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E. Lynn Harris & Me: Novelist Rashid Darden Reflects On The Legacy Of ‘Invisible Life’ Author

Before E. Lynn Harris (1955-2009) became a nationally recognized and critically acclaimed author, his manuscript for what would become his debut novel Invisible Life was rejected by every major publishing house in America—propelling him to self-publish while selling copies from the trunk of his car at beauty salons across Atlanta. It was the early 90s, and for the first time, Harris was betting on himself and his burgeoning talent as a novelist after leaving behind a ten-year career as a sales executive with IBM. Invisible Life, Harris’s audacious debut novel delved into controversial themes of bisexuality and the secret lives of (some) Black men in an unprecedented way, which marked the beginning of a groundbreaking career that would span 11 novels, ten of which were New York Times bestsellers, with over four million copies of his books in print worldwide, according to his publisher Doubleday.

Harris, a Flint, MI native, raised in Little Rock Arkansas, shared his inspiration for the start of his literary career in a 2000 interview with In The Life Media.

“When I was losing a lot of friends to AIDS, I would write them letters. And these would be long little letters about how we met and some of the good times in our lives because quite frankly, I didn’t want them to leave here without knowing what their friendship meant to me,” said Harris. “And one of my friends in his final days called me to visit, and we went to visit, and he told me how much those letters meant to him and said that I had a gift for writing. He said, ‘You should write. You should tell our story.’ A year-and-a-half later, I started writing Invisible Life.”

Harris said he was unsure if or how he would keep his friend’s dying wish for him to tell the stories of Black gay men, many of whom died from HIV related complications, and many of whom survived despite the epidemic and pervasive homophobia. This wish would require Harris to be transparent about a topic that was still considered taboo, especially in the Black community. It would also require Harris to wrestle with his own sexual orientation.

"If you were African American, and you were gay, you kept your mouth shut and you went on and did what everybody else did," he said during an interview with The Associated Press republished after his death. "You had girlfriends, you lived a life that your parents had dreamed for you. People would often ask, 'Is this book about you?' I didn't want to talk about that," he said. "I wasn't comfortable talking about it. I would say that this is a work of fiction."

Art often imitates life, and unlike his characters, Harris aspired and achieved a level of authenticity as an openly gay man that he never imagined was possible given an unsuccessful suicide attempt stemming from depression related to his sexuality four years before he burst onto the literary scene.

Harris’s life wouldn’t be the only one changed by the work he was appointed to do before his unexpected passing from heart disease in 2009. His loyal readers comprising Black women, LGBTQ+ people, and aspiring gay novelists would be impacted significantly by his brilliance. Rashid Darden is one of those gay novelists.

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