JANUARY 7, 2012
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 people cross the street to avoid him; of police harassing him for walking in his neighborhood; of women locking their car doors at the sight of his approach. (This last one wounded me the most. How could anyone fear this lovely man?) I remember my mortification when the first Rodney King verdict was announced. Amid the riots, I wrestled my shame to call him and to tell him how ashamed I was of being white in Los Angeles. He was profoundly moved by that.
But for all his gentleness, he carried a well-earned rage. He was furious about the climate toward gays in Reagan’s and then Bush’s America. (I watched the C-SPAN vote on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell earlier this year, and wept to think of Steven and all he’d missed.) Being black and gay he was, in many ways, the ultimate outsider, much like his hero James Baldwin. And like Baldwin, he never stopped criticizing, banging angrily for attention. He was a member of ACT UP, a regular volunteer for needle exchange programs, and politically active on all fronts. Amid all that, it never occurred to me that he might be ill. So when he mentioned — quite casually, almost in passing — during one of our Sunday breakfasts that he was HIV-positive, I was shattered.
He looked at me from across the table, realizing that I hadn’t yet known (he thought he’d told me already); and he said, “I’ve shocked you.” I remember mumbling something non-committal but before I could absorb the news, Steven began talking with his familiar enthusiasm about how he was confident of his chances of beating it, that he was healthy, his T-cell count was good, that he was going to beat it. I nodded and was supportive but later that day in my journal, I wrote one sentence: “Steven is going to die.”
At the time, the state of AIDS medication was not what it is today. And Steven didn’t have the financial resources of a Magic Johnson. From where I was sitting, my friend had been sentenced to death.
During this time Steven finished his second novel, Fragments that Remain, and was working on his last one, a roman à clef about his lover’s own struggles with the disease. As he was finishing up the book, he began to talk about moving back to New York. L.A. was at that time uncongenial to his literary ambitions (another change he did not live to see), and he said he wanted to live in a real literary city. But I also suspected that he wanted to go home, to be able to die with family.
The last time I saw Steven, I visited him in New York and we had a wonderful dinner at an uptown soul food place, talking books and politics into the wee hours. As we parted company and he went off into a cab, I wondered — despite his apparent good health — if I would ever see him again.
It remains a source of guilt and shame for me that I abandoned him in his last days, which came quickly, soon after that dinner. I’ve never developed sufficient mechanisms for coping directly with imminent death. I wanted to be there for my friend but didn’t know how. He called me a few weeks later and I could hear in his voice that something was wrong. He told me health problems were beginning to surface —thrush, bad blood workup — and for the first time, he was scared. The bravado crumbled and I listened to him miles away as his voice broke. “My God, Mark, I’m so scared,” he said. That voice haunts me to this day.
I said what I suspect many people might have said; offered up words of hopeful confidence. But they were all false and they sounded brittle and hollow in my ear. I’ve always wondered — along with much else — what Steven thought as he hung up; if he saw through my weak performance. I didn’t go back to New York. Didn’t look in on him during his final days in the hospice.
Toward the end of that summer, a friend of mine was visiting me from New York. He was on the couch reading the L.A. Times when he saw Steven’s obituary. That’s how I learned he’d died. A few days later, Doug Sadownick remembered him in greater detail for the L.A. Weekly. Sadownick’s piece confirmed what I’d suspected: the end had been particularly hard on Steven, and he hadn’t gone gentle into that good night.
Steven — like all the others who died from AIDS — missed out on so much. When I googled him for this essay, I was disappointed at the paucity of links generated for this man who left behind three novels, whereas blog prattlers like myself return pages and pages. Still, I was pleased to find a brief mention, which would have delighted him. Steven would have loved seeing himself called a “groundbreaking queer black writer”:
These writers also attempt, with their own loud dissenting voices, to shatter the seemingly unbreakable silence over the fact of black queers and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the black community. Citing the work of groundbreaking queer black writers (sadly all now dead) like Joe Beam, Essex Hemphill, Marlon Riggs and Steven Corbin, they lament the refusal to slam the status quo of denial within the black community that queers are not simply some by-product of slavery but are individuated lives.
Slamming the status quo. If Steven had a tombstone, that would belong on it.
I know that Steven wanted his work to outlive him, to echo on his behalf. We used to talk about where on the bookshelf we’d find ourselves. (He liked being close to J.M. Coetzee.) They are all out of print now, though readily available online. But it’s in the classroom, now, as I approach my writing students, that Steven’s voice can still be heard. Honest encouragement. Close reading. Passion. When I return to my Novel III class this year, his shadow will surely fall across my lesson plan, and I will be lucky to offer my students a fraction of the grace he bestowed upon me.