Those of you familiar with Harlem in New York have probably seen it’s transformation over recent years. Walking around the area, you can see a difference from how it was over a decade ago. The area is yet another example of the gentrification of urban environments with increased rents, an array of expensive condos and luxury apartments purchased by upwardly mobile city workers. Of course, no area of the city should be exempt from developments or regeneration projects if they further the goal of more sustainable communities, benefiting society’s most disadvantaged. However, there is a legitimate concern for generations of local families being forced out of an area full of history, artistic expression and a sense of place. I’m very interested in the many views held by stakeholders and continue to observe how Harlem, as an historically and artistically rich area, benefits from change. This brings my focus to how Harlem is celebrated as an arts and cultural hub by contemporary writers.
There are numerous resources capturing the essence of the Harlem’s Renaissance, the cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in the 1920s and 30s. The latest is Joe Okonkwo’s novel Jazz Moon, set against the backdrop of the renaissance and glittering Jazz Age Paris. The novel will be published by Kensington Books this May.
David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl and The 19th Wife has called Jazz Moon “A passionate, alive, and original novel about love, race, and jazz in 1920s Harlem and Paris — a moving story of traveling far to find oneself.”
Jazz Moon’s author Joe Okonkwo is a graduate of the University of Houston with a B.A. in theatre and an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York. Joe made his living in theatre for a number of years as an actor, stage manager, director, playwright, and youth theatre instructor.
His short stories have appeared in a variety of print and online venues including Promethean, Penumbra Literary Magazine, Cooper Street, Storychord, LGBTsr.org, Chelsea Station, Shotgun Honey, Best Gay Stories 2015, Rind Literary Magazine, Em Dash Literary Magazine, Best Gay Love Stories 2009, and Keep This Bag Away From Children. His short story “Cleo” has been nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize.
Continually fascinated by Harlem’s rich history, I was intrigued to quiz Joe on his perspective and his ability to capture the essence of this notable period of African American history in the book.
Q.What books have most influenced your life?
James Baldwin’s Another Country was a big influence. I read it in high school, but not as part of any curriculum. It was the first gay book I ever read. When I finished it, I was depressed because I had really entered into the world of that book and found other people like me and I didn’t want to leave.
Toni Morrison’s books have been a big part of my life, especially Beloved. Historians and sociologists talk about how black Americans continue to be scarred by the experience of slavery. That was certainly something I believed, but more in a theoretical sense. Then I read Beloved and I saw that it’s not just a theory. Morrison captures the personal side of slavery and how it destructive it was—not just on a grand scale, but on a very personal level. Slavery destroyed individuals. It was a destruction that doesn’t heal easily or quickly. It’s a destruction that filters down the generations. I think Beloved is the most powerful book I’ve ever read because it takes the theoretical and puts human faces on it.
Q .What was the hardest part of writing this book?
JO- Jazz Moon is a historical novel, so making sure I had my facts correct was probably the biggest challenge. Making sure the characters’ language and slang was in keeping with the times. I reference a lot of real songs in the book, so I had to make sure that they had actually been composed by the time Jazz Moon begins (1925). Making sure descriptions are historically accurate.
I think the major challenge for any writer of historical fiction is sure to blending the historical research in to the story in a seamless and creative way. You don’t want the novel to feel like a history book. It’s historical, but still needs to read like fiction. I get extraordinarily irritated when I read historical fiction that feels like I’m reading a chapter from a history book. I do want to be instructed, but I don’t want to feel like I’m being instructed.
Q. Tell us briefly about your forthcoming book Jazz Moon.
JO- It started as a short story in 2004. It’s set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age Paris. It’s part coming-out story, part love story, part personal and creative odyssey.
I love the Harlem Renaissance. If I had a time machine and could go back to any era, it would be the Harlem Renaissance. The 1920s were a very difficult time to be black in the United States, but it was a very culturally and politically fruitful time nonetheless. Literature. Art. Broadway. Jazz, of course. And it was during this period that the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was laid. It was during the Harlem Renaissance that people—both white and black—realized that black was beautiful and, in terms of Broadway and the recording industry, marketable.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Harlem during that period (and something I focus on extensively in Jazz Moon) was gay life. It was mostly underground, but not completely. There were gay bars and an annual drag ball that was one of the social events of the year. There were places called “buffet flats,” which were the 1920s equivalent of sex clubs. You’d go to a house or an apartment and in each room were “performers” engaged in a different sexual activity. Could be hetero or homo. As an audience member, you selected the rooms and activities that piqued your interest the most, hence the “buffet.”
People were not pro-gay in the way we think of pro-gay in 2016, but they were certainly aware of the gays and mostly took the attitude of live and let live—as long as gays weren’t too open.
Q.Tell us about the book’s protagonists? Was there a real-life inspiration behind Ben Charles and his devoted wife Angeline?
JO- There was not a real-life inspiration behind Ben and Angeline. Jazz Moon is not based on real people. That said, there is absolutely a lot of me in many of the characters, especially Ben. I didn’t realize just how much of me was in these people until I was near the end of the process. Some of the characters are who I am. And some of the characters are who I want to be.
Q. What other real-life inspirations did you draw upon if any?
JO- Jazz Moon is, in part, a coming out story, and Ben suffers greatly during this process. I did draw on my own coming-out experience. I realized I was gay when I was thirteen, denied it like crazy till I was seventeen when I came out to myself, then “formally” came out at age twenty-one. While working on the novel, whenever I hit an emotional roadblock about Ben’s coming-out, I’d delve into my own experience, which was, at times, painful, lonely, and confusing.
Q. Much is being made of the gentrification of Harlem. Since 2000 particularly, the number of historically black, blue collar residents has fallen notably, especially in central Harlem. Whilst capturing the spirit of the renaissance, do you feel Jazz Moon contributes to forwarding the discussion of heritage, sustainable communities or a resistance to change?
JO- I don’t know about sustainable communities and resistance to change. But I would certainly like to think that Jazz Moon can start people thinking about heritage. As I’ve already mentioned, the Harlem Renaissance was a culturally and politically rich period. It’s a period that deserves study and recognition. We’re starting to see some recognition, I’m happy to say. Queen Latifah starred in a biopic about the great blues singer Bessie Smith last year. Audra McDonald is getting ready to open on Broadway in a version of Shuffle Along, which was produced in 1921 and was enormously important in the development of the black Broadway musical. I would be honored if Jazz Moon’s legacy is that it contributes to the continued rediscovery of the Harlem Renaissance.
Q. What are your future projects?
JO- I just finished a short story called “Picnic Street.” The first draft was based very closely on a childhood incident, but in subsequent drafts, the story veered pretty far from that incident. The story just started to write itself, which is exactly what you want: to give in to the story.
I have another short story that’s writing itself in my head right now. It may end up being a novella. I’m not sure yet. It involves politics and love and how (or if) people of differing ideologies can also have a successful relationship.
My next novel will again be set in the Harlem Renaissance, but this time it’s about a real person from the era: Gladys Bentley. She was a pianist and a blues singer and a drag king. She was known for wearing a white tux and white top hat and performing at a gay Harlem club called The Clam House. She would dirty up the lyrics of popular songs and flirt with women in the audience. She claimed to have married a white woman in an Atlantic City ceremony, but no one knows the identity of this woman. In the 1950s, Bentley gave an interview to Ebony magazine, renouncing her lesbianism and claiming that taking female hormones had “cured” her. She had an amazing, entrancing voice. She makes a cameo appearance in Jazz Moon and my protagonist is hypnotized by that voice.
There’s still so much to know and learn about the Harlem Renaissance. I’m not done with it yet.
Q. What advice would you give to young enthusiastic writers?
JO- READ. Read everything. Literary fiction. Genre fiction. Thrillers. Biographies. History. Read the news. Read politics. I’m a political junkie. I read up on political affairs every day and I’ve found that reading politics makes my fiction writing stronger. Political writers have to get to the point, get the facts across, and accomplish that in a way that’s engaging and keeps the reader reading. That’s valuable for a fiction writer. But to the main question: just read. Stephen King says that if you don’t have the time to read, then you don’t have the time or the tools to write.
I thank Joe for his interview and wish him well with his book. For further info please visit http://www.joeokonkwo.com