Writing by Twilight: Steven Corbin’s Queer Triptych
Like that of all authors who died AIDS-related deaths, with each passing year Steven Corbin’s work takes on a significance beyond its worth as good or not so good fiction. Before his death from AIDS-related causes in 1995 at the age of 41, as an activist and novelist, Corbin wrote out of a particular set of concerns and anxieties that went well beyond the desire for literary fame. Unlike his more successful peers, writers like E. Lynn Harris and James Earl Hardy, Corbin displays a historical consciousness that both extends into a past in which he searched for validation of his contemporary reality as an HIV-positive black gay man, and provides projective attempts to secure a memorial place in a world that he knew he would most likely not experience. Despite the lack of literary niceties that undeniably characterize much of his work, each of Corbin’s novels displays a deeply personalized engagement with African American literary history in its intersection with queer history. This makes his work not only readable as a contribution to the corpus of African American literature, but essential for appreciating the surfacing of a black queer aesthetic. Over the course of his three published novels and the wildly divergent critical reception that they received, Corbin charted and specified the concerns that recur in black gay men’s writing while rendering those concerns with a sense of urgency rooted in his awareness of his position in medias res. His novels served as articulations of the social and expressive parameters of black queer identities in relation to both established and emerging figurations of history, family, race, and mortality. Harlem in the 1920s and ’30s as the generative site for black queer culture, homophobia in all of its forms, and the personal and social dynamics of living with AIDS each served as the focal point for Corbin’s grappling with his own life and mortality.
Corbin’s first novel, No Easy Place to Be, represents a making modern of the Harlem Renaissance in the service of the genealogical consolidation of black queer identity and culture. No Easy Place to Be is both an historical novel and a roman a clef in that it revisits and reconceptualizes 1920s Harlem as the place where the first really “free” generation of African Americans struggled to deal with existential issues beyond those of mere survival. On the one hand this novel extends the recognition of the Harlem Renaissance as the birthplace for a particular narrative of black modernity. On the other it legitimates queer minds and bodies as formative components of that modernity. As a modern writer, Corbin used the cultural capital that 1920s Harlem was acquiring in the emerging discourse of black queer identity to inaugurate his movement into serious authorship. It is important that over the three sections of the novel both lesbians and gay men are given prominence as signposts for black sexual, social, and aesthetic modernity. The fact that the lesbian is a nurse and a Garveyite further imbricates queerness into the legitimating structures of New Negroism and political blackness. The insertion of real people like Carl Van Vechten and A’Lelia Walker into the narrative also serves to deepen the authenticating work of the text. The novel’s “passing” narrative necessarily takes on a different modality when contextualized so explicitly in terms of queerness. The vitality of the Harlem Renaissance and the sense of emerging possibilities that it offers to queer writers like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen is in a fundamental tension with the autumnal nature of much of black gay men’s literature and art of the 1980s and 90s, most notably the work of Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs.
In his second novel Fragments that Remain Corbin attempts to represent the particularity of the black family and interracial relations as sites for black gay self-fashioning. The obvious models for what he attempts here are James Baldwin’s novels Go Tell It on the Mountain and Another Country. Fragments that Remain develops an intertextually sophisticated relationship with Baldwin’s novels as mastertexts. The complex dynamics of what Sarah Schulman has called “familial homophobia,” an implicitly crucial theme of both Go Tell it On the Mountain and of Baldwin’s most intensively queer novel Giovanni’s Room, have rarely been rendered in such excruciating detail as they are in Fragments that Remain and in Corbin’s subsequent and final novel One Hundred Days From Now. In fact, throughout Corbin’s work Baldwin’s oeuvre provides a reference point for means of specifying queerness as an element of black culture. Certainly, the investment in the salvific nature of celebrity gestures toward the dynamics of Baldwin’s most autobiographically queer novel Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone as strongly as it does to the rise of fame as legitimation that would characterize the dream life of post-civil rights African America. Like the problematic ur-text of black queerness as a discourse, Paris is Burning, Fragments that Remain positions the pursuit of celebrity as one of the central components of the social will-to-power and visibility of queer black men.
Although “real” figures are brought back to life in Corbin’s first novel No Easy Place to Be, it is in his last, One Hundred Days From Now, that his own “reality” is most explicitly revealed. This account of an HIV-positive black gay man dealing with his Mexican’s lover’s death from AIDS and the homophobia that he experiences during the relationship—and most intensively while shepherding his partner through the crucial 100 days that will determine whether an AIDS related bone marrow transplant will be successful—is by all accounts a fictional account of Corbin’s own experience in the last years of his life. The unvarnished realism about money, despair, and the loss of dignity that grappling with illness without the safety net of economic security no doubt reflects Corbin’s concerns in the last years of his life. Ultimately, the most important element in the novel is the turn to family as a move toward closure that elegantly braids this text into the familial dynamics of both No Easy Place to Me and Fragments that Remain. Finally, like everything that Corbin has left us, One Hundred Days From Now reveals both the existential and artistic weight of living and writing by twilight.