Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Q&A with Joe Okonkwo

Joe Okonkwo, photo by Theik Smith
Joe Okonkwo is the author of the new novel Jazz Moon, which takes place during the Harlem Renaissance. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Promethean and Penumbra Literary Magazine, and he is prose editor for Newtown Literary. He lives in New York.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Ben Charles, and with the idea for Jazz Moon?

A: I had been in love with the Harlem Renaissance for years and had wanted to write a short story set in the period. I found out about a short story contest and decided to write a Harlem story and enter it in the contest.

The word limit was 1,500. I said, "I can write this story in 1,500 words." I never entered that contest because the story ballooned to about 26,000 words. From that, the novel was born.

Ben Charles came about because I was interested in how blackness and gayness intersected with each other and with the Harlem Renaissance, which was a period of explosive black cultural growth and awareness.

During this period in Harlem, homosexuality was taboo and underground, but also very much in the open.

There were gay bars. There was an annual drag bar that was one of the social events of the season and tons of straight people came to see the drag queens in their fabulous get-ups. It was an open secret that female blues singers like Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and Alberta hunter were lesbian or bisexual.

The Harlem Renaissance, like the 1920s generally, was a time of sexual awakening; a time when inhibitions and taboos were, to some extent, tossed aside. I wanted to write about that. And I wanted to create a character who was at the crossroads of all of that.

Q: Can you say more about why you picked 1920s Harlem and Paris as the novel’s settings, and how important setting is to you in your writing?

A: If there was a time machine and I could travel back to any period in history, it would be the Harlem Renaissance. It was the first time anyone--white or black--realized that black was beautiful. And marketable.

Setting is extremely important in a historical novel. You want to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of the era. My aim in Jazz Moon is to make Harlem a character, to make Paris a character, to make each jazz club in the story a character with its own unique personality and function and idiosyncrasies.

Q: What kind of research did you do to recreate Harlem and Paris during the Jazz Age?

A: I read lots of books. I read books specifically about the Harlem Renaissance like When Harlem Was in Vogue by David Levering Lewis and The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African-American Culture, 1920-1930 by Steven Watson.

Paris Noir by Tyler Stovall was a must read: it's a history of blacks in Paris, from the 19th century through the 1980s. 

I read books about ocean liners and books about homosexuality in Europe during the 1920s. I did lots of online research and photo research. I read about jazz and vaudeville entertainers of the era.

I read authors of the Harlem Renaissance era like Langston Hughes, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Richard Bruce Nugent. And I listened to 1920s jazz: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Joe "King" Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Adelaide Hall, Gladys Bentley.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I didn't know how the novel would end until I was doing the very final rewrite. The ending went through a few different iterations. I struggled with the ending. I can't say why without spoiling it for potential readers, but the ending was very much a compromise with myself, one that I'm glad to say I'm happy with.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: A short story called "Luc," which is also set in Paris, but in 2016. It's a quasi love story.

I've also been submitting a story called "Picnic Street," which is set in a town in Mississippi in 1979. It's about a young woman who leaves her husband and goes back to her hometown with their son and how she deals with being labeled a "bourgie black."

In part, it's about not fitting the racial expectations that have been set by members of your own race. I also threw in some issues about reproductive choice for good measure. 

I'm also an editor for Newtown Literary, a journal dedicated to publishing writers in Queens, New York, where I live. We're currently putting together our ninth issue. Starting next year I take the reins as editor of the annual Best Gay Stories anthology published by Lethe Press.

And very soon, I'll start my next novel--also set in the Harlem Renaissance. It's based on the life of Gladys Bentley. She was a cross dresser, pianist, and blues singer known for her raunchy lyrics. She got in trouble for violating "decency codes." She also claimed to have married a white woman in an Atlantic City wedding ceremony.

In the 1950s, she gave an interview to Ebony Magazine renouncing her lesbianism and claiming to have been "cured" through the use of hormones. She actually makes a cameo appearance in Jazz Moon.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Let's see...I'm currently reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I love it. And her.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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