What Becomes of the Big-Hearted? A Tribute to E. Lynn Harris

Illustration for article titled What Becomes of the Big-Hearted? A Tribute to E. Lynn Harris

Although it’s still hard to believe that he’s gone, E. Lynn Harris's understated impact as a writer, mentor, and truth-seeker can no longer be denied, ignored, or overlooked.


He was an honest storyteller. He illuminated the lives of gay black men, in particular, in ways that the book world hadn't truly seen before. He encouraged us to talk about differences, but to recognize our commonalities. He went there; he discussed taboo topics from AIDS to homophobia in the black church.

He self-published his own work and took it to the people. He sold books out of his trunk and in barber shops and beauty salons. He went on to become a New York Times bestselling author with more than four million books in print. Indeed, he taught the antiquated book publishing industry a few things.

He wrote books that people wanted to read. During an interview with me in July of last year, he said, "I think I've been a success because I write about things I'm passionate about and have something to say. I think people relate to me because they know I relate to them." He also used his life as an example, reminding us that the struggles of the human soul are universal. "I'm more at peace with myself than ever before," he told me when I asked about his personal life. "I think a lot of that comes with age and putting demons to rest for good."

Writing wasn't just something he did; it was a part of him. He had been working on a young adult book and a novel about three generations of black women. And even after several published works to his credit, he had no intentions of quitting. "I will never stop writing," he told me. "It's my life line….This is one career I never hope to retire from."

The African American (literary) community owes Harris a tremendous amount of gratitude for breaking down walls of silence, resistance, and ignorance, and for encouraging a host of writers to tell and publish their stories, no matter what others think. Although he's no longer with us, the words, expressions of sadness, and memories from writers gathered below proves his long-lasting influence.

Tina McElroy Ansa, author and publisher of DownSouth Press:

In a time when it was not always easy, my friend and author-brother wrote fiction and memoir with courage, honesty and commitment. His characters were as alive to him as they were to his readers. And his stories came from the best source a writer could have: his heart.


I can't call him on the phone anymore, but that won't deter our continued friendship and kinship.

Keith Boykin, writer and editor of The Daily Voice:

I still can't believe this. E. Lynn Harris has been a dear friend for years. He literally got me started as an author. He read an essay I wrote in law school and recommended me to his editor at Doubleday. He encouraged me every step of the way with every book I wrote and he mentioned me in several of his books.


He's one of the most prolific writers I've ever met, and also one of the most generous. When I was looking for an editor, he put me in touch with his. And when I was looking for an agent, he again recommended his own.

I just spoke to Lynn on Sunday and he was well. The Daily Voice presented an award to him in January at the Inauguration and he couldn't make it to Washington to accept. I've been holding onto it for months, thinking I would see him soon, so I finally called him to find out where to send the award.


Lynn loved sports and in his last email to me, we had a conversation about basketball. He could talk about cheerleading, football, writing, politics and musical theater with the greatest of ease.

He was also keenly aware of his critics, and I think he was hurt by some of the things that people said about him.


Bestselling co-authors Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant:

Readers often think all their favorite writers know each other. Like we belong to a kind of Author Phi Beta writer society, but so often we don't meet until an event brings us to the same place at the same time. We had the pleasure of meeting E. Lynn the first time at a book event in Birmingham, Alabama back in 1999. Our paths did not cross again until 2004—at a wedding of all places.


We were seated at the same table during the reception, Donna right next to him, Virginia across the table. So, he and Donna started having a delightful conversation, about football, among other things. Later in the proceedings, when we were up and about again, Virginia came over and said, "That guy sitting next to you looks so much like E. Lynn." Uh huh. Just like him. Duh. We didn't tell him about Virginia's cracker jack detecting skills—and ended up having our own little party within the party. Over the years, we remained in touch via email—the last just a few weeks ago about The Next Food Network Star, of all things.

Lynn blazed a trail by approaching a subject matter often considered taboo in the African-American community. Gay African-Americans often feel they must keep that truth secret or risk losing their families and access to their community. E. Lynn bravely chose to write about a truth he knew, even though it meant exposing himself to personal rejection. That takes guts.


We are both still recovering from the shock of his sudden death. There is a way that dying in a hotel room while going about the business of seeing your readers strikes a particular, personal chord. But his passing is a reminder that you never know what a day will bring, so it is urgent that we each use all of our days to the fullest. We believe E. Lynn Harris did just that, and his readers and friends will always remember him.

American Book Award winner Tananarive Due:

The true definition of a trailblazer is more than simply someone who carves a new path, although E. Lynn Harris certainly did that—it is also someone who tries to keep the path clear behind him so that others may follow. Generosity was the embodiment of E. Lynn's spirit, whether it was his readers, his community, his colleagues or his friends and family. His heart was the magnet that drew us all. He gave us his best, and brought out the best in us.


From the very start of my writing career, E. Lynn took me under his wing, ready with advice, blurbs, encouragement and unparalleled generosity. No email went unanswered, no matter how busy he was—and I know I was not alone. Once, he flew me to a book event in Arkansas and put me up in a hotel out of his own pocket to help me reach a wider audience. He shared publicity strategies and the people with whom he worked. No matter what heights he reached, his humility and demeanor never changed, and his life-loving grin never faltered.

Beyond that, he gave all of us who knew the man or his writing an example of grace, industry and honesty in his fiction that we will carry within us in our own work, and our lives.


The world of fiction has lost royalty—a true leader. A soldier. A prince. A king.

A golden, irreplaceable friend.

We knew you were an angel while you still walked among us.

E. Lynn, I still can't believe you are gone.

Novelist Lolita Files:

Before I ever met E. Lynn Harris, he had already stepped forward to help with my career as a newly-published writer. I vividly remember how, one morning in 1997, not long after the release of my debut novel, I began receiving emails from friends saying that E. Lynn had just been on the Tom Joyner Morning Show telling listeners to buy my book. I was stunned. I was a big fan of his work and couldn't imagine how my little book had managed to cross his radar. We met a short time later and he was immediately gracious, kind, supportive, and encouraging, and remained that way, unwaveringly, for the entire time I knew him. Over the years, he happily welcomed many of us into his homes in Chicago and Atlanta. He loved helping other writers, often creating opportunities that allowed them to make a living while they were trying to build up their names. He was our godfather, in addition to being our brother and friend. The beautiful light he radiated will shine on in all of us.


Clarence Haynes, former Doubleday associate editor:

I'm very saddened over E. Lynn's death, and hope that his passing allows us a moment to discuss and celebrate his life and the cultural legacy of his work.


Author Donna Hill:

I remember meeting him for the first time in New Orleans during the Essence festival. I was at a bookstore doing a signing and my time was just about up when in strode E. Lynn Harris and wow, he just seemed larger than life. I was in awe of how he simply commanded the space around him and everyone in the mall seemed to gravitate toward him like a magnet. Needless to say my signing dribbled to a close and I joined the line of eager fans to get my book signed! I will always remember that. And every time I have seen him since, he was always so cordial to everyone, smiling that smile.


Ron Kavanaugh, publisher of Mosaic Literary Magazine:

I can't believe it's been ten years since writer Renee Michel interviewed E. Lynn Harris for Mosaic. The magazine was a year old; I was still working full time, and trying to coordinate interviews for the magazine. He was really patient and even gave us permission to excerpt his book "Abide By Me" before it was released.


Watching him at signings, he seemed to have endless patience. I was at a reading and a woman stood up and asked E. Lynn, "Are you gay? You write your gay characters so well." E. Lynn stared, eyes wide, in slight disbelief. And I think the audience was confused by the question since we all assume everybody knew he was gay. Then E. Lynn answered the question in a professional manner—narrative, plot, character development—before enlightening the lady that he was gay. And she seemed shocked to learn he was gay. People laughed and shook their heads in disbelief.

New York Times bestselling author Mary B. Morrison:

When I think of E. Lynn Harris, I think of a man with a heart overflowing. He touched so many people not even knowing. The first time we met he'd said, "Mary if there is anything I can do to help you, let me know." E. Lynn consistently cared about his family, his friends, his fellow authors, and he appreciated all of his fans. His transition should be mourned; his legacy should be celebrated. When E. Lynn was alive, he lived.


is a writer, speaker, author of books for adults and youth, and the book columnist for The Root. Her most recent book is \"The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs.\" Visit her at feliciapride.com.