Friday, July 24, 2009

E. Lynn Harris, R.I.P.

Sad day hearing that E. Lynn Harris has died. Because of the accessibility of his work, he enabled a mass audience to see black gay men in new and complex ways. (Remember, when Harris' first novel, Invisible Life, came out in 1991, the most popular media image of black gay men was Damon Wayans and David Allen Grier camping it up as "Men on Film" on "In Living Color.") Most importantly, he conveyed black gay men as fully human, with the same wants and desires as everyone else. For some, this was "breaking news."

As a black gay writer, I was always inspired by E. Lynn Harris' hustle, which included self-publishing his first book and selling them out of the back of his car. Harris remade the industry rules about what was possible for a black gay writer. Just this June I was in NYC and I saw an ad for his latest novel, Basketball Jones, on the subway. I was so happy to see his book get that kind of marketing, not just because of what it meant for his career, but because it raised the bar regarding what other black gay writers could shoot for. His work made it possible to believe that you could be a black, gay man writing about the life you knew and still hit the NYTimes bestseller list.

Personally, I did not know him well. But I feel like my life coincided with his work in a number of interesting ways . I remember working at D.C.'s landmark gay bookstore, Lambda Rising, when Invisible Life was first published. Before that, most of the store's customers had been white. But overnight, brothas started coming in by the dozens looking for the book. We could not keep it in stock. I'd be thinking to myself, "Where are all these folks comin' from?" And I knew I was seeing a phenomenon develop firsthand.

I later wrote "Envisioning Lives: Homosexuality and Black Popular Literature," an essay about Invisible Life and the follow-up Just As I Am, which was included in the anthology The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities. This essay was one of my first major publications, so even in this way, Harris and his work helped another black gay writer.

I later met him in 2003 when I interviewed him for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his book, What Becomes of the Brokenhearted: A Memoir. (See full text of interview below) The interview took place at his townhouse in Buckhead. I was immediately taken by how disarming and charming he was, as we quickly bonded over a mutual love for R&B singer, Stephanie Mills. ("She sings from her -----," he exclaimed! In life, as in his work, he was rarely p.c., but he was always true to himself and the way he experienced the world.)

After the interview, he took me on a tour of the townhouse, and I was knocked out by the opulence it. My most concrete memory is of us walking up a spiral staircase of three floors. Then, when we got to the top, he paused dramatically in front of what-looked-like a doorway and said, "I suppose we could've just taken the elevator." It was a grande diva moment, but I loved it! I always felt that, because of his hard work, he deserved every bit of success he had.

My last contact with him came about a year later, when I was about to publish my first book, the biography, Luther: The Life and Longing of Luther Vandross. I reached out to him to see if he'd give me a quote for the back of the book and he immediately did. Other folks who promised were shady at the last minute, but he came through, proving to me the kind of guy he was.

I know numerous other people who feel like he helped them either directly or through his work by making them feel more accepting of themselves and others. All I can say is: Well done, brother. R.I.P.

In tribute, here's the interview that we did in 2003, where we talk about his search for love:

Drunken binges! An abusive stepfather! A suicide attempt! It sounds like the stuff of E. Lynn Harris' fast-moving, drama-filled novels such as "Invisible Life," "And This Too Shall Pass" and "A Love of My Own." But it's really the stuff of his life.

The author, who has found much success -- and logged many weeks on The New York Times Bestseller list -- with his steamy novels of black gay and bisexual life, has now penned his own story, "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted: A Memoir."

In it, he chronicles a troubled childhood, a herculean battle with low self-esteem, and the many years he struggled to accept being gay. We caught up with the Atlanta-based author at his smartly decorated new Buckhead home to talk about his life and loves.

In the book, you talk about your struggles with self-esteem. Did you feel unworthy when your writing career first took off?
Oh, yeah. I was waking up every day waiting for it to be over. But I remember my aunt told me, "Baby, you took the bad. Now you have to take the good."

You have so many female fans. Do you think they fantasize about you even though they know you're gay?
I'm sure of it, because I see how they react at my signings. They want hugs. They want to feel my butt. They act like I'm a bona fide star to them. I just came from a weeklong paperback tour where I was in a different city every day. And the women just go crazy. I love women. I am not attracted to them sexually. But I admire a beautiful woman.

What's the naughtiest thing you've ever gotten from a fan?
Pictures. Seductive pictures. There are a couple of people now who send me pictures that are really crossing the line. But I don't want to say, "Stop doing this." I know very well what it feels like to be rejected.

How do male fans differ from female fans?
For women, the fantasy ends when I leave [the book signing]. With men, they do the sneaky stuff. They call the hotel. I spoke at a really big school that's near here. And an athlete called my hotel at 12 in the morning to get a book signed. I said, "Were you at the signing?" And he said, "Nah, I couldn't let my peeps see me there."

Do you have many straight male fans?
Yeah. And I'm getting a lot more now. The funny thing about straight men is that they always tell me they're straight. That's the first thing out of their mouths: "I like your books -- I'm straight. But I like your books."

Would you ever date a fan?
No. Because they're all looking for Raymond [the lead character in several of his books].

What are you like in a relationship?
I'm very much "the man." It's always been that way, and that's not going to change about me. I have a take-control type of personality. A lover who I don't talk about a lot [in the book] used to tell me, "You need a wife; you don't need a lover."

It seems like you were raised that way.
I was raised to be in charge, to be the man, if you will. When I dated guys I had a difficult time, because I treated them the way I would have treated a girl. It's not that I'm into role-playing or any of that stuff. It's just who I am.

In the book, you write about being physically abused as a child. Have you ever had any abusive relationships as an adult?
I've had abusive emotional relationships, but never physical. I've never had a physical altercation in my life. I think people who have been abused either become abusers or they become like me. There was one incident with the first lover. I said to him, "Now that I'm gone don't be around here [expletive] everything that moves." And he said something like, "I can [expletive] whoever I want." I slapped him and he slapped me back. But that was it, end of story.

You also talk in the book about having a hard time finding the kind of love you wanted. Why do you think it's been so difficult?
I think [lack of] self-esteem. But I also think it's difficult for men to really open up. Then, it's the right-place wrong-time type of thing. How I live my life now is, I'm responsible for who I fall in love with. If I fall in love with you, I hope that you love me back. But you don't necessarily have to do that. I realize that's a risk I take. And I'm not destroyed when you don't react the way I expect you to. I'm taking control of my love, so to speak.

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