*(For the next couple of days we’re not going to post the usual bonanza of links and feeble witticisms. Frightful cliché though it may be, the approach of forty has cast us into a slightly more reflective bent, hence today’s and tomorrow’s more personal – albeit still literary – posts. We apologize in advance for any excesses found herein. The usual OCD tomfoolery resumes late Monday.)
Steven Corbin was the first novelist I knew personally. He died nine years ago this month at the age of 41 from AIDS-related complications. I think about him often but have never written about him outside of my journals.
I met Steven in 1990. I had enrolled in a 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, and I reminded myself that the best teachers weren’t necessarily the best writers (nor vice versa). I turned out to have been right on that count – Steven was an inspiring writing teacher. It’s a shopworn cliché to speak of passion, but Steven had it from the first moment he stepped up in class. It was, in many ways, his defining characteristic. His enthusiasms poured forth and he was intemperate in the best and most constructive ways possible.
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 if they should be afraid. Inevitably the deeply gentle side of his nature would reveal itself and all but those with the most preconceived notions embraced him.
I learned a great deal from Steven in that class, although it was less about writing and more about writers. He insisted I read Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and a dozen others. Through him I met Terry McMillan, Octavia Butler and Trey Ellis. And when the class ended, our friendship continued. Over the years, we had a standing Sunday morning breakfast at my place, where I would make pancakes and we’d talk about books and writing for hours. (He mentioned this in the acknowledgements of his third and last book A Hundred Days From Now.) He was always supportive of my writing, although I’d offered up precious little to base that on. Still, in the inscription he wrote in my copy of No Easy Place to Be, he wrote – among other things – “Get in print!” I’ve always regretted that he didn’t live to see that happen.
In the end, though, the things I learned from Steven extended out 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 kind, gentle man?) I remember my mortification when the first Rodney King verdict came out. Amid the riots, I wrestled down my shame to call him and to tell him that day how terribly sorry I was, and I how was ashamed of being white in Los Angeles. He was profoundly moved by that.
He used to call me a “model heterosexual” – I took some pride in that. I was utterly at ease with him and with his sexuality. I never felt guarded around him in any way – not that he would have ever stood for that. Steven was an early warrior on the front line, a member of Act Up, a regular participant in needle exchanges, politically active on all fronts. For all his gentleness, he also had a tumultuous raging side. He was furious about the climate toward gays in Reagan’s and then Bush’s America. Being black and gay he was, in many ways, the ultimate outsider, much like his hero James Baldwin. And like Baldwin, he never stopped banging angrily for the attention of anyone who would listen. 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 stunned and devastated.
He looked at me from across the table, realized that I hadn’t yet known (he thought he’d told me before) and he said, “I’ve shocked you.” I remember mumbling something non-committal but before I could process it, Steven began talking at length and with this trademark enthusiasm about how was confident of his chances of beating it, that he was healthy, his t-cell count was good, that he was going to lick it. I nodded and was supportive but later that day in my journal, I wrote one sentence: “Steven is going to die.”
Remember, this was more than ten years ago and the state of AIDS medication was not what it was 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 had finished his second novel, Fragments that Remain, and had begun his last one, a barely veiled roman a clef about his own lover’s 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, 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.
I visited him during one of my New York visits, 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 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 and soon after that dinner. Like so many people, 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 and confidence crumbled and I listen to him miles away as his voice broke. “My God, Mark, I’m so scared,” he said. I hear that voice still, to this day.
I said what I suspect many people might have said; offered up words of hope, of 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 the line. I know I didn’t go back to New York. Didn’t look in on him, visit him in the hospice.
Some time after that, 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 have died from AIDS – missed out on so much. When I googled him for this essay, I was disappointed at the paucity of hits generated for this man who left behind three novels, whereas blog prattlers like myself fill pages and pages. Still, I was pleased to find this essay – 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.
Steven also would have loved the blog revolution. He would have read The Elegant Variation – and all the others – every morning, peppering them with comments, criticisms, suggestions, all the while keeping me honest, something he did so well. The conversation is one rich voice poorer.
As for the matter of his books. I would love to tell you that I loved Steven’s work as much as I loved the man. But I didn’t. No Easy Place to Be, as I said, has some moments certainly. But the other books simply aren’t very good. They are unsubtle, heavy handed, often trite. I think Steven knew he was running out of time and couldn’t afford the luxury of subtlety in print any more than he could in his personal dealings. But I know that he wanted these works left behind to outlive him, to echo on his behalf.
The books are all out of print but are readily available used, often for as little as a dollar. Perhaps you’ll consider seeking them out, making the modest investment to own a copy. Perhaps you’ll find something more in the books themselves than I did. Either way, it seems an awfully small price to pay to help my friend live on in some form, on your bookshelves, that place where he most wanted to end up. Better there than sitting in warehouses and remainder piles.
Requiescat in pace.