STEVEN CORBIN WAS THE FIRST novelist I knew personally. (How exciting and rarefied that seemed to me at the time!) He died in 1995 at the age of 41 from AIDS-related complications.
He cut a formidable figure, a six-foot-two, muscular, dreadlocked black man who was openly gay. I would watch people circle him warily, unsure what to make of him, wondering whether to be afraid. Then his gentle nature would reveal itself and all but the irretrievably bigoted embraced him.
I met Steven in 1990. I'd enrolled in a beginning fiction class he was teaching at UCLA. Before the class began, I picked up a copy of his debut novel No Easy Place to Be, a tale of three sisters set against the Harlem Renaissance. I didn't love the book but I liked stretches of it. Steven was always good with the family moments, which he'd drawn from life:
Velma took a long drag on the cigarette, standing in the corner with her arms folded, her feet crossed. She eyed Miriam, hoping Miriam was wrong about Negro literature being a trend that wouldn't last long enough for her to establish a career. She picked specks of tobacco from her teeth. The kitchen was a battlefield of conflicting odors. Collard greens and fatback fought lye and peroxide. The clashing scents of black-eyed peas, rice and hair pomade curled on the edges of burnt human hair.
I reminded myself that the best teachers weren't necessarily the best writers (nor vice versa) and Steven rewarded my gamble: he was an inspiring writing teacher from the first lesson. His passion for his students, for literature, for his writing poured out of him from the first moment he stepped up in class. Passion was his defining characteristic and we all stepped back as his enthusiasms spilled forth.
I've thought a great deal about just what it was that Steven taught me that was so valuable. It's a question that's become more relevant since I began to teach the same fiction courses in the same program at UCLA. Like too many other beginning writers, I was dismayingly ill-read. Steven sought to fix that, and he was the first person to expose me to the idea of reading like a writer, the cornerstone of every lesson I now teach. In this way, Steven is very much in every classroom with me. He insisted I read Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and a dozen others. Through him I met Terry McMillan, Octavia Butler, and Trey Ellis. I went to readings. I participated in workshops. And I began to think seriously about writing prose.
When the class ended, our friendship continued. Over the years, we had a standing Sunday morning breakfast at my place. I would make pancakes and we'd talk about books and writing for hours. (He mentioned these breakfasts in the acknowledgements of his third and last book A Hundred Days From Now.) He encouraged my efforts, and once left a message on my answering machine, raving about a long letter I'd sent him about John Lennon's murder — all pre-email — and lamenting that writers no longer seemed to correspond this way. In the inscription in my copy of No Easy Place to Be, he wrote: "Get in print!" I've always regretted that he didn't live to see my novel get published.
Ultimately, though, the things I learned from Steven extended beyond the realm of the written word. Even though I'd grown up in racially diverse New York, I'd lived too long in L.A. and my circle was a bit too lily white. Steven would speak of watching white peop...