E Lynn Harris relates the folllowing incident with a favorite family member in his memoir What Becomes of the Brokenhearted: It is October 1991, and Harris is just about to self-publish his first book, Invisible Life. In talking to his 'Aunt Gee' he,
...mentioned that I was becoming comfortable with spending my life alone since I was gay. As I have said before, my aunt has always been supportive of me, no matter what. But during this talk, she said something that hurt me deeply.
'Baby, if I had raised you, I don't think you would have been gay.'
A chill went though my body, and after a few moments of silence I said, 'No Aunt Gee, you're wrong. I might ahve learned to love myself sooner, but I would still have been gay.'
The next day I delivered a copy of my novel to my aunt. A couple of days later, just before midnight, I got a call from her. This was very strange, because for as long as I could remember my aunt was always in bed by ten, unless you count the holidays when she was up late preparing meals.
When I made sure everything was all right with Uncle Charles and my cousins, I asked why she was calling me so late, and she said something that warmed my heart.
'Baby, I just finished your novel, and it's beautiful. Will you please forgive me for what I said the other day? Now I finally understand what you were trying to tell me,' Aunt Gee said. Through my tears I told her that of course I could forgive he and thanked her for calling. That night when I went to bed, I knew nothing was going to stop me from publishing my book.
Call it the "E Lynn Harris Effect." For many readers, gay and straight, E Lynn Harris' novels were windows into the lives of black people they'd never seen written about before. For many non-black and heterosexual readers, Lynn's books provided their first encounter with black, Same Gender Loving men. For both younger LGBTQ people as well as his contemporaries, the first time they encountered stories from their world, by and about themselves were in the pages of E Lynn Harris' novels. Over ten years ago I remember seeing a young man furtively but intently reading one of our well-worn copies of Invisible Life at the Pennsylvania Avenue Branch of the library here, concerned, no doubt about others seeing him reading it, but intensely involved in the book nonetheless.
Lynn Harris also had an impact on the larger world of publishing as well. Starting out as a self-published author placing books in beauty parlors and selling them from the trunk of his car, the amazing success of Invisible Life caught the attention of mainstream publishers, which republished it and its sequels. Lynn was one of the first black authors to 'cross over' going from self-publishing to the top of the New York Times bestseller's list. (This was the point when I stopped jokingly referring to him as "Cousin Lynn": I figured enough REAL relatives would start showing up now that he was a success that he didn't need a fake one running around) Together, he and Terry McMillan helped to brake the stereotype that 'black people don't read.' He was a 'pop fiction' author, with no pretenses to 'literary' stardom: he simply wanted to continually improve at being a good storyteller and have as many people as possible read his books.
Some people have turned their noses up at Lynn's work saying they were little more than "Romances" (like Romance is a bad thing....), and they may not be everyones cup of literary tea. However, we should remember that before McMillan and Harris, the number of 'popular' or mid-list black authors was miniscule. Judith Krantz, Danelle Steele, and the Collins sisters (Jackie and Joan) were the authors many African American women read voraciously. There were few representations of black people in 'popular fiction' or on the paperback shelves. Lynn and Terry's success helped to change that, leading to the rise of the "Girlfriend" book, and now -- for better or worse -- "Street Lit" (although I do look forward to the next black gay or lesbian author to approach his level of sales)
(Photo: E Lynn Harris with Lamar Wilson) Lynn was also a great supporter of other writers, particularly other black -- sometimes gay, sometimes not -- authors just starting out. At his own events, Lynn always gave his fans a list of books by other authors they might enjoy while waiting for his next novel. He was co-editor with Marita Golden of the anthology Gumbo: A Celebration of African American Writing, helping to raise funds for the Hurston/Wright Foundation and guest editor of the Best African American Fiction 2009, and sometimes held 'launch parties' at his home in Chicago for other authors. Lynn was a major friend and supporter of the nation's public libraries -- I'm not sure he ever said 'no' when a library asked him to give a reading.
One of the most inspiring things about E Lynn Harris was how little he seemed let fame change him. He was the same friendly, courteous person he was when I first met him while buying one of his self-published copies of Invisible Life back in 1992, as he did the last time I saw him, almost 10 years later at a reading at the library. Every time I saw him he was genuinely grateful and appreciative of his adoring fans and everyone who read or purchased a copy of one of his books. As someone recently said to me, he was a True Southern Gentleman. He loved his fans and readers -- and we loved him right back.