African American Women Remember E. Lynn Harris as an Accessible Author

E. Lynn Harris
E. Lynn Harris (John Bazemore - AP)
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By Greg Gaudio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 25, 2009

Lauren Allen couldn't believe it.

She'd just gotten a manicure and was waiting for her mother to finish a foot bath at Capital Nails in Largo on Friday afternoon when she learned that E. Lynn Harris, the author who cut his way into the literary world hawking his first novel in the beauty salons of Atlanta, had died at age 54.

The reverberations of his death were felt around Washington, especially among African American women, who shared Harris's 11 novels in formal book clubs and informal word-of-mouth grapevines. Some of those women said Friday that they loved the books because of Harris's true-to-life characters and gripping plotlines and expressed sadness that there'd be no more to come.

"I'm shocked," said Allen, 20, of Lanham. "I knew he wasn't that old."

Allen started reading Harris when she was a student at DuVal High School in Lanham and said kids could relate to the characters, even if they weren't personally having issues related to sexual identity, a common theme in Harris's novels. The characters were so interesting, she said, that they appealed to everyone. Most of all, she liked the cliffhangers in stories that spanned multiple volumes.

"You never wanted to put his books down," Allen said.

A few steps away, at Technicolor Salon & Spa, Angela Williams said she most appreciated Harris's books for the lessons she learned and was able to carry over into her own life. She's been a fan since 1994.

"They had a lot of life points that you could relate to," the Landover resident, 33, said. "Just how to connect with different people in different social settings." They also helped her imagine "what people might have gone through that you don't see on the outside."

"I'm a straight female, so it just gives me a different perspective," she added.

Despite owning all of his books, she didn't know Harris had garnered his first fans in beauty parlors. "But that's kind of cool," she said. "That's great when you can follow a passion. Not a lot of people follow a passion anymore."

Jasmine Frazier, 19, of Upper Marlboro was reading at the Largo Borders bookstore when she heard the news.

She said she appreciated that Harris's sexuality was just one facet of a complex identity that informed his semi-autobiographical fiction. Harris's most popular novels told the stories of professional black men who led secret double lives -- married to trophy wives but secretly carrying on romances with men.

"I liked E. Lynn Harris because he was openly gay, but he wasn't in-your-face gay, which a lot of people are today," she said. "He wasn't just black either. I don't feel like any one facet of you can be who you are."

She also admired Harris for not overemphasizing the hardships he suffered as a child.

"His childhood was rough and he talks a lot about it in his books, but he doesn't ever take on that victim mentality, which I appreciate."

Because of its racy subject matter, Frazier's mother forbade her at age 11 from reading a copy of "Not a Day Goes By" that she found in the family car. The book was published in 2000 and features one of the lead characters from Harris's first novel, "Invisible Life."

"Of course when your mother tells you can't do something, the second you can, you're on it."

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