, he existed between the gay and the straight worlds.

"His stories of gay and bisexual men hiding their feelings and orientation captured the Black readers. Yet it wasn't just the readers' curiosity about the down-low brothers that kept his work on the top sellers' lists. It was really his tales of love, redemption and forgiveness; those universal themes that resonate with readers. What I remember the most about Harris is a talented story teller who believed in the healing and life affirming power of love, the big love, love for family and friends, the kind that makes one's heart soar to the stars."


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