E. Lynn Harris’ new book solidifies his crossover appeal

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E. Lynn Harris. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, look at any list of highly acclaimed contemporary authors and you’re sure to find his at the very top, along with a scroll of his many honors and awards. “New York Times” bestseller listed, Blackboard’s Novel of the Year a record three times, Lambda Literary Award nomination, NAACP Image Award nominations, the James Baldwin Award for Literary Excellence, induction into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, recipient of the Harvey Milk Honorary Diploma, being listed as one of the “100 Leaders and Heroes in Black America” by Savoy, and being named in “Out Magazine’s” “Out 100” list are just a few of his accolades. All of these were garnered in the face of adversity.

Since he first self-published “The Invisible Life” in 1991 using money made from selling computers for thirteen years (published officially in 1994 by Anchor), Everett Lynn Harris has published ten more novels, a novella, and a short fiction, with writing appearing in countless other national magazines and newspapers. Harris’ earmark style is most often given to fictional tales of love triangles and relationships between family and friends within the black middle class, usually with gay or bisexual main characters. A musical based on his novel “Not A Day Goes By,” starring Jackee Harry and Treynece from American Idol, had a successful run in 2004. “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (2004) was an autobiographical memoir recounting his boyhood growing up with his three sisters in Little Rock, Arkansas, life in the closet, and his battles against loneliness, depression, and suicide.

Harris has been on tour promoting his new book “I Say A Little Prayer” since its release in early May. The book, about a young black man with ties to the church who is struggling to find balance between it and his sexual orientation, has good reviews already (see review by O&A Book Reviewer Curt Bucy in this issue). When I first spoke with Harris, he had just realized that he accidentally left the bag with all of his personal hygiene products at home, so his team and he himself were all scrambling to replace the items before the Nashville book signing at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Green Hills. I caught up with him later to discuss the book, his life now, and current events. Harris admits that the exhaustive promotional tour has been taxing, but periodic breaks, and the love and support from diehard fans keep him going. I mentioned to Harris how interesting it is that those same fans, many of whom are straight black women, revel in his stories about the lives of gay men, but would in many cases vote against laws that would give gay men the same equal rights that their straight counterparts enjoy. “I don’t necessarily believe that to be true, but if it is, I hope that my books will change that,” he said. Lynn opined on Bush’s recent push for the Marriage Amendment, simply asking “I just wonder, doesn’t he have other things to do?”

Although he is unquestionably attracted to members of the same sex, many would be surprised to know that he doesn’t identify as gay. He said the last Pride celebration he went to was Miami, Florida’s “Sizzle” during Memorial Day weekend. I asked Harris how he felt about the fact that in many cities, there is a Pride and a separate Black Pride celebration. He agreed that he would like to see the two become one, but that “it’s just always been like that” [separate]. When asked whether he was seeing someone or single, he opted not to comment, but he did say that he was definitely happy. The author recently completed a screenplay for the remake of the 1970s classic film “Sparkle” (to be produced by Warner Brothers with Deborah Martin Chase and Whitney Houston). Most authors who have attained his success usually pack up and move to the hills, hiding, and creating a more controlled environment for themselves. Harris remains very accessible to his fans and novice writers, even teaching as a visiting professor of English and part-time Cheer Coach of the Razorback Cheerleaders for five semesters and counting at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, his alma mater.

Harris is emerging as the first openly “gay” African American celebrity with crossover appeal. To be a successful, black, and same-gender loving man in America is an accomplishment in and of itself. His brand of storytelling has brought the lives of same-gender loving people before the eyes of black America, helping the community to see gay people not as outcasts voluntarily living on the edge of society, but as their very own fathers, brothers, and sons who have been forced to. Harris is a role model to many young writers who hope to one day have an impact on the world. It is the work of great minds such as his that has the power to change a generation.