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A Novel

Written by E. Lynn HarrisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by E. Lynn Harris



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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: November 28, 2012
Pages: 384 | ISBN: 978-0-307-83173-6
Published by : Anchor Knopf

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On Sale: May 11, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-307-71503-6
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Read by Michael Boatman and Brenda Braxton
On Sale: July 05, 2000
ISBN: 978-0-553-75103-1
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ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
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READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
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fiction (21) gay (8) african american (6) lgbtq (4)
fiction (21) gay (8) african american (6) lgbtq (4)
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

E. Lynn Harris's blend of rich, romantic  storytelling and controversial contemporary issues like  race and bisexuality have found an enthusiastic and  diverse audience across America. Readers celebrate  the arrival in paperback of his second novel,  Just As I Am, which picks up where  Invisible Life left off,  introducing Harris's appealing and authentic characters to a  new set of joys, conflicts, and choices. Raymond,  a young black lawyer from the South, struggles to  come to terms with his sexuality and with the grim  reality of AIDS. Nicole, an aspiring  singer/actress, experiences frustration in both her career and  in her attempts to find a genuine love  relationship. Both characters share an eclectic group of  friends who challenge them, and the reader, to look at  themselves and the world around thern through  different eyes. By portraying Nicole's and Raymond's  joys, as well as their pain, Harris never ceases to  remind us that life, like love, is about  self-acceptance. In this vivid portrait of contemporary  black life, with all its pressures and the  complications of bisexuality, AIDS, and racism, Harris  confirms a faith in the power of love -- love of all  kinds -- to thrill and to heal, which will warm the  hearts of readers everywhere.

Excerpt

Raymond Jr.

I imagine the world was created beneath a canopy of silence. Perfect silence. While in my own personal silence I would create the world I dreamed of. A world full of love and absent of life's harsh realities. A world where all dreams would come true. A place called Perfect. But I've come to realize that some dreams you have to give up. I live in a world that promises to protect me but will not catch me when I fall. In this life I have fallen many times. From these falls I have learned many lessons. Lessons involving lust, loss, love, and life. Lessons that hit as hard as an unannounced summer thunderstorm, sudden and sometimes destructive.

One of my life's unexpected lessons occurred during my senior year in college. It was on the first Friday in October that my brain released a secret it had struggled to protect throughout my adolescence. I learned on that day that my sexual orientation was not a belief or choice, but a fact of my birth. And just like the color of my skin and eyes, these things could not be changed, at least not permanently.

My name is Raymond Winston Tyler, Jr., and I am a thirty-two-soon-to-be-thirty-three-year-old, second-generation attorney. The son of attorney Raymond Winston Tyler and Marlee Allen Tyler, an elementary school teacher, and big brother to fourteen-year-old Kirby. I had a happy childhood, growing up deeply ensconced in the black middle class. A child of the integrated New South, born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, a city that in the past was known more for church bombing than being the bedrock of college football.

I returned home after law school and several years of successful practice in a large New York firm. About a year ago I moved two hours south to Atlanta, after a two-year stint of running my pops's law firm while he followed his lifelong dream and became a member of the Alabama State Senate.

Atlanta struck me as a vibrant city. A cross between country and cosmopolitan, a city where popular eateries still took personal checks, that is with a valid driver's license. A city consumed with sports and the dream of becoming the Motown of the nineties. Atlanta was a city on the move and even though it didn't have the flash and energy of New York City, it was more conducive to my life than Birmingham. Now don't get me wrong, I love my family and my birthplace, but I knew it was time to move on and continue my search for Perfect.

I was living in a trendy Buckhead condo and working for Battle, Carroll & Myers, a black, female-owned law firm specializing in entertamment and sports law. I had originally moved to Atlanta with the understanding that I would go to work for the city government, but a few days before I was to start, I received word that a hiring freeze had been put into effect. I later found out from a friend of my father that the reason for the freeze was because someone in the mayor's offfice wanted the position promised to me to go to an openly gay, black attorney. Now wasn't that just the shit. My Columbia Law School education and major New York firm experience didn't amount to anything. Just my sexual orientation and then only if I was willing to make it public, which I wasn't. So with the help of my good friend Jared Stovall, I went to work for Battle, Carroll & Myers. My position created an ironic dilemma. I was hired in part because of my love and knowledge of college sports. The firm was actively seeking college athletes about to turn professional and it was my job to convince these young men, mostly black and from black colleges, that the firm would be looking out for their best interests. I had just entered a period in my life when I was practicing celibacy and trying very hard to put the male body out of my mind, but now I was constantly in steamy locker rooms with some of the most beautiful bodies in the world.

Our firm also represented a number of rappers and singers, but Gilliam Battle, the founder and only remaining partner, handled the majority of them along with the recording executives. Though an extremely smart woman, Gilliam didn't know jack about sports, other than the fact that pro athletes made a great deal of money and didn't have the slightest idea of what to do with it. Gilliam not only assembled a top team of attorneys but also a staff of investment counselors, speech coaches, doctors, and whatever it took to make sure our clients represented us as well as we represented them.

My social life in Atlanta was in a lot of respects similar to life in Birmingham, back in the closet. Atlanta did have a visible gay community but it was visibly white. I wasn't forced into the closet, it was just a choice I'd made out of respect for my family, especially my pops. My parents knew about and tried to accept my sexuality, but the fact that they knew didn't mean they wanted to discuss it around the dinner table or with my little brother. So like my parents, I too decided to ignore my sexuality and went back to my old straight act the minute I left New York. Talk about your safe sex. Besides, men were basically dogs--couldn't tell the truth if their life depended on it. And now your life does depend on it. Trust me I know. In my past I too have been guilty of not being totally truthful, either with men or women. But men never expect honesty. Women, on the other hand, say that they want the truth; but then they act like they don't hear you when you try to tell it like it is. Sometimes in the heat of passion men are not the only ones who let their sex do the thinking.

Currently there is not a female in my life besides my mother and Gilliam, but there was a man, a good man. I'd met Jared Taylor Stovall in Birmingham when he'd come to run my pops's political campaign. Jared was a political consultant who had been highly recommended when Pops's victory was in doubt. Jared became a member of our family, practically moving into my parents' home during the race. Jared actually convinced me to move to Atlanta by offering me a place to stay and remarking with a devilish smile, "I want my niggah around me all the time."

Jared was quite handsome in a rugged sort of way. His looks inspired confidence--tall and strapping, six foot three and two hundred and ten pounds of slightly bowlegged, biscuit-brown masculinity. Large bittersweet brown eyes, and a smile that would have lit up the Atlanta skyline. He was as smart as he was good-looking, finishing at the top of his class at Morris Brown College and later getting an MBA at Clark-Atlanta University. He was the oldest child and the only son of a devoted mother who had raised him and his two sisters alone in southwest Atlanta. Jared never mentioned his father.

I hadn't shared my sexuality with Jared mainly because it had never come up. I hadn't determined if Jared himself was gay or straight, just as I couldn't tell if his closely cropped hair was naturally curly or mildly relaxed. Only when I felt lonely did Jared's sexuality cross my mind. Sleeping alone with just my pillows for comfort created an insatiable void in my life. Our relationship wavered between brotherly love and romantic love, though it was a romance without sex. A romance in my mind only, at least as far as I knew.

I'm what you would call a romantic, a severe romantic, yet lasting romance has eluded me. I grew up believing that you really fell in love only once and that that love would last forever, like in the movies. I now know that most people consider themselves lucky if they fall in love once and have that love returned. But I wasn't even that lucky; the truth of my present situation was a love life that consisted only of daydreams about Jared and listening to R&B songs about love dreamed but never attained. I longed for a love that would make me feel like the soothing love songs that caused an involuntary smile to linger not only on my face but in my heart. A love life that was an eternal "quiet storm."

My love life had included a quartet of lovers--two men, Kelvin and Quinn, sandwiched between my first love, Sela, and Nicole, the woman who had broken my heart because I hadn't told the truth. A lie that sent me packing back to Birmingham, back into the closet, and into my present celibate state.

Now even though I hate labels, I still consider myself bisexual. A sexual mulatto. I mean how else could I explain how members of the singing group En Vogue and certain members of the Atlanta Braves aroused my sexual desires with equal measure?

I didn't feel comfortable in a totally gay environment or in a totally straight environment. I often wondered where the term gay came from. Lonely would better describe the life for me. There was absolutely nothing gay about being a black man and living life attracted to members of your own sex in this imperfect world I called home. For now a place called Perfect remained a dream.


Nicole

When I was in the fourth grade, the boy who sat behind me would always pull my hair any time he thought no one was looking. He would really get on my nerves. One day instead of pulling my braids he slipped a note in my hand. It read, "Will you go with me? Yes...No...Maybe. Please circle one."

Since I didn't know where he wanted me to go, I placed the note in my knee socks and took it home to my daddy, asking him what I should do. He gave me some advice I've always tried to live by. "Listen to your heart," he said.

From my daddy's words of wisdom I realized that my heart has a voice. It speaks to me with each beat. My heart protects me, shielding me from the things I can't see or lack the courage to face. My heart knows who I am and who I'll turn out to be.

My name is Nicole Marie Springer, former beauty queen, Broadway actress, and sometime word processor. Thirty years of age, but that's twenty-five in show biz years. Born and raised in Sweet Home, Arkansas, right outside of Little Rock, population five hundred and eighty-five, and one stoplight. Daughter of cotton farmers James and Idella Springer, older sister of Michael. A small-town girl with big-city goals.

They say in every life some rain must fall, but I've just come through a couple of years dominated by thunderstorms. Right now my life is cloudy and overcast, anxiously awaiting the sun.

In the last three years I lost my beloved father to a sudden heart attack, my best friend Candance to AIDS, and Raymond, the brief love of my life, to another man.

The death of my daddy, though sudden, was not quite a surprise. He was seveny-seven years old and had spent his twilight years defying his doctor by not taking his high blood pressure medication. But the loss of my college sorority sister and closest confidante was devastating.

Candance, the first person I had met at Spelman College, was not only beautiful and brilliant, but was just months away from her dream of becoming a physician. Her sudden illness hit like a ton of bricks. Candance, who told me hours after our initial meeting that she was going to become a doctor, marry, and have two children. She lived to see only one of those dreams come true, marrying Kelvin on her deathbed. Kelvin Ellis, the suspected culprit of Candance's demise. Kelvin, the same man who introduced me to Raymond who I fell quickly and deeply in love with, the love I thought my heart had led me to. I never found out if Kelvin was in fact the man in Raymond's secret life. I was too distraught to even think about it.

After the breakup with Raymond, I began to doubt my own sexuality. Had I not been enough woman to satisfy him, or had I been too much? I spent night after night crying myself to sleep, praying that my daddy and Candance would send down some advice, since I could no longer count on my heart.

I questioned how Candance and I could have fallen in love with men who were so incapable of loving us completely. Men who would never give the one thing they could give for free. Honesty.

My relationship with Raymond did slap me into reality. I realized that things were not always what they seemed. I now questioned any man I was interested in dating, asking if he was gay or bisexual or if he planned either in the future. Though I couldn't always detect the truth, I got a lot of interesting responses, including one guy who threw wine in my face and then stormed out of the restaurant we were in. The wine tasted like a "yes" to me. There was also the guy who when I posed the question to him, politely excused himself from the dinner table, went into his bedroom, and returned minutes later, standing before me butterball, butt-naked with a certain part of his anatomy at attention. "Does this answer your question?" he smiled. I wanted to respond with a song I loved, "Is That All There Is?" But I know how men are about their...well, you know.

These dates from hell led me to my current beau, Dr. Pierce Gessler. In a decade where everybody was looking for safe sex, I was searching for safe love. With Pierce, I was able to maintain my self-imposed celibacy vow and still have a suitable escort when needed. Oh yes, Pierce is white and Jewish. So much for my dreams of marrying a BMW (Black Man Working) or a BMS (Black Man Straight). But Pierce was wonderful, supportive, and loving, without a lot of luggage. He helped me out in the lean times when I was getting more calls from temp agencies than my agent. An agent whom I later fired when I heard him tell a casting person at a soap opera that I was a dark-skinned Robin Givens.

Pierce was always telling me how beautiful I was. It made me feel good. No man besides my daddy had ever constantly told me I was beautiful. Raymond told me a couple of times but his honesty was in question. And even though I had won several beauty pageants and was third runner-up to Miss America, I never considered myself beautiful. When I looked in the mirror I saw a face enhanced by Fashion Fair makeup, and hair, even though it was my own, permed with the help of a colorful box of chemicals.

In addition to Pierce, I was also blessed with two wonderful friends, Delaney and Kyle. I first met Delaney at an audition and again later when she was doing hair and makeup for a show I was appearing in. My big Broadway starring role that closed after thirty-one performances. Delaney was very beautiful, a talented dancer and a just a little bit crazy. She made me smile and take a look at life from a more upbeat view. Kyle, Raymond's best friend, had become a friend through default and, in a selfish way, our friendship allowed me to keep in contact with Raymond without really being in contact. Kyle was handsome in a cute little boy sorta way. Cornbread brown skin, deep-set brown eyes, thin black curly hair that was starting to recede, and a smile that could dilute darkness. Kyle was openly gay and didn't pull any punches. You knew where he stood. I could deal with that. He was my first openly gay friend, and he kept me in stitches with his quick wit.

My career in New York, similar to my love life, had been one of highs and lows. Moments when I didn't feel very successful, times when I would have given anything to be sitting on the porch back home watching my dad eating sardines and crackers while I munched on strawberry Now 'n' Laters. After signing with another agent, I
E. Lynn Harris

About E. Lynn Harris

E. Lynn Harris - Just As I Am

Photo © Matthew Jordan Smith

E. Lynn Harris was a ten-time New York Times bestselling author. His work included the memoir What Becomes of the Brokenhearted and the novels, A Love of My Own, Just as I Am, Any Way the Wind Blows (all three of which were named Novel of the Year by the Blackboard African American Bestsellers), I Say a Little Prayer, If This World Were Mine (which won the James Baldwin Award for Literary Excellence), the classic Invisible Life, Just Too Good to Be True, and Basketball Jones. He passed away at the age of 54 in 2009.
Praise

Praise

"Just As I Am more than delivers on  the promise of Invisible Life.  Harris gives his readers a refreshing view of  African-American achievement, a touching  characterization of a man living with AIDS, and a sensitive  depiction of gay/straight friendships that is much  to be hoped for in the world outside the book's  pages." -- The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

In three linked novels--Invisible Life, Just As I Am, and Abide With Me--E. Lynn Harris opens the door to a world rarely depicted in popular literature, the gay and bisexual black community. Written with sensitivity and sass, the novels have all appeared on the Blackboard bestseller list and have won enthusiastic acclaim from critics and a broad range of readers. The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your reading group's discussion of the books and the insights they offer into the lives of men and women, gay and straight, as they face such universal problems as finding and keeping love, making the right career choices, and dealing with sometimes difficult parents, co-workers, and friends.

At the center of the Invisible Life trilogy is Raymond Tyler, a man struggling to do the right thing without betraying his past or sacrificing his dreams. The son of a successful lawyer in Birmingham, Alabama, Raymond always assumed he would follow in his father's footsteps. His life takes an unexpected turn, however, when he finds himself attracted to a handsome fraternity brother at college. Their carefully cloaked relationship--at once confusing, exhilarating, and frightening--marks the first step in Raymond's journey toward self-discovery and self-acceptance. It is a journey that takes him from the tradition-bound South to the uninhibited world of gay Manhattan, to a thriving Seattle, where his legal career and his love-life seem destined for lasting success. Along the way, Raymond encounters a rich and diverse array of people, including the flamboyant, openly gay Kyle; the beautiful, loving Nicole, an aspiring actress; and Basil, a dashing and dangerous football player. Their stories join with Raymond's in a fast-paced chronicle that proves that love, friendship, and sexual desire frequently defy conventional expectations and explanations.

Harris's novels not only recount the changes and choices the individual characters confront, they evoke in telling detail the society in which those choices are made. From the importance of church and family to the consequences of biases based on skin color, sexual orientation, and gender, Harris uncovers the ties that bind and the issues that divide the African American community today.

------------------------------------------------------------------------

About the Guide

After several years in New York and at his father's Birmingham law office, Raymond is in Atlanta, working as a sports lawyer for an up-and-coming black-owned firm. He has retreated into the closet, fearful of telling his parents about his sexual orientation and torn by regrets about his lack of honesty with Nicole. Their brief but passionate affair has left its mark on Nicole as well. Shaken by the realization that men are not always what they seem, Nicole confines herself to a non-sexual relationship with a supportive, if overly protective, white doctor. The cocoons around their lives are shattered when their close friend, Kyle, reveals he is dying of AIDS. Kyle's courage--and his lovingly given, in-your-face advice--force Raymond and Nicole to re-examine their own lives and the paths they have chosen.

About the Author

E. Lynn Harris is a former computer sales executive with IBM and a graduate of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He self-published Invisible Life, with great success. It went on to become a Blackboard bestseller and a 1996 ABA Blackboard List Outstanding African American Novel Nominee. In 1996, Just As I Am was awarded the Novel of the Year Prize by Blackboard African-American Bestsellers, Inc. If This World Were Mine was a finalist for the 1997 NAACP Image Award and winner of the James Baldwin Award for Literary Excellence. His new novel, Not A Day Goes By, will be published by Doubleday in summer 2000. Harris currently divides his time between Chicago and New York.

Discussion Guides

1. For Discussion: Just As I Am
At the beginning of the novel, both Raymond and Nicole are living celibate lives. Compare and contrast the reasons they give for making this choice. What role, for example, does fear play? How much does the desire for a "perfect love" influence them? Who do you think is more realistic about the possibility of finding a partner to trust and build a solid relationship with?

2. Raymond and Nicole alternate as narrators in Just As I Am. How does this enhance or detract from the flow of the book? Is Harris equally successful in creating their voices, or is one stronger or more believable than the other?

3. Raymond describes "a common syndrome in the black gay community, where nice, good-looking, educated black gay or bisexual men didn't mind being friendly, but would never date each other" [p. 12]. Why do you think this pattern developed?

4. Is Nicole overly concerned about the color of her skin? Is her image of herself a result of her upbringing in a Southern black community or are her beliefs about beauty and skin color shared by many African Americans? Is Nicole's mother's pleasure when Nicole does better than lighter-skinned girls in beauty contests a form of pride or of prejudice [p. 37]?

5. Why doesn't Nicole bring up race when she talks to her therapist about Pierce, the white man she is dating [p. 52]? Why is she both flattered and annoyed that Pierce compares her to Diahann Carroll? Do you think, as Nicole suggests, that race need not be an issue between two people who love each other? Later in the novel, Nicole asks herself "What type of black woman would be married to a white man? Is there a type?" [pp.120-121]. Is this a reflection of her doubts about Pierce or does it reveal her fundamental misgivings about interracial dating? Are there people who deliberately choose to go out with members of a different race, and if so, why do they make that choice?

6. When Raymond agrees to defend Basil in a lawsuit, Kyle says "You're actually promoting gay-bashing when you defend people like Basil" [p. 90]. Do you think this is a fair assessment? What are Raymond's motivations for taking on the case?

7. Nicole is hoping to get the lead in "To Tell the Truth," a play about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas that Pierce is producing. Why does Harris use this use well-known incident as the basis for his fictional play? What parallels are there between the themes explored in the novel and the real-life questions that erupted during Thomas's congressional hearing?

8. Why didn't Kyle tell his friends that he was HIV positive? What does he mean when he says "Long story short, I didn't want to spend the rest of my life dying" [p. 188]? Kyle receives a lot of help and support from the gay white community but why not any from the African American community?

9. Much of Just As I Am focuses on the secrets the characters keep from one another. How do secrets--and lies--affect the characters as individuals and relationships among them? Which relationships are the most honest? The least honest?

10. Kyle says "I think God just gets mad with us when we get down here and try to be something we're not. I really think that pisses Him off" [p. 247] Is this message different from the teachings of traditional religions? How has the church shaped the attitudes, good and bad, of the various characters?

11. For Discussion: Invisible Life Trilogy

The title Harris chose for his first book--and eventually for the entire trilogy--echoes Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, a seminal work in African-American literature. How does the world Ellison describes compare to Harris's description of the African-American community today? Are the protagonists similar in any way? Does "Invisible Life" only refer to the lives of the gay and bisexual men, or does it encompass aspects of the women's lives as well?

12. Discuss the views of homosexuality you have encountered in your own life. Are most people more willing to accept racial and religious differences than sexual differences? Do gay black men and women suffer greater doubts and more guilt than gay whites? Why or why not? What cultural factors influence the way people feel and talk about sexuality? Did the novels change your own feelings about the gay community?

13. The characters' relationships with their parents is an important theme in the trilogy. What impact does her mother's criticism have on the choices Nicole makes and her image of herself? Is Basil's hostility toward women a result of being raised by his father? Do you think his father genuinely loved him? Why didn't his father succeed in teaching Basil "to be a man and to try and do what's right"? Is Peaches a believable character or is Harris's portrait of her too idealistic? Are you more sympathetic to Yancey when you find out how her mother treated her as a child?

14. Discuss the differences between the views on race, religion, and gender expressed by the two generations. How do they reflect the society in which each generation grew up? Do you think Americans are becoming more tolerant or that age-old prejudices still thrive?


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