Photos Courtesy of Joe Okonkwo
Joe Okonkwo is an accomplished Queens, New York based writer. His short stories have appeared in Promethean, Cooper Street, and Shotgun Honey. For several years he made his living in theater as an actor, and playwright among other things before turning transitioning into writing short stories.
In 2015 his short story “Cleo” was nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize. Okonkwo’s debut novel Jazz Moon, set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and glittering Jazz Age Paris, was published by Kensington Books in 2016.
Jazz Moon, written in 2004 as short story, has been well received by critics and readers alike. The book is nominated for two prestigious awards for LGBTQ writers, The Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction and the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Fiction.
The Prose Editor for Newtown Literary, a publication featuring the work by writers from Queens, New York made our day when he agreed to an interview. Here he shares three things; his love of writing, The Harlem Renaissance and words of wisdom courtesy of James Baldwin.
PrideIndex (PI): When and where you were first published?
Joe Okonkwo (JO): I believe my first published piece was a poem called “Speakeasy” in a journal called Anthology Magazine. This was in 2002. “Speakeasy” makes a modified appearance in Jazz Moon. In 2002, I still identified primarily as a poet. I had dabbled in plays and prose, but considered myself a poet. I no longer do. Poetry is too hard. Ben, my protagonist in Jazz Moon, is a poet, and his poems are interspersed throughout the novel as a way of showing/amplifying what he’s going through emotionally. But if I never write another poem again, that’s fine with me. I have nothing but respect for poets and the magic they make with language, and I enjoy reading poetry, but writing it is just not for me. That said, at some far distant point in the future, I may just change my mind.
PI: Talk about some of the challenges you have faced as a writer and what you have done to overcome them.
JO: Time and discipline. When you work a regular job (or two), it can be difficult finding (or making) time to write. And I’m not by nature the most disciplined person in the world; it’s something I have to work at. But I find when I’m in that “creative flow,” time and discipline aren’t issues and the work happens naturally and happily. Another challenge, frankly, is my struggle with depression. It can cripple me. When I’m depressed, I can’t write. I don’t have the mental energy.
As far as how to overcome these challenges: Well, you just do, because you have to. James Baldwin said, “Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say.”
PI: You have written a slew of short stories before publishing your first novel was that intentional?
JO: It wasn’t intentional. However, it helps if you learn to walk before you try flying. A novel is a big, sprawling undertaking. Writing short stories can help prepare for that. Not that short stories are a walk in the park either. In some ways stories are actually more challenging. With a novel you have two or three hundred pages to tell your tale, but a short story has only a few pages to accomplish that. I think about the great black sci-fi writer Octavia Butler. She said she hated writing short stories, because most her short stories were really novels-in-waiting. The danger with stories is that you try to do too much in a small amount of space.
PI: Let’s talk about your novel, Jazz Moon, where did you find the inspiration for it?
JO: In my love of black entertainment of the Harlem Renaissance era. Bessie Smith. Duke Ellington. Louis Armstrong. Florence Mills. Josephine Baker. And in my desire to write a gay story set during that era. And in my love of Langston Hughes and W.E.B. Du Bois and Wallace Thurman.
PI: Why did you choose Jazz and The Harlem Renaissance as the subject matter for your first book?
JO: If I could go back in time to any era, it would be the Harlem Renaissance. It was such a rich period culturally and politically. Blacks excelled at jazz and theater and literature and the visual arts. Amazing and enduring works of art were created. The foundation for the modern Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 1970s was built during the Harlem Renaissance. It was the first time anyone realized that black was beautiful—and marketable. For instance, in 1920 a blues singer named Mamie Smith recorded a song called “Crazy Blues.” The music executives were shocked when it became a huge hit. They had no idea there was such a big market for black music. Mamie Smith busted the door wide open for singers like Bessie Smith (no relation), Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, and Ma Rainey. In 1921 a show called Shuffle Along premiered on Broadway. It was a giant hit that paved the way for other successful all-black shows. Writers like Hughes and Countee Cullen published books and amassed large followings. The Harlem Renaissance was not just an artistic and cultural phenomenon. It was big business. The downside is that most Harlem residents did not necessarily enjoy the fruits of the Renaissance—they were just too busy scratching out a living.
PI: What is the take away?
JO: Well…I think we in 2017 can learn a lot from the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was very much a coordinated effort. Its leaders made a specific choice to highlight black artistic talent (in literature, the visual arts, music) as a means of “equalizing” the races. I wonder if that kind of coordinated effort is what’s needed now.
PI: Given the success of Tarell Alvin McCary’s Moonlight and your background in the theater have you considered adapting this book into a stage play or feature film?
JO: No. My fear is that the novel would get truncated or that the sex (which is integral to the story) would get downplayed. That said, if some producer offered me a bunch of money for the film rights, I don’t think I’d have a choice but to accept it. I live in New York City. Rent is high.
PI: You’re nominated for a Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Fiction and the Publishing Triangle’s prestigious Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. Do you plan to attend either event to accept the prize if you win?
JO: I am so excited and so honored to be a finalist for these awards. Jazz Moon started as a short story in 2004. It’s been a long journey, so trust me, I will be at both of those award ceremonies with bells on.
PI: There are thousands of big eyed, starry dreamers out there looking to achieve fame and fortune as a novelist what advice would you offer to them?
JO: Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep dreaming. Find a writing group. Get your stories critiqued before you send them out. Listen to the criticism you don’t like and don’t want to hear. Turn off the TV. Stay flexible with your definition of success.
PI: What are your long term goals professionally?
JO: I quoted James Baldwin earlier. He said, “Find a way to keep alive and write.” And that is what I’ll do.
The Annual Publishing Triangle Awards takes place on Thursday April 27, 2017 visit www.publishingtriangle.org
The 29th Annual Lambda Literary Awards takes place on Monday June 12, 2017 visit www.lambdaliterary.org