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Coming Out, Coming Clean : Author E. Lynn Harris Finds That Openness and Honesty Is the Best Policy

May 15, 1996|LYNELL GEORGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A meek smile animating an otherwise earnest face, E. Lynn Harris admits that when it comes to his life, he's been dabbling in a bit of expert revisionist history.

No more, Harris says, palms upturned, testifying: "It's time to set a couple things straight." He pauses, but there is no smile. The pun is unintentional. Language, he knows, is a veritable minefield.

Harris, 39, is in the last hard stretch of a two-month tour promoting his new book, "And This Too Shall Pass" (Doubleday).

His two previous novels, "Just As I Am" (Anchor, 1994) and "Invisible Life" (Consortium Press, 1991; reissued by Anchor, 1994), explore the issues of sexual duality. The vehicles: black gay men and the men and women who love them. The central focus of those odysseys--coming to terms with sexual identity--have garnered a loyal, though cult, following, primarily among African Americans.

Harris fills a wine goblet with San Pellegrino at a West Hollywood cafe, a Southern lilt at play in his voice: "When the question came up, I would dodge it. 'This is fiction. What does my life have to do with it?' " he would tell audiences inquisitive about his sexual orientation. "Now the only thing I keep quiet is what the E stands for and my fraternity."

Coming out, rather coming clean, has been an essential component in his quest to engender a more vital dialogue around relationships between black women and men, where dreary statistics, prognoses and wee-hour worry seem omnipresent.

"I just realized that it was important for me to be open and honest," he explains. "Because I thought maybe if [others] saw how the public has accepted me, that it might give them some courage."

Harris left his job as a computer salesman in 1990 and faced the page--cold turkey. "It was just a real low point in my life," he recalls, "but I decided it was now or never."

Writing became therapy as Harris watched his fabricated straight life threaten to collapse around him, shuddering like a precariously pitched tent in wild gusts before a hurricane. "I wanted to try and convey the pain and loneliness involved in being black and being gay," he says.

Harris was indeed caught in an emotional storm, trying to grasp at an identity, working to raise his voice above a whisper as everything thundered forward. "I was losing friends [to AIDS]," he says. "And family doesn't really understand when all of your friends start to die."

His phone bill paid by his aunt and mother, a roof provided by a friend, Harris made his first attempts in third person and passed some pages of "Invisible Life" to a friend who advised a more radical approach. "I think you have something," she said, "but I think you have to become him."

He found the notion horrifying, too revealing, since the book's premise was two men meeting years after an affair, one on the eve of a marriage. "But," Harris concedes, "it started to flow immediately."

Shopping the completed manuscript around, he collected myriad rejections. Mainstream publishers told him that it didn't fit into their marketing plan, while one of the largest gay houses, Alyson, told him that the book was "too slick."

Undeterred, Harris set about to self-publish. And who needed a distributor when one has a deep enough trunk? The Flint, Mich., native dutifully carted copies around the Atlanta area from book group to beauty shop--preferably those in close proximity to bookstores. Between the pages he slipped a note--"If you like this book, please go to your local bookstore and ask them to order it"--to start his own little buzz.

Word of this unorthodox man and his marketing technique reached New York. "Our Atlanta rep had been hearing a lot about this self-published book," recalls Martha Levin, vice president and publisher of Anchor Books. "And when I finally got it, it was the most unappealing book I'd ever seen--visually. The cover, the typeface. I thought: 'Ugh. I'm not sure I'm going to read it.' But I did. And then I talked to Lynn, and the thing about Lynn is that he believed. He has a commitment to the book and a commitment to the readers."

Levin was so impressed that upon publication she wrote different letters to black, gay, women's and independent bookstores explaining the uniqueness and importance of Harris' voice. "He is at his strongest when he writes about people that he knows and loves. . . . He is able to tell wonderful passionate stories about important issues--self-obsession, alcoholism, racism--that affect not just African Americans and not just gays, but everyone."

Looking back, Harris says, not coming out while promoting his first two books had more to do with societal mores and codes: "I knew my family loved me. I had never had fears of them rejecting me. I just didn't want to disappoint them. In high school and college, I was the guy always winning awards for being popular and friendly--but I had no friends."

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