Patricia Nell Warren

Novelist E. Lynn Harris dead at 54

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | July 25, 2009 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Basketball Jones, black gay authors, E. Lynn Harris, New York Times bestsellers

As an author, I'm always shocked to read about another author's death -- especially when that author was nearly 20 years my junior. E. Lynn Harris had been on tour with his new book, Basketball Jones, and fell ill while making the long train trip from Atlanta, where he lived, to Los Angeles for his next book event. Last night he died quietly at Cedars Sinai Hospital, just a few blocks from where I live. Cause of death has not yet been announced, though some sources say that he died of a cardiac arrest.

I had read several of Lynn's novels before meeting him in person. This was in 2004, at the DNC's "Come Write History" fundraiser in New York City -- an event organized by gay author and DNC treasurer Andy Tobias, who invited a galaxy of LGBT authors to help raise money to campaign against the Bush/Cheney ticket. Lynn arrived with his little group of connections, looking very businesslike in a dark suit, conservative tie and crisp white shirt. Having worked at IBM before launching himself as a writer, he still favored that IBMer look. His manner of few words matched the lean, terse prose of his books.

The Associated Press story that went out a couple of hours ago is pretty complete as to Lynn's career and the circumstances of his death. He emerged from self-publishing struggle to see 10 of his 11 titles make the New York Times bestseller list.

AP quotes Herndon Davis, L.A. media consultant, as saying that Lynn "was a pioneering voice within the black LGBT community but also resonated with mainstream communities, regardless of race and sexual orientation. Harris painted with eloquent prose and revealing accuracy the lives of African American men and the many complicated struggles they faced reconciling their sexuality and spirituality while rising above societal taboos within the black community."

More to the point, Lynn was perhaps the first American author to dare to write openly and candidly about the world of "down low." Some of his heterosexual readers preferred to sidestep the powerful sexuality content of his books, and to label him as a "sports novelist." And it's true that Lynn wrote feelingly and powerfully about sports. In fact, he loved sports -- had been a cheerleader at U. of Arkansas when he was a college student, and remained a passionate fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks. His sportswriting was actually what first drew me to And This, Too, Shall Pass, the first title of his that I read.

But to say that E. Lynn Harris's work is "about sports" is a little like saying that Alice Walker's The Color Purple is "about rural life." Just as Walker turned the fields and dirt roads into a canvas where she painted her characters' struggle and pain, and their moments of victory, so Harris used his sports stories as a playing field of the imagination where he could dramatize the dangerous strategies of being a black gay man in American society.

There's a more personal look on his last few days at Rod 2.0.

Dying at only 54, E. Lynn Harris leaves behind a LGBT literary world that struggles with growing economic and political tensions -- that will be lessened without his presence.

NOTE: After I posted this, I got the following heartfelt comment from Bilerico D.C. contributor Wyatt Evans, who had this to say:

"E. Lynn Harris' impact and influence on African-American GLBT lit -- and actually, on GLBT lit as a whole -- cannot be understated and minimized. In a huge way, he continued the movement that Mr. Essex Hemphill (the late, great, groundbreaking Black writer and poet) began, which was exposing African-American GLBT lit to a white audience. Mr. Harris was unique in that various audiences followed his work, which included GLBT individuals of various races/ethnicities and Black women. Ten of Mr. Harris' eleven books hit the top ten on Publishers' Weekly and the New York Times bestseller lists. And, he has sold more than 4 million copies of his works. Those are feats that few authors can claim -- and most salivate over. Mr. Harris helped instill within me the faith, drive, belief, inspiration and the fire to succeed as an author. And that's invaluable."

I'm sharing this comment with Wyatt's permission.

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Regan DuCasse | July 25, 2009 3:19 PM

I was truly saddened to hear of his sudden passing and I've read all but his last book, which is on my shelf waiting.
I met Mr. Harris four years ago at a book reading at A Different Light. He was casual in a beautiful sky blue long sleeved shirt and gray pants. I waiting until most of the people had gotten their signed copies and left.
He was kind enough to linger a while and talk. I love sports myself and I'm grateful for his time, and his effort in such entertaining novels.
He will be missed.

Patricia, thank you for writing about Mr. Harris. I had heard the news about his death, but your article now makes me want to read at least one of his books.

This is just to sad for words. The Black Gay community lost a great advocate.

Thank you for passing this information on, Patricia.

News just out today (7/30) -- the autopsy report is in, and it was heart disease that took Lynn from us so suddenly and too soon.