Two Word Wizards Pass: E. Lynn Harris & Frank McCourt

E. Lynn Harris (1955-2009)

I am so saddened to hear of the death of E. Lynn Harris, the best-selling author, on July 24 at the age of 54.  I met E. Lynn Harris in the early nineties after he published his first novel, Invisible Life. He did a talk at the Ujamaa Mall (some of you may remember it) in the Dudley Station area of Roxbury.  He was a warm and gracious man, showing evidence of his Southern upbringing, having been reared in Little Rock, Arkansas.

At the reading, he recounted that he had taken a leave from his job as a salesman for IBM, where, he noted, he was making a very comfortable living but wanted a different life.  He’d submitted the manuscript of his first novel, Invisible Life, to many mainstream publishers but it was rejected.  He strongly believed in this novel and that there was a market for it. He invested $25,000 of his own money and self-published it. 

As a salesman, E. Lynn Harris was comfortable making sales calls and pitching but he said that he was struggling to sell copies of his books – hawking them from his car, taking them to beauty salons, barber shops, Black bookstores, sororities and fraternities.  He said he’d set a goal of selling a number of copies by a certain date (I believe it was 200) and that he had decided that if he didn’t sell that number by that date, he’d go back to IBM.  A few days before his deadline, he got a call from a person at a university ordering a little bit over the number of books he’d set as a goal..  It was the sign he was looking for from God that he should continue to pursue his writing. He never looked back.  The novel was published by Anchor Books in 1994. 

Harris authored 11 novels, 10 of which were on The New York Times Best Seller List (consecutively!) and a memoir, What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted.  His novels won numerous awards, including Novel of the Year by the Blackboard African-American Bestsellers Inc. for “Just As I Am.”  This novel made Harris the first male writer to have a number-one hardcover book on the Blackboard list.

What I remember most about meeting E. Lynn Harris was how gracious he was.  He encouraged everyone in attendance to pursue their dreams – whether it was being a published writer or something else.  He gave out his contact information.  He talked about his deep belief in God.  He patiently signed everyone’s books. 

His books sold so well because they were authentic and unique in talking about gay and bi-sexual male culture within the larger framework of the straight world.  Some of his characters were on the down-low, some were admitting to themselves that they were gay or bi-sexual, some determined that they were not gay or bi-sexual.  All were rooted in middle-class, college educated, high-achieving Black culture and communities.  The stories were well-told page turners and illuminated Black sexuality in an honest way.  The novels showed that no matter their sexuality, all people struggle with finding love, living with integrity, and dealing with the pain that comes from being different from the mainstream and/or being violated as a child.

Part of his genius was in showing that sexuality is often fluid, people are often hiding in plain view, and that gay relationships are as fraught with strife and filled withlove as straight ones.

E. Lynn Harris was called away from this life too soon.  There are numerous interviews about him on the web.  I recommend the following:

Frank McCourt (1930-2009)

I was also saddened to hear of the death at age 78 of Frank McCourt.  I’ve read two of his three memoirs, Angela’s Ashes and ‘Tis and have just gotten a copy of Teacher Man from the library.  Frank McCourt’s signature writing style, hailing from the great Irish tradition of storytelling, resonated with me from the first opening lines of Angela’s Ashes and kept me riveted throughout it.

I recognized his using humor and an appreciation for the absurdity in adversity that those coming from impoverished backgrounds often rely upon. I related to the maneuvering that his mother did to take care of her children.  Coming from an extended family where parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins and play-cousins all pulled together despite making judgments about and gossiping about each other was familiar to me. I also related to the important yet often tyrannical strictures of religion that he related.

My mother is of Frank McCourt’s generation but her family was not, however, quite as poor as the McCourts, despite living in an all-Black town in St. Louis County – Kinloch.  (‘Though two of my mother’s aunts who had large families with fathers who did not uphold their part of the marriage and parenting contract did approach the McCourt’s poverty.)

I deeply appreciated the continuation of Frank’s story in ‘Tis, which brings him to the United States, through a series of miserable jobs for which he was ill-suited, army service and finding his way to college.  His candid discussion of his personal choices and foibles, the legacy of family (both the good and negative parts), and cultural allegiance were quite instructive to me.  Literature was the vehicle that opened him to the world and to the lives of others.  He was an excellent teacher because he wanted to actually teach the kids, remembered the humiliations he had suffered as a child and didn’t do the same to the students he taught.. 

I wish that he had published earlier in his life because there would be more of his words to devour.

There are many articles about and interviews with him that you can find through a web search.ort piece where he talks about his writing. One, When Irish Tongues Are Talking: How I told my colleagues, family, and former countrymen I was writing about them,  was posted on on Tuesday, March 27, 2007.

These two men, from very different backgrounds, held a candle to their unique experiences and, through their writing talent reached millions..  No gay or bi-sexual man need ever feel alone in his struggle after reading a book by E. Lynn Harris and no poor child should ever linger in despair after reading Angela’s Ashes.  They are both inspirational to aspiring writers.

A hymn I grew up hearing at Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri seems an appropriate way to end:

Lead: “Oh when I come”
Chorus:  “Oh, when I come.”
Lead: …I’m ‘bout to come to the end…
Chorus: To the end of my journey.”
Lead: Weary of life.
Chorus: Weary of life.
Lead & Chorus:  The battle is fought and the victory is won.
Lead: He’ll understand,
Chorus: He’ll understand, oh yeah, and say, well-done.”

Well-done, gentlemen.  Rest in peace.

About Candelaria Silva

Candelaria Silva-Collins is a marketing, community outreach and programming consultant; writer; and trainer/facilitator who lives in Boston, Massachusetts. She has designed and facilitated workshops on a wide variety of topics including communication, facilitation, job search skills, team building, and parenting issues. She currently coordinates the Community Membership Program of the Huntington Theatre Company. Her work as Director of ACT Roxbury was profiled in several publications, including The Creative Communities Builders Handbook. Candelaria’s children’s stories, short stories, essays and reviews have been published in local and national publications and she is an active blogger. Her publications include the booklets, Handling Rejection; Pushing through Shyness: Networking Tips when You’re Shy, Slow to Warm Up or Just don’t Feel you Belong; and Real Questions about Sex & Relationships for Teens: A Discussion Guide for Parents. She has served on the boards of Goddard College, Wheelock Family Theatre, Boston Foundation for Architecture, and Discover Roxbury. She is currently Chair, Designators of the Henderson Foundation.

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