Tell us about Jazz Moon. What is it about?
The novel is set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age Paris. It’s about Ben and his personal and creative odyssey which takes him from rural Georgia to Harlem to the Paris of Josephine Baker. The story is about coming out, coming of age, race, jazz, the blues, poetry, and the difficulties that the search for love presents. And it’s an ode to a vibrant and difficult cultural period that saw an explosion of black artistic and political movement. Artistically and politically, The Harlem Renaissance was the first time people realized that black is beautiful.
Tell us about the process of writing Jazz Moon.
Jazz Moon started off as a short story in 2004. I heard about a short story contest with a word limit of 1500. I thought, “Oh, yeah, I can write this story in 1500 words.” 95,000 words and twelve years later, here it is! The process drew on my knowledge of and affinity for the era: its music, its literature. I also did a ton of historical research to get the details right and make them tangible and really transport the reader to this world.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Ideally I’d like to spark a revival of interest in the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, I’d like to continue sparking that interest. Queen Latifah starred recently in a TV biopic about Bessie Smith who was known as the Empress of the Blues. Audra McDonald is currently starring in Shuffle Along on Broadway. That show was originally produced in 1921 and was a landmark in terms of successfully bringing black entertainment to the Great White Way. So Jazz Moon is participating in bringing the Harlem Renaissance into the 21st Century.
What else have you written?
Some short stories, one of which (“Cleo”) has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. And some poetry, most of which I’m not too proud of.
How does/did being a Queens writer influence your writing?
I can’t tell you how often I’ve told people that I live in Queens and the swift (and rather rude) reaction is: “That’s SO far.” Queens is often dismissed, if not outright denigrated. The implication is that if you live in Queens, you’re not really part of New York City. You’re an outsider. I think that “outsider” status influences all of my writing, certainly Jazz Moon where my protagonist is black and gay and a poet and, therefore, not part of the mainstream.
What other writers have influenced or inspired you?
Toni Morrison is my favorite writer. Her novel Beloved makes you understand how slavery destroyed people on an intensely personal and spiritual level. James Baldwin’s Another Country was the first gay book I ever read. I got depressed when I finished it because the characters had become friends and it hurt to leave them. Shakespeare has influenced me, too. His grand language hits the mark and is so beautifully crafted. And, believe it or not, I find political writing inspiring. Political writers have to quickly get the facts across and be creative enough to keep the reader’s attention. Fiction is often like that, too. Reading politics absolutely helps my fiction writing.
When you’re not writing, what’s your favorite thing to do?
Read. Drink wine. Think about what to write next.
Tell us something about you that has nothing to do with your book.
I’ve lived in a multitude of places: Syracuse, NY; Flint, MI; Lagos, Nigeria; Vicksburg, MS; California; Houston, TX; and Astoria, NY. I’ve lived so many places that I don’t feel I’m really from anywhere.
What should I have asked that I didn’t?
About my next book! I’m staying with the Harlem Renaissance. There’s still more to learn there. The next novel will be about Gladys Bentley (who makes a cameo appearance in Jazz Moon). She was a real person. Blues singer, pianist. She was a drag king, known for wearing a white tux and top hat. She would change the lyrics of popular songs and make them naughty and flirt with the women in the audience. She claimed to have married a white woman in an Atlantic City ceremony, but there’s no evidence to support that claim. In the McCarthy-tainted 1950s, Bentley gave an interview to Ebony magazine saying she had “cured” herself of lesbianism by taking female hormones. It seemed to be a pretty rich life. And not that much has been written about her, so that makes for fertile and imaginative subject matter.
Where can readers buy your book? Here’s a link: http://www.joeokonkwo.com/purchase-jazz-moon
Readers, mark your calendars:
- Join Poetry and Coffee at Communitea on June 27 at 6 p.m. for a reading and discussion on “Men!” Tickets are free but required.
- Join Poetry and Coffee at the Queens Lit Fest on July 16 at 6 p.m. for a reading and discussion featuring Connie Salvayon, Ingrid Gociu, Sandi Leibowitz, Richie Alexandro, and Valerie G. Keane. Tickets are free.
- Join the Risk of Discovery Reading Series on June 21 at 7:30 p.m. at Astoria Coffee for a writing workshop followed by a poetry open mic and show led by Micah Zevin and featuring Lisa Marie Basile, Richard Jeffrey Newman, and J.T. Price. There is a $10 cover charge, which will serve as credit toward food or drink.
- Join the Risk of Discovery Reading Series on July 31 at 1 p.m. as part of the New York City Poetry Festival. The reading will feature Susan Weiman, Peter Marra, Jared Harel, Abigail Welhouse, Ron Kolm, Craig Kite, and Valerie G. Keane.
- The Jamaica Center for Arts & Learning is calling for artists to apply for a free one-month residency. For more information, and to apply, check out the JCAL website. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis.