By Mark McNease
I’ve had the great pleasure of getting to know author Joe Okonkwo this year, including the privilege of sharing his 2015 Puschart Prize-nominated short story Cleo here at lgbtSr. Joe’s debut novel Jazz Moon was recently released to deserved acclaim. He’s the Prose Editor for Newtown Literary, a journal featuring work by writers from Queens, New York, and in In 2017 he will take the reins as Editor of the annual Best Gay Stories anthology published by Lethe Press. Following are Joe’s answers to a ‘6 Questions’ interview.
MM: Please tell us a little about yourself, your journey from there to here (you went to school in Houston so I’m guessing you’re not a native New Yorker, few of us are, but I could be wrong …)
JO: I am a native New Yorker—if you’re talking about New York state. I was born in Syracuse, then moved around a great deal: New Jersey, Michigan, Nigeria, Mississippi. I ended up in Houston at age 11 and lived there till I moved to NYC in 2000. Since I was born in Syracuse and have now lived in NYC for sixteen years, it’s fair to say that New York is my home state. Even so, because I grew up in so many places, it’s challenging to figure out if I’m actually from anywhere.
MM: You made your living in theatre for a number of years – acting, stage managing, directing, playwriting – how did that transition into writing fiction?
JO: When you think about it, stage plays are really novels that are acted out, so the transition was, in many ways, a natural one. But I was writing long before I started doing theatre. I wrote stories and poems starting in grade school. I completed my first novel when I was 12 (It was called Conrad: City of the Demons. I wrote it in a spiral notebook in pencil. Unfortunately, I didn’t save it). Even after I fell in love with theatre, I continued to write—plays, stories, poetry. I think my love of theatre and my experience acting gives me a good ear for dialogue, which is a great asset for writing fiction. Dialogue in fiction needs to be efficient; it needs a heightened quality (think Shakespeare) and it has to move the story forward. I think a lot of what I know about writing dialogue for fiction comes directly from my acting experience.
MM: Your short stories have appeared in quite a few venues, including Promethean, Penumbra Literary Magazine, Chelsea Station and others. You’ll be taking the reins as Editor for the annual Best Gay Stories from Lethe Press in 2017. Why short stories? And what are the different challenges for you between short fiction and a novel, both as a writer and editor?
JO: I like the self-containment of a short story. A short story is a slice, whereas a novel is a whole cake. Short stories tend to be more about character while novels are generally more plot-centric. In some ways, writing stories is more difficult than writing novels. Octavia Butler asserted that her unsuccessful short stories were actually novels-in-waiting. You don’t have 300 pages to get the story across, so your choices have to be efficient and more targeted than with a novel. As far as the challenges of editing stories vs. novels: I’ve never edited a novel (other than my own!), but I certainly critiqued novels during my MFA program in Creative Writing. I think editing a story is simpler because there aren’t as many moving parts to keep track of.
MM: Jazz Moon debuted recently. It’s “a passionate, alive, and original novel about love, race, and jazz in 1920s Harlem and Paris …” (David Ebershoff, The Danish Girl). Why this time period, place and cast of characters?
JO: If I had a time machine and could go back to any historical period, it would be the Harlem Renaissance. It was a period rich in music, theatre, literature, politics. An enormously difficult period for African-Americans because of rabid racism, but an incredible and productive period nonetheless. I’m in love with the Harlem Renaissance! The jazz, the speakeasies, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Langston Hughes. The blues-singing ladies who sang raunchy songs about needing sugar in their bowls. The buffet flats which were the 1920s equivalent of sex parties. W.E.B. Dubois and his Talented Tenth. The New Negro Movement. I could go on. And on. And on.
MM: Pease talk about the Harlem Renaissance and its attraction, as well as its inspiration, for Jazz Moon.
JO: The Harlem Renaissance was the first time that people—white and black—realized that black was beautiful. It was a period that aimed to elevate blacks politically and artistically; it aimed to give a downtrodden race a collective sense of self-esteem. So much great literature and music comes from that era. And politically, it was during this era that the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s were built. I’m also very curious about gay life in Harlem. Homosexuality was not accepted or condoned, but it was tolerated in a live-and-let-live way. There were quite a few gay bars. There was an annual drag show that was one of Harlem’s social events of the year—non-gays flocked to it to check out the drag queens’ fabulous outfits. Gays referred to their gayness as The Life. It was mostly underground, but just barely. And there are many, many iconic Harlem Renaissance figures who were gay or bisexual: singers Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Alberta Hunter; Countee Cullen, who was known as the Poet Laureate of Harlem; writer and editor Wallace Thurman who lived openly with his white boyfriend; Alain Locke who edited the important anthology The New Negro and was the first black Rhodes scholar; and of course, even though it’s never been definitively confirmed, Langston Hughes. Anyway, I wrote Jazz Moon to capture at least a slice of this rich, wondrous period. I’ll let the readers decide whether I succeeded.
MM: What observations can you offer on literary culture and the literary scene, as it were, especially the queer literary scene.
JO: The literary scene is in flux because of the Internet, eBooks, the explosion of entertainment and media options. The closing of so many bookstores—and not just small, indie stores. I mean, how many Barnes and Nobles have also closed in the past few years? We’re still waiting to see how the dust settles. In terms of the gay literary scene, specifically gay male literature: I have to admit I’m not terribly impressed with the gay male fiction I’ve read of late. The best book I’ve read recently that centered on gay men was The Song of Achilles—and it’s written by a heterosexual woman. Good gay male fiction by gay males is rare, in my opinion. A lot of it is either too focused on hot, shirtless guys or it’s too focused on sex (full disclosure: there’s plenty of sex in Jazz Moon, but I would argue that it moves the story forward and is not egregious). And a lot of it is just badly written. We need a gay literary renaissance.
On a simmering summer night in a smoky speakeasy in 1925, Harlem poet Ben Charles falls for Baby Back Johnston, an ambitious trumpet player with a devilish smile who blasts jazz dynamite from his horn and hungers to be a star in Paris. Traveling a landscape of speakeasies, gay bars, chic Parisian cafés, seedy opium dens, and buffet flats (the Harlem equivalent of sex clubs), Jazz Moon captures Ben’s emotional odyssey and unending quest for self-worth as well as the personal side of Harlem and Paris of the Roaring 1920s.