Yesterday, I woke up after sleeping most of the day away to find a text on my phone from my friend Randy saying that E. Lynn Harris had died.
E. Lynn is an icon. For a lot of gay and bisexual men, E. Lynn wrote our lives (or, in his later books, the lives some of us wanted to live).
I discovered his books in 2002 when I was trying to decide what to do about my life having lived the previous years as a celibate man. Invisible Life‘s cover art, a man caught between a man and a woman, drew me in immediately. I saw it in a bookstore and I just picked it up and read that two-page prologue right then and there.
I was hooked and I bought it and Just As I Am up right there.
Unlike most, I think, E Lynn’s Invisible Life novels — Invisible Life, Just As I Am, and Abide With Me — confirmed for me that I was bisexual and that that was something that was okay to be. I thought Raymond’s story was beautiful and it spoke to a tug of war that I was dealing with that I didn’t even know I was dealing with.
Though Raymond decided he was gay in the novels, I knew after reading Raymond’s story that bisexuality was real and that I was bisexual. As E. Lynn wrote it, I understood perfectly why Raymond would fall in love with Nicole and Quinn and though I understood why the plot unfolded the way it did, for me, I knew that I would never make the choice that Raymond did, choosing one gender over the other. And I set out to live my life as a bisexual man, of course, having no idea how to even go about doing that (still don’t, by the way).
E. Lynn gave me that.
Over the years, I’ve followed E. Lynn’s career, reading all of his books, attending his readings, and debating with my friends about whether Boris Kodjoe or Rick Fox would make the better Basil Henderson. Though I haven’t enjoyed his books much since the Invisible Life saga, I appreciated that our stories were being told.
People often criticized E. Lynn’s later work for being simplistic and formulaic, which it was. And the elements of the earlier work that I liked least — the name dropping and preoccupation with status — eventually overwhelmed his work. But even if he continued to turn out serviceable fiction like his latest, Basketball Jones, nothing he could have done would diminish the beauty, sincerity, and heartbreaking prose in the Invisible Life saga.
Raymond and Nicole were ambitious buppies, but they had deep insecurities and struggled to find a center in their frequently tumultuous lives, all of which made them relatable and human. And Basil Henderson is probably one of the finest, most fully realized portraits of black male humanity in contemporary Black fiction. While Raymond eventually receded into the background in later books, Basil’s emergence as the most complex individual in E. Lynn’s world was surprising, rewarding, and frequently quite moving.
E. Lynn apparently used to tell folks that he was no James Baldwin. He’s wrong. Invisible Life, Just As I Am, and Abide With Me are still completely unique, incomparable works that should be read every bit as much as Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, and Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone. Like Baldwin, E. Lynn wrote about black love. About its redemptive power. Its sometimes frightening intensity. And its haunting, elusive beauty.
E. Lynn is a hero. Little confused black boys and girls will pick up his Invisible Life saga for generations to come and get yet another glimpse of the beauty of black humanity and love.
Rest in Peace.
For the record, I still think Rick Fox has the stronger acting chops and would the better choice to play Basil, though Boris is what I see in my head when I think of Basil.